All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1992

First-Person Singular

Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, lives in Santa Maria, California.

There are two kinds of people; those who divide everybody into two kinds of people and those who do not.

—Robert Benchley

Any society is filled with conflicts. There are those who fight to keep what they have and those who fight to get it. There are city people and country people, old people and young people, puritans and libertines, labor and management, dog people and cat people. Anyone who has ever read a paperback western knows that any self- respecting cattleman had nothing but contempt for the sod-busters who were fencing off the range; and whose great grandparents would have been seen in public with a Wobbly or a Copperhead? These groups have never represented all of society, being but a small fraction of the whole, but their head-butting has been well worth the price of a ticket.

One of the significant divisions in today’s culture is a conflict that goes all the way to the bone marrow of those afflicted and has divided us more than anything since the firing on Fort Sumter. I refer to the people who think of themselves as individuals and those who revel in being part of a group: “I-Thinkers” and “We- Thinkers.” This isn’t just a passing, or trivial, observation because it represents a profound cleavage in our national makeup, one which seriously impedes communication. I-Thinkers and We-Thinkers just don’t get through to each other and probably never will.

The strange thing about the 1-Think/We-Think phenomenon is that there are so few pure disciples of either philosophy. Most of our citizens, perhaps 80 percent of our population, are combinations of I-We thought and generally lean in one direction. A person might run a business as a solid I-Thinker but do a complete flip on Saturday when he dresses in the old school colors and sets off for the football game.

Or, a basic We-Thinker might become an incontrovertible I when a loud party next door prevents a good night’s sleep. It is a case of/need my sleep, I have to get up in the morning, I am not going to put up with this. Yet, the We-Think will take over with the dawn, and our subject returns to the familiar social enclave.

The street gang is an excellent example of pure We-Think. Young people who run with the pack have no concept of their own individuality, and thus the traditional exhortation to “amount to something” falls upon unreceptive ears. A person who is not really a person at all can hardly be expected to excel at anything. Anyone who knows himself only as a small piece of the Green Dragons has no idea of himself as a separate entity and consequently has no desire to accomplish anything as an individual.

It is quite likely that the strident minority of people who spend their lives marching for causes are far more We-Thinkers than 1-Thinkers, especially when they resort to such physical expressions of solidarity as holding hands and locking arms. This is a group-mentality phenomenon, and such activity seems to have considerable appeal for those people who have trouble with the first-person singular pronoun, I. They are more comfortable chanting slogans in unison as part of a resounding We.

No Common Language

One of the reasons that the proponents of free market capitalism have such great difficulty communicating with those of a more collectivist bent is that the two groups don’t speak a common language. They use the same words, perhaps, but the meanings are entirely different. The person who leans toward 1-Think considers himself only superficially as a member of a class or a social group. He is essentially a functioning single component. Conversely, the We-Thinker has some difficulty seeing himself as being separate and distinct from his fellows. His immediate need is to be marching in ranks.

Today’s capitalism was conceived in an I-Think environment. Indeed, our much heralded “forefathers” were about as obstinate a breed of do-it-yourselfers as has ever graced the planet. The economic system they spawned is little more than a reflection of the Boston Tea Party and a man named Nathan Hale who went to the gallows with but one regret. It all stemmed from a profound and unshakable belief in the majesty of the individual. These people were the personification of the term “rugged individualism.” They left an indelible mark, and the outstanding feature of an indelible mark is that it doesn’t go away.

Unfortunately, this deep-rooted feeling of individual worth has never reached the We-Think intransigents, those who seem to have no realization of their own self-worth and not even the inclination to test it. They see themselves as only parts of a giant machine, easily replaceable parts that have no value on their own. One wonders why a person who was nurtured in an environment where individualism is encouraged and applauded finds it so difficult to become a part of it. Wondering, of course, does not always produce answers.

Perhaps it is more comfortable to be a part of the mass, safe in a warm recess where the risks are diluted. It is a place where one cannot fail because failure can only follow attempt. To the various degrees of I-Thinkers, however, the niche in itself is the very essence of failure. In this context, lack of success and failure are not synonymous. Failure only happens when one decides not to try again.

The thought processes of people who are essentially I-Thinkers and those who lean the other way are so alien to each other that conflict is inevitable. One person finds it repugnant to lock arms and march for a cause, even when he finds himself in sympathy, because he wasn’t born to be a flywheel or a head gasket. To the We- Thinker this is a natural and desirable role.

This is the difference between the two factions and, to a lesser extent, that great body of people who lie between them but lean one way or the other. One man’s revulsion is another man’s glory. Fortunately, our progenitors set it up so that those leaning toward 1-Think would make the rules, in a very real sense creating in their own image. So far, the system has worked, with considerably more I than We stirred into the mixture.

It would be a neat and tidy arrangement if it could be established that our society is divided into two groups, but it doesn’t work out this way, and I wouldn’t question Robert Benchley for a moment. I do believe, however, that there is a hard core of I- and We-Thinkers at either end of the social spectrum, and it is these groups who are making most of the noise on almost every social and political issue.

For my own purposes, I could never be a card-carrying member of either group because neither is solely and intrinsically right. The We-Thinkers, however, seem to make more noise and get less accomplished than the I- people, and for this reason I-Think is a better way to lean—except, of course, on Saturday during football season. There are no individuals when the Oregon Ducks take the field to smite the forces of evil.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.