Language note: the possessiveness of the pronoun “our”

The Department of Asian Studies at my university is now circulating a petition which reads, in part:

In response to and strong condemnation of recent expressions of hate directed at Muslim and Jewish communities in Hawaii, we endorse the following statement:

Over the past weeks the Manoa Mosque has been the target of multiple hate messages via social media, email, and voicemail. Individual Muslims have been harassed in public, including children. Also, Temple Emanu-El was targeted with a bomb threat against its Jewish pre-school.

We stand together with our Muslim and Jewish communities and any individuals who are subjected to harassment based on religion, immigration status, national origin, race, gender, LGBTQ+ status or disability. No one should go through this experience alone.

That’s how compassion expresses itself in current academic language: categorically, sorting its intended beneficiaries by administrative identifiers: “religion, immigration status, national origin. . . .” And along with the compassionate categories, as a logically required complement, there are also anti-compassionate categories: for instance, “the US” in a recent contribution from my department titled “The Homes of Zionism: Circuits of White Supremacy between the US and Israel.” There, the Marxist term “the US” functions in the same way as the Republican term “Democrat Party”: as an ugly, unidiomatic locution meant to make its subject sound ugly and alien. But that’s the way my department talks, and the attitude toward Jews represented by conflating Israel with the Klan is what a consensus lexicon sounds like.

Considered that way, as the lingua franca of everybody who matters, it has an important thing in common with the compassion-categories of the petition: it is the vocabulary of a collective mind named “we.” If we were to try thanking that “we” for its compassion for the Jewish community, we might acknowledge the significance of the generous impulse by pointing out that Israel too is a Jewish community — in fact, a Jewish community created expressly to protect against the social consequences of hate. But of course, that time, our gratitude wouldn’t be wanted. It would not only be rejected; it would be misunderstood, uncomprehended, estranged from meaning.

Grammar would have accomplished the alienation. In the instant of its being heard, the possessive pronoun “our” in the petitioners’ phrase “our Jewish community” controls and limits admission to the meaningfulness of the term “Jewish community.” By modifying “Jewish community” to “our Jewish community,” it changes the reference of both “community” and “our” from terms that include to terms that exclude. Modified in that possessive way, the term “our Jewish community” instructs its speakers to think of Jews as theirs to possess — pets, say, who belong where the human community says they belong and nowhere else.


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A footnote to the note: William Safire’s The New Language of Politics: A Dictionary of Catchwords, Slogans, and Political Usage (rev. ed., 1972) traces the history of the term “Democrat Party” back to Thomas E. Dewey in the 1940s. During the same era, cartoons in Socialist Camp periodicals like Ogonyok routinely identified villains as American by depicting them wearing the U. S. Army’s “U.S.” lapel badge. The artistic fascination with that un-Cyrillic squiggle lives on in North Korea, even when the artists get it backward:

Easterbunny à quenelle

For the churches in solidarity with the Boycott, Divest and Sanction campaign

Source: “Band, Mrs. J. R. with pet rabbit.” Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2008000308/. Photoshopped.