Joyce L. Arnold, Liberally Independent, Queer Talk, equality activist, writer.
Earlier this month Dan DeWalt wrote So then Who in the Hell Are We? at This Can’t Be Happening.
The latest PR catch phrase from business, administration, military, state and local officials after some atrocity or other is that whatever happened, it is certainly ‘not who we are,’ a phrase initially uttered by the Vietnam War commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, with reference to the My Lai slaughter of 400 women, children and old men, all civilians, by a group of US soldiers.
Yet if all these abominations are not ‘who we are,’ then why do our business, police and military and government institutions generate so many examples of obscene, horrific or criminal behavior?
“This is not who we are” fits right in with “If I offended anyone” used in what’s suppose to be an apology, but is better termed an acknowledgement that enough people seem to think I did something that offended them so I finally had to say something. “This is not who we are” may very well be accurate, in terms of who we want to be or think ourselves to be, or want others to think we are. But unless accompanied by concrete actions to change the “not who we are” decision or incident or whatever, it serves more as a non-apology apology.
DeWalt provides these examples:
‘This is not a reflection of who we are or what we stand for.’ — Jeff Gearhart, Wall-Mart general counsel, on the firm’s Mexico bribery
[Torture] ‘is not the norm.’ — Mike Pannek, Abu Ghraib prison warden.
‘This is not who we are.’ — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the US massacre of 16 Afghan villagers …; General John Allen, commander of forces in Afghanistan, on Koran burning …; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on troops posing with enemy body parts …; Secretary of State Clinton, also on troops posing with enemy body parts …
Spying by the New York Police on Muslims in Newark, NJ, which the Newark Police Chief was alerted to, is ‘not who we are’ — Newark Mayor Cory Booker
‘I can tell you something all of you know already – that using pepper spray on peaceful protesters runs counter to our values. It does not reflect well on this university and it absolutely is not who we are.’ — UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who ordered campus police to use force to clear peaceful student occupiers from the campus, leading to pepper spraying of students
Ripping families apart by deporting the undocumented parents of American-born children is ‘not who we are.’ — President Barack Obama
‘This larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own — that’s not who we are.’ — President Barack Obama
‘You can’t say, well, we developed trade and the economic relations first and the disregard of human rights. That’s not who we are. We are the United States of America.’ — Sasha Gong, director of the China branch of Voice of America.
DeWalt writes about the “sick hypocrisy” of Obama, Clinton, Panetta and Allen to
… claim that these actions are not a direct result of U.S. military and foreign policy. If Dick Cheney and John Yoo were torturing language and logic to advocate the torture of humans, why wouldn’t guards at Abu Ghraib fall into the same debased state of mind? …
Those in power attempt to frame the issue within the ‘one bad apple in the barrel’ rubric. As long as they can pretend that war crimes and atrocities aren’t a logical outcome of official policy, they can shift blame to those without power … .
When riot geared law enforcement officers use “non-lethal” pepper spray, sound canons, batons, bean bags, spying and more, in the name of enforcing “order,” and as inevitably will happen, someone is injured, or the official actions are so obviously over-the-top, the use of “that’s not who we are” as an attempt to avoid responsibility at the top becomes a familiar, pious-sounding non-apology apology. The safety of “we” instead of “me” language, along with a clear “it’s not my fault” distancing are all attempts to avoid complicity.
Same kind of thing, when corporations seek to distance themselves from, say, “using bribery as a standard business practice,” which, DeWalt writes, has recently been exposed at Siemens, Boeing and Wall-Mart.
Of course not everyone, not even at the top of government, law enforcement and corporations, do this. But the fact that the “this is not who we are” phrase shows up so often is telling, both about those using it, and about those who do, or don’t, name it for the evasion of responsibility it is. That’s us, of course. DeWalt:
Just because these shameful acts may indeed indicate who or what our Empire’s institutions are, it does not mean that it is who we are as well. Most Americans, as well as most Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians etc., would not commit the types of acts that have made our nation infamous over the years. But if we are truly better than that, if this is not who we are, then we had better do something about the fact we are being represented to the world by the very actions that we find so heinous.
The Who’s “Who Are You?” might provide a better soundtrack yet if we changed it to “Who Are We?”