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On borrowing voices and looking for my own

By Molly L. Roberts, Crimson Staff Writer

Who is this “we”?

It’s a common question, leveled at anyone who slips slyly out of the singular and into the first-person plural. Sometimes, the speaker seizes at “we” to shirk responsibility—the same way a switch from the active to the passive can shift the blame with it, à la Richard Nixon’s “mistakes were made.” Other times, “we” confers more responsibility than it deflects.

No matter the variation, “we” lets the writer move outside of herself. It allows caretakers to control children, or doctors to patronize patients, when “we” really means “you”: “We’re a little fussy this evening. Perhaps it’s time for us to go to bed?” and “How are we feeling today?”

The royal “we,” of course, means “I.” It turns king into kingdom: “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat,” Queen Victoria, speaking for the state, said of the Second Boer War. It also allows a ruler to express a personal opinion in a way that seems proud rather than petty. The famous, and arguably apocryphal, “We are not amused” comes to mind. (The royal “we,” it turns out, isn’t only for royals but also those who consider themselves close enough to the crown to claim. Upon the birth of her first grandchild, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced to the press, “We have become a grandmother.”)

The editorial “we” isn’t much different.

Most times, the newspaper editorialist speaks for the paper. Other times, she seems to speak for the country. Either way, she wields “we” like a sword, slicing at politicians, pundits, and presidents foreign and domestic with all the power the name of a major (or not so major) media outlet can bring to bear.

As far as the public is concerned, the New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton this winter—not Francis X. Clines, or Elizabeth Williamson, or whichever individual writer put pen to paper in support of the candidate. And as far as our campus is concerned, the Harvard Crimson came out against the change in the House Master title this fall, and condemned calls for the university to divest from fossil fuels, and demanded Evelyn Hammonds’s resignation after 2013’s email search scandal—not me.

I’ve played the part of editorialist since freshman fall. Inhabiting the “we” takes some getting used to, but after a while, it starts to feel natural. I’m not writing for myself or as myself; I’m writing as something bigger.

There’s power there. Invoking the “we” has proved the best way to pitch The Crimson’s editorial board to small-fish freshmen looking to make something of themselves: “We’re the voice of the paper,” a younger member of the board says to the potential recruit. A quick pause. “We’re the voice of the student body,” he adds. Pause again. “We’re the voice of Harvard.” That tends to raise eyebrows. It also tends to work.

But for all the power the editorial “we” can hold, there’s also something stifling about it. I’ve spent so many semesters and so many words pretending to be an “us,” that I’m starting to wonder what it means to be a “me.” With the voice of the paper, the voice of the student body, and the voice of Harvard echoing in my head and spilling from my fingers, I haven’t paid much attention to my voice at all. The same has been true of my editing: I’ve policed other peoples’ writing rather than working on my own—I’ve not found my voice, but instead sought to understand those of others, from their tone and technique to style and substance.

So here I am, on the cusp of adulthood, and still searching for what I thought every kid was supposed to find in college. Worse yet, I want to be a writer. And if I don’t know my voice, I can’t know what kind of writer I want to be—what I want to write about, or where and how I want to write about it.

That is the problem. This column has been, in part, the solution: a step, every other week, toward figuring myself out. Sometimes, even here, I find myself saying “we” when I mean “I.” It’s a hard habit to kick, but the jolt of reality I’m going to get on May 26 could end up being just what I need. I’ll be starting a life that’s really, for the first time, my own. Perhaps I’ll happen upon a voice that’s my own along the way.

I guess this is goodbye, then. I’m off to find a me.

Molly L. Roberts ’16, a former Crimson editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Cabot House.

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