Plurality and Perception January 18, 2007 – Posted in: Aberrant Normalcy

Booooooo!In this month’s Harper’s magazine, print edition, there is a brief transcription of a debate on the House of Lords’ floor regarding the problem of discarded chewing gum on England’s streets (with such oddly recommended remedies as a bubble gum tax.)  The absurdity of the debate in question notwithstanding, I was struck by the Noble Lords’ usage of “Government” in the plural.

Take these examples:  “Do this Government have any intention of persuading Wrigley’s to do the same in the U.K.?”  and  “My Lords, perhaps when the Government introduce their next public order Bill, they should include a provision whereby the police have authority to issue a fixed penalty of four hours of litter picking to any litter lout.”

Note the highlighted words.  I’ve read that our British cousins often refer to groups, like sports teams, in the plural, whereas Americans do so in the singular.  In the above examples, Americans would say “Does this Government…” and “When the Government introduces…”

It’s said that our usage of language both constructs and limits our views of reality.  I’m curious if this difference affects how the British mind perceives their government?  In America, using government as singular might have a subtle stultifying effect.  American disaffection towards politics is usually defended by a belief in a corrupt government, as if the corruption is total and from one body alone.  Conspiracy theorists often point to a central source for all their suspicions: “the government!”

I admit to often thinking of Washington as a unified body, instead of a collection of disparate parts.  There are in fact more than 535 points of view there.  Could it be that the American use of “government” in the singular prevents us, perhaps subconsciously, from perceiving that it is in fact made up of thousands of people?  I don’t think anyone ever really forgets that, but it’s interesting to note how our usage of language might shape our perceptions.

I’m interested in hearing from some of my Anglican friends in the US.  Do US citizens conceptualize their government differently than those in the UK?  I’m sure language is not the only reason, but it’s certainly interesting to think about.