Plain Speaking

A recent essay by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr., titled “The ‘People’s Thesis’ in Environmental History,” opens by saying that it’s “chic” to analyse “history and/or ideas” with a “prominent platform” to something called the “people’s thesis”.

It’s a bit difficult to comment accurately on the piece because the expression “people’s thesis”, which the writer suggests is his own construct rather than some commonly understood expression, isn’t clearly defined. Therefore, given the absence of this fundamental piece of information, making sense of his argument is problematic. So ordinarily I wouldn’t bother to try. However, reading the article gave me a sense that although much of the piece is relatively objective and academic in tone, the writer was possibly being a little patronising to the vast majority of humanity, who possibly haven’t had the same opportunities in life as Mr Whitney. This impression was reinforced when, towards the end of the piece, Mr Whitney states the following:

“Also, what is it to be ‘ordinary’ or ‘plain’? I’m almost certain that no person, regardless of their class or station in life, would use those terms to describe themselves.”

No person? Well, presumably then Mr Whitney sees himself as out of the ordinary, and not in an inferior way – as I interpreted these words to mean that Mr Whitney suspects most people think they’re better than ordinary or plain, rather than less than ordinary or plain. So when I read that I had to respond, for no better reason, perhaps, than to challenge Mr Whitney’s certainty on this point.

For many years now I have been exactly such a person as Mr Whitney appears to think doesn’t exist, holding the absolute conviction that I am ordinary and plain; and I often refer to myself as Mr Average. Not only am I ordinary and plain as far as the majority of humanity is concerned I’m also ordinary and plain as far as the whole planet and the rest of the universe is concerned. Furthermore, I don’t wish to be anything else. I am not special or exceptional and most definitely do not want to be.

Furthermore, contrary to how Mr Whitney appears to view humanity, I’m fairly sure that I’m not alone in how I think about myself… by quite a long way. For example, there’s something called the Golden Rule, which is very ancient and has been practised in one form or another in most societies in most parts of the world, and which holds that people should treat others in the same way they would expect others to treat them in the same circumstances. If I considered myself not ordinary or plain it’s most likely that I would not obey the Golden Rule, for almost by definition I would see and treat others as inferior to me and expect them to see and treat me as their superior.

I suspect also that most of those who supported the Occupy Movement would have a different opinion to Mr Whitney, because the very essence of the Occupy Movement is that 99% of us are basically the same, and are therefore ordinary; and that it’s only 1% of us who see themselves as something special.

Of course, no two people are exactly alike. However, it’s equally indisputable that the vast majority of human beings, of all animal life even, have certain very important common characteristics: we all need (and like) to eat and drink, for example, we need (and like) safe and comfortable shelter, we need (and like) to reproduce ourselves, we all need (and like) to be able to move freely… and so on; we like to be healthy and don’t like being ill, we like to be happy and don’t like to be sad, we like the company of friends and family and don’t like the company of those we dislike… and so on. So when many of us talk in terms of “the people” it’s with these considerable and very important universal commonalities in mind, rather than the considerable and utterly trivial differences between us.

To take for granted the many important things that all living creatures have in common, and dismiss them as irrelevant in comparison to the multitude of inanities that separate us is a tactic that would almost certainly meet with the approval of the 1% who, by definition, not only see themselves as different to all other living things, but as superior to them. Focussing on the ridiculous differences that separate us rather than the wonderful and crucial things that unite us enables our controllers to exploit their ancient and highly effective tactic of divide and rule.

So to view the key subjects that comprise the humanities through the prism of we the people is, in fact, the only way we should view them – we the people in the sense that Howard Zinn and the Occupy Movement understood so well. History, politics, economics, philosophy… if these subjects are ever to be properly learnt in such a way as to be truly useful to the planet in general and humankind in particular they must be learnt from the perspective of the many vitally significant things that we the people have in common with all living things, and not from the perspective that best serves the aims and purposes of the 1%.

John is a writer and political activist based in England. Check out two of John's books: The People's Constitution, and The Road to Emily Bay Read other articles by John.