Guilt through Language

A Time Magazine article from 10 August 2009 explores the possibility that human beings wiped out the Neanderthals. But hidden behind the historical discussion lies a revelation about language.

Here are two quotes from the piece. See if you notice anything odd.

  • “There’s only one species that had the sort of weapon to inflict this injury,” Churchill says. “And that’s us.”
  • “Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands, and in some cases we ate them,” Rozzi said at the time of the discovery.

Hold on. Us? We? I didn’t eat Neanderthals. Neither did you. So what do “us” and “we” mean, if not you and me? Here’s another good one from the print edition, which comes right after an acknowledgement that there may have been many factors in the Neanderthals’ demise:

  • “But that doesn’t absolve humans [of participating in extinction.]”

Since when do I need absolution for a crime I didn’t commit? There’s a wonderful sense of communal guilt going on in this article, and I’m wondering why. Perhaps we gain a sense of community by putting ourselves in a story that ended before history began. Maybe we employ a little spillover guilt to make us feel personally ashamed of what our species does today as a group, i.e., planetary ravaging. Or (let’s be honest) perhaps the news media is well aware than an article that left out the guilt, that stopped at “someone found a Neanderthal bone with a possible thrown-spear injury” wouldn’t entice many readers. Hard to say.

But when the collective guilt starts overwhelming you, keep this in mind: you ate no Neanderthals. Not even one. So you can whistle a carefree little tune as you go about your modern-day life. If you need more guilt, go compare the weight of your recycling bin to your trash.

Monelle Smith blogs for Gemstone Media, Inc., in Boise, Idaho.

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