Hey You, Know Thyself

by Michael Maciel

So, rather a rude title, no? It’s the best alternative to “Man, Know Thyself,” because of the problematic word “man,” which seems to exclude women. And even though the convention tells us that it doesn’t, that “man” means “mankind,” which includes women, it’s easy to see how it stacks the deck against them.

So, I thought I’d be clever and rework it into “WoMan, Know Thyself,” but that was no easier to read than that horrible “he/she” construction, both of which not only trip you up as a reader but require you to use a stepladder to get over them.  But “You, Know Thyself” doesn’t work either, because who talks that way? The only possible answer was to put “hey” in front because at least it’s familiar—rude but familiar.

Well, I’ve never begun an article with two paragraphs explaining the title. But in this case, it serves a point—our language has so many presuppositions in it that it shapes the way we use it in ways that aren’t always obvious. We assume that “man” means “mankind,” when actually it doesn’t. We’ve gotten to a time when it takes more work to support that notion than the benefits it provides. 

But the axiom still stands—KNOW THYSELF. 

Ah, that’s it! Just leave off the first word altogether. “Thyself” covers who’s being addressed. But then…is it one person who’s being addressed or everyone? I suppose that that’s why the “man” was put there in the first place, to make sure it was meant for the collective, not just one person. Then the only possible solution is to say, “Y’all, Know Thyself.” But who talks like that? 

And the problems don’t stop there (stick with me, this is going somewhere, I promise). If we’re addressing everyone, shouldn’t we say, “Y’all, Know Yourselves”? As you can see, the elegance of the original quickly gets mired in linguistic wrangling. Not only that but it introduces a conundrum—how many selves do I have? Shouldn’t we work that out first?

“Man, Know Thyself” is looking better all the time. 

So, here’s the point. How many such contradictions exist in our thinking—the thinking that relies on word constructions to get its job done? And are we aware of them? Or do they bias our thinking in ways that are entirely unknown to us, steering us in directions that seem inherently unfair? The only way to know is to know ourselves—for you to know yourself and for me to know myself. 

This ancient axiom just keeps on giving, doesn’t it? It contains within itself the very problem it addresses. How does our language shape the way we see ourselves and the world? Do we use words as tools, or do the words use us? It’s a worthy question. 

Now, I’m not advocating for overhauling the language. That could cause WAY more problems than it would solve. There’s not a linguist alive who could rework such a complicated system—one that’s evolved organically over who knows how many thousands of years—without messing it up. (Esperanto anyone?) What I am advocating is a rigorous investigation into how we see ourselves and the world we live in. 

That seems to be the perennial mandate. If language plays such a key role in this, then maybe that’s where we should start. And in order to do it, we have to be self-reflective. We have to question why we think the way we do and how our word constructions affect what we see. It’s not that our language (or any language) is flawed—they all are, at least insofar as they cannot provide a perfect tool for thinking. But they’re necessary for thinking. Perception alone cannot substitute for that. We have to evaluate what we perceive. Otherwise, we cannot plan for the future. 

In that sense, our language IS our future. So we better get it right or at least get good at it. And that starts with using it instead of letting it use us. Self-knowledge begins here within y’all—all y’all—today.


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