Patterns of Self-Identification in Parliamentary Discourse
by Nikolai Biryukov
Moscow State Institute for International Relations

The personal pronoun we and the related possessive pronoun our are not just conventional self-identification markers. Analysis of their usage in public discourse is, indeed, a convenient and relatively simple way of establishing particular patterns of socio-political identification. To sophisticated speakers, however, they are something more an effective tool of political persuasion/indoctrination, a means to tacitly impose on the audience identity patterns (and the related attitudes/beliefs) that, insofar as they are not stated explicitly, escape rational analysis and criticism.

The two principal ways to achieve this are (1) alternation, i.e. consecutive use of pronouns we and/or our in two or more different senses that induces a more or less unconscious identification of the meanings and, consequently, of the social entities the respective notions stand for; and (2) ambivalence, i.e. the placing of pronouns in the context that allows of two or more different interpretations of their meaning; by leaving the audience uncertain as to which of them the speaker actually has in mind and forcing it to waver between the alternatives, the ruse serves to inadvertently draw the different meanings closer and, perhaps, together.

Whether the particular use of the pronouns is a genuine manifestation of the speakers identity or a rhetorical trick aimed at induced meaning affiliation remains, of course, a matter of the scholars considered opinion.

The analysis of debates at the First Congress of Peoples Deputies of the USSR (May-June 1989) has revealed three distinct patterns of socio-political identification as present in the late Soviet political culture, viz. (1) Communist fundamentalism that tended or presumed to identify the three entities of the people, the deputy corps and the Communist Party elite; (2) populism that, denouncing alienation of the Communist establishment from the people, exalted the newly acquired identity of the people and their freely elected representatives; and (3) pluralism that characteristically avoided identification with the nation (the people) at large and protested identification with particular social groups and/or political forces.

An exemplary case of the first pattern (Communist fundamentalism) is Deputy Mesiatss undelivered address (Mesiats was a top-ranking Communist Party functionary) [see: Pervyy Sezd narodnykh deputatov SSSR: Stenografichesky Otchyot (The First Congress of Peoples Deputies of the USSR: The Proceedings), vol. 5, Moscow: Izdatelstvo Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, 1989, p. 316-322]. The personal pronoun we (in various forms) and the possessive pronoun our appear in it thirty times (nine of these are found in the two-paragraph opening fragment below); in addition to that, on one occasion the pronoun is omitted, apparently for stylistic reasons, as the Russian grammar allows (shown below in square brackets). The meanings thereof are distributed as follows: (1) in ten cases we/our indicate the deputy corps and/or the Congress; (2) in nine cases they stand for the people (the nation, the society, the country); (3) three instances refer to the party elite (political and/or administrative; the omitted pronoun falls under this category); (4) the pronoun is used once to indicate the constituency (or rather the territory under the speakers political control); (5) three instances imply either the people or the party elite; (6) four instances may be interpreted to refer either to the party elite or to the deputy corps; (7) on one occasion the pronoun stands either for (local) party elite or local population (constituency); for all that matters, this may be safely classified as [5] (see Table).

Arranged in the order they appear in the text, the pronouns show the following sequence: D=D=P=D=P=D=D=D=DPPPD/EP=D=D/ED/E=[E]P/EE=P/ECD=C/EP/EEP=P=D/E=P=D, where D stands for deputies; E, for elite; P, for the people; C, for constituency (local population); oblique strokes (/) separate various interpretations of the same pronoun; equals signs (=) connect pairs of pronouns that occur in adjacent or same sentences; the latter are additionally underlined (both highlighted as presenting the most spectacular switches of meaning).

The alternation device is best illustrated by the first two paragraphs of the analysed text (see the fragment below), where meanings shift from deputies to the people and back between or even within sentences. Most indicative is, however, the usage of the ambivalence subterfuge that, while clearly tending to identify the people and the party elite, on the one hand, and the party elite and the deputy corps, on the other hand, characteristically avoids direct identification of the people and the Peoples deputies unless mediated by the party elite.

No less significant is also the careful avoidance of personal pronouns (or, for that matter, of any names they might stand for) where one would reasonably expect them to occur. For example, whenever mistakes or failures of the Party leadership are referred to, use of impersonal pronouns (this has led to), passive voice (many errors have been committed) and reflexive verbs (lost in the English translation: development toward pluralism... has been accompanied by inability, aspiration... has met with powerful resistance... and in the long run ended in imbalance), plus monotonous recurrence of abstract verbal nouns (transformations, revival, becoming, development, inability, aspiration, resistance, worsening eight instances in only six sentences!) serve to prevent spontaneous association between the subject, implicated but never indicated (we as the party elite), and the displaced predicate (our actions and their consequences).

That Mesiatss text reveals not a personal bias, but an established cultural attitude is substantiated by Deputy Mironenkos speech that exhibits an almost identical pattern (Mironenko was First Secretary of the Komsomol Central Committee) [ibid., vol. 5, pp. 344-350] (see Table).

The second pattern (populism) is represented by the speech (also undelivered) of Deputy Sukhov, a driver from Kharkov [ibid., vol. 6, pp. 252-255]. We is used by him in two different senses, distributed almost equally: out of 34 instances 17 refer to deputies; 12, to the people; two, to drivers (a professional group to which the author belongs and which he is evidently inclined to regard as representative of the people at large); three cases are ambiguous and may be interpreted as meaning either deputies or the people. This pattern in the variation of meanings is indicative of a close relationship that exists or, if interpreted normatively, ought to exist between the deputies and the people. There are no hints, however, that a similar relationship exists between the people and the political elite. Nor are there any attempts to identify the deputies, including the speaker himself, with the latter (see Table). The authors vision of political representation is thus clearly anti-elitist (which may, incidentally, be regarded as an indirect indication of a negative attitude toward professional parliamentarianism).

The third pattern (pluralism), as represented by the speeches of Academician Sakharov and economist Popov, the would-be mayor of Moscow, is apparently different. We and our are used by Sakharov eighteen times [ibid., vol. 1, pp. 9-11]. Of these, twelve refer to deputies (in general) and one implies deputies from Moscow; one more case allows for two interpretations: either the (entire) deputy corps or the Moscow group of deputies. Four instances refer to the people or the country. Characteristic of the speakers non-populist mentality is the fact that the people is actually implied only once, while on three other occasions he uses a neutral expression our country (the standard Russian equivalent for the English this country) (see Table).

A similar picture is revealed by Popovs address [ibid., vol. 1, pp. 11-13]. Pronouns we and our occur in it nineteen times. On three occasions they are used to refer to the people or, rather, to the country (e.g., the logic of our Constitution, this dispassionate expression encountered twice). By contrast, deputies are meant on sixteen occasions, only six of which refer to the deputy corps in general, while nine (almost half of the total number) stand for the Moscow group of deputies, the nucleus of the emerging opposition. The remaining instance refers to the deputies who attended a meeting that had taken place the previous day. If the least informative meanings are excluded, we appears to stand almost invariably for something close to a political faction. Like identification with a political party, or a social group, or a stratum, this is characteristic of the pluralist political culture (see Table).

To conclude, some speeches were found to fit neither of the above patterns. This was mainly due to the systematic use of we and our in predominantly one sense, indicative either of the extent to which the particular person identifies with the given entity (an identification pattern sui generis, exemplified by Deputy Petrushenko [ibid., vol. 1, pp. 286-289]), or of the natural tendency to identify with the audience, which, as situationally motivated, is indicative of no particular pattern.

 

Table
Usage of Pronouns We and Our in Parliamentary Discourse

(Speeches by Deputies Mesiats, Mironenko, Petrushenko, Popov, Sakharov, Sukhov,
The First Congress of Peoples Deputies of the USSR, May-June 1989)

 

Meanings

Mesiats

Mironenko

Petrushenko

Popov

Sakharov

Sukhov

Non-ambivalent

Deputies

10

12

20

6

12

17

The people

9

9

1

3

4

12

The elite

2 + [1]

4

0

 

0

0

A group of deputies

0

1

3

10

1

0

A social group

0

0

0

0

0

2

A territorial entity (a constituency)

1

0

0

0

0

0

An ethnic group

0

0

0

0

0

0

Ambivalent

Deputies / The people

0

0

0

0

0

3

The people / The elite

3

6

0

0

0

0

Deputies / The elite

4

3

0

0

0

0

Deputies / A group of deputies

0

0

1

0

1

0

The (local) elite / A territorial entity

1

0

0

0

0

0

 

Total

30 + [1]

35

26

19

18

34

 

 

Fragment of Deputy Mesiatss undelivered address

Comrade Deputies! The sharp and controversial character of the discussion to spread at our Congress is quite understandable. We are discussing the most urgent, most vital problems that relate to the bases of development of our multi-national state in the fields of economy, politics, inter-state relations. And no one of us is entitled to claim the truth in the final instance, entitled to assert that [his] own standpoint alone is correct. Only collective reason based on the social practice and realities of our life, on scientific foresight can serve as a guarantee against serious blunders that neither contemporaries, nor descendants will forgive us.

The question today is: either we shall give in to emotions, to group interests, to personal ambitions and lead the Congress away from solving the most acute problems in the political, economic and moral-spiritual spheres, or else, proceeding from the real conditions, from objective analysis, shall elaborate a program of helping the country out of the crisis, map out concrete ways to realize it in practice. We must remember that the electors, all the Soviet people expect no resounding speeches, no promises, no lightweight slogans from us, but weighted, well-considered, constructive decisions.

[Pervyy Sezd narodnykh deputatov SSSR: Stenografichesky Otchyot (The First Congress of Peoples Deputies of the USSR: The Proceedings), vol. 5, Moscow: Izdatelstvo Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, 1989, p. 316-317; italics added]