Je suis X, we are Y: the power of identification and the rule of three


On that fateful September day in 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. that would change history, an anchorwoman on France’s main TV news show, Nicole Bacharan, uttered these words: “Tonight, we are all Americans.” It was a sentiment felt and understood keenly around the world, and the phrase was printed on the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde the next day. Almost 40 years earlier, in June 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy declared during a speech in West Berlin his country’s support for the new western nation now standing in the shadow of the recently erected Berlin Wall. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Kennedy stated. “I am a Berliner.” The 1960 epic movie Spartacus reaches its emotional climax when a multitude of slaves, asked by Crassus to give up their leader by pointing him out from the crowd, each stands up to proclaim: “I am Spartacus.” Now fast-forward to the present day, after an unthinkable massacre in Paris that took the lives of 12 journalists, and we all stand together in disgust and protest by uttering three simple French words: “Je suis Charlie.”

Identifying with the victim of any attack or act of injustice is a natural human response, and capturing this empathy in a succinct verbal expression — “I am X”, “we are Y” — has become an increasingly powerful and contagious form of protest or support, especially now in our short-form world of pithy memes and memorable hash-tags. “We express empathy, outrage, and horror by subsuming ourselves into victims’ identities,” wrote Amanda Hess in Slate. “I am Trayvon” (the name of the unarmed teenager shot and killed by George Zimmerman) and “I can’t breathe” (the last words of Eric Garner, who died after being put in a choke-hold by police officers) both express volumes in their button-sized statements of empathic solidarity, while at the same time personalizing and humanizing a concept that might otherwise be too large to access and to express. “Je suis Charlie” has swept across the planet and the web, expressing so simply and eloquently our vociferous defense of the right to free speech and our universal horror at a gruesome act of terrorism — all in three words.

That it’s three words — and not two, four or five — that can most powerfully represent and underpin an entire, complex movement of thought and protest isn’t entirely arbitrary, and it’s certainly not unique to our age of verbal shortcuts. In an earlier post, Glossophilia explained the historical and enduring “rule of three” that governs so much of our thought and speech, especially in the context of public or persuasive oratory and slogans of politics or protest. “The rule of three principle states that anything offered in a package of three is inherently funnier, more satisfying, more memorable, more intuitive, or more effective than something that comes in twos, fours or some other number. There’s a Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum”, that means, literally, “everything that comes in threes is perfect.” And so it often is when it comes to creative writing and prose: we see it in storytelling, comedy, speech-writing and advertising slogans.”

“Tout est pardonné” are today’s provocative three words, on the cover of a magazine that speaks volumes in its grief and its defiance. “All is forgiven…”

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