“[…] students are taught that third-person statements are unbiased (objective) and those in the first person are biased (subjective). […] Delete “I believe” from “racism is on the rise in this country” or “racism has virtually disappeared in this country,” and [they’re taught that] the assertion assumes a reality independent of the writer, who is no longer the author but merely the messenger of news or fact.”
-Linda Brodkey, “Writing on the Bias”
When I started writing, I put “I think” or “I believe” before the first-ish claim in almost any discussion. Later I stopped: “If it’s in your writing, then of course it’s your belief. You don’t need to say that,” I thought. Although that doesn’t sound like a thought: it sounds like a rule someone told me. I just can’t remember who said it. It might even have been me, to a student; if so, oops, and I’m very, very sorry.
Reading Brodkey, I realize what young me was instinctively doing: not telling the reader that this was my claim, as opposed, you know, to some other person’s claim sneakily camped out in my head, but reminding myself that I was sharing my perception. Clarity, argues Brodkey, doesn’t come from not having a perspective. It doesn’t come from cutting out “I think” and pretending that your thought now has no you in it. It comes from being aware of your perspective, and considering it, making adjustments for it, and being willing to challenge it.
Once I start examining it, my perspective is always incomplete, and sometimes it’s not even mine. Other people’s claims make it into my thinking (and writing) all the time. When I was twelve I told my older brother that tortillas were originally toys, not food: they were like frisbees. I’d read that on the back of a restaurant menu. The subtext I missed wasn’t “I [the writer] believe that,” it was more “We pretend, because it’s funny, while you’re waiting for your burrito, that,” but in the end I still accepted the statement as “objective truth” because it seemed to be written as a blurb about history, and I thought that’s what it was. It isn’t the only weird claim I’ve found, nestled away in my head, though it’s the only one with salsa on it and right now I’m a little hungry.
My brother laughed at me, by the way. Which might be what should happen when we go about touting our perceptions as authorless news. If I’d said, “I think burritos started as toys,” even young me might’ve asked, “Wait a minute, that sounds strange, why do I think that?” I might’ve been more aware of the viewpoint I’d taken up, and then asked how I came to that viewpoint, and then asked a few more interesting questions. “I think” isn’t just a tag for the reader, and it’s not just a stylistic choice. It’s a reminder for the writer. For the thinker. If it’s in your language, it says, you’ve already translated it for yourself. What has that translation done, and what might you be missing?