Sage Advice 106: Who Or That

My understanding of the difference between who and that has always been wrapped around the idea as to whether something is human. So Matt is a who while table is a that. It’s an easy way to make your everyday speech sound credible, but I think there’s a strange sense of entitlement that comes with people and who.

Sure, we can say all things that are people get to be whos, but at what point can we say that we lose our rights to whodom? When we’re dead, our lifeless bodies resting in the earth or in other people or in ashes, are we still whos? Perhaps people consider the conscious who and the body that. That’s strange to me. If that’s the case, you can’t be a who without a that, thus who is completely dependent on the idea of that. If anything, who is created out of that, maybe even constructed by leftover pieces of all the thats.

Some whos may not even deserve their whoness. After all, if you’re a who and Hitler was a who and so was that kid who called you that kindergarten insult equivalent of that, then does it really matter if you get to be a who? If whos are so readily handed out to any one thing that got lucky enough to exist as a human, does being a who really even matter?

And when you really break down what we’re all made of, it’s basically all the same stuff, so can’t we all be whos? There isn’t a significant difference between the who you are and the that a table is when you consider the scale and quantity of things that make your whoness and the table’s thatness. You and a table, despite having the grammatical conflict of who and that against your relationship, have a vast amount in common when you consider the rest of every other that and who in the universe. The fact that your who and its that even get to exist side-by-side should indicate that.

Going the opposite direction, what if some humans really don’t deserve whodom? Babies, for example, are barely people. They don’t talk or move or think or care about anything. Babies and tables have about the same degree of humanity. However, every time I use that when I’m talking about that baby that is right there, its parents get offended, informing me that it isn’t a that or an it.

But why not? What’s so bad about thatism? Is being a that rather than a who really such a horrible thing? Is all measurable humanity stricken when you’re placed in column “that”? I don’t think it really matters. Being a who is nice, sure, but being a that can’t have that much of a negative impact on your identity or daily life. If anything, you should appreciate the possibility of being a that. Plenty of amazing things are labeled with that rather than who: rockets ships, the moon, Conan O’Brien’s hair, a half dozen package of eggs, nineteen, door knobs, toenails (unless they’re attached to your whole whoness), and computers just to name a few. Being that or who shouldn’t matter. All that matters is that you get to be a that or a who. Simply being.

-Matthew Fugere

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