or: back in my day, nobody had feelings
I read an op-ed by Molly Worthen in the New York Times a month or so ago that I’ve been meaning to write a response to ever since. In the article (which can be found here) the author lays some over-broad criticism on young people for using the phrase “I feel like” to preface an argument or whatever thing that they happen to want to say. She goes on to assert that this “linguistic hedging” is destructive in a number of ways to the free exchange of ideas, American democracy, liberalism, kittens, whatever. Once one gets past the dusting of pretentiousness and into the actual meat of Worthen’s argument, it becomes clear that she misunderstands the value of feeling through an argument and is wrong in demonizing both the feels and the people that talk about them.
Worthen’s first point is dangerously close to incoherent. She says:
Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.
When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.
This implies that stating a feeling is inherently different from making an argument, and the distinction is somehow what makes a point able to be argued or not. However, her own conclusions seem to disagree with this analysis. Further down in the same article, she writes:
In the 1990s, after many years of studying patients with brain damage, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio put forward a hypothesis that is now widely accepted: In a healthy brain, emotional input is a crucial part of reasoning and decision making.
So if emotional processes are a large part of the way in which people make decisions, why is it so scandalous that a person should make it known that their argument is how they feel? Worthen’s alternative (which I am presuming, because she never really explicitly states one in her op-ed) is for people to make the same emotional arguments, just without saying that they feel like it- which doesn’t really solve any huge problems, but instead makes an argument a lot more frustrating because the opponent is now dealing in absolutes that are obviously still motivated by not a lot past their own emotions. So really, the “I feel like” disclaimer facilitates discussion, as most would probably be more inclined to voice their disagreement with something that they know could just be a feeling as opposed to a feeling that is aggressively voiced as an absolute truth.
The statement by Ms. Chai (a student at the University of Chicago) that personal experiences are unarguable points doesn’t make much sense either. Of course one would never argue that another DIDN’T get rear-ended by a female driver, but the argument that not all women are bad at driving just because of that person’s experience is not a difficult one, because persuasive points are supported by more than a person’s experience. Maybe Ms. Chai is just bad at arguing, because feelings shouldn’t really be an intellectual roadblock.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a liberal op-ed vaguely related in subject matter to speech without some level of dumping on millennials, and this is no exception. I try not to take things like this personally, but Worthen doesn’t make it easy for me- I really do love being described as a “early [carrier] of a broad cultural contagion”, like I’m a farm animal that has a parasite or something- but I digress. Worthen asserts:
This linguistic hedging is particularly common at universities, where calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces may have eroded students’ inclination to assert or argue. It is safer to merely “feel.”
She follows proudly down the well-traveled road of calling out college students for taking a proactive role in shaping the institutions that they pay to attend. Worthen provides absolutely no justification for the argument that students standing up and fighting for what they believe in is making them worse at confrontation, and logically this conclusion doesn’t make any sense. Disagreeing with a menagerie of powerful individuals and institutions and acting on those beliefs regardless of what the popular public opinion says is acceptable is not for the faint of heart, and certainly doesn’t reflect a mushier, scared student- it follows in the footsteps of revolutionaries ever since the beginning of history. This doesn’t stop the author from continuing to universalize her argument:
For decades, Americans have been in the process of abandoning both the moral strictures of religion and the Enlightenment quest for universal truth in favor of obsessing over their own internal states and well-being. In 1974, the sociologist Richard Sennett worried that “the more a person concentrates on feeling genuinely, rather on the objective content of what is felt, the more subjectivity becomes an end in itself, the less expressive he can be.”
The idea of a simple dichotomy between things that ‘are felt’ and things that ‘are’ is a little reductionary. Something isn’t true just because I feel like it is, but my feeling could be true, because I’m a smart kid sometimes. Conversely, what I feel could simply be wrong, because I’m also a dumb kid sometimes. Stating one’s feelings is not an example of “relativism run rampant”, because ‘I feel’ doesn’t translate to ‘here is a thing that you can’t disagree with because everything inside of me is pure truth’, it’s simply a space for an opinion that is open to being influenced and changed if its owner is introduced to something that they maybe hadn’t considered earlier.
I haven’t even gotten to my favorite part of the article yet:
If our students have any hope of solving the problems for which trigger warnings and safe spaces are mere Band-Aids, they must reject this woolly way of speaking their minds.
In Worthen’s world, once everyone starts screaming their opinions at the top of their lungs in a way that makes them sound like indisputable facts, bigotry vaccines will start raining from the sky and everyone will be happy again. I’m actually curious as to what the author thinks the point of safe spaces and trigger warnings are, if not to make gradual progress at solving the sort of deep rooted societal issues that a wide variety of people face. The only thing funnier than her misplaced superiority complex is the quote she puts directly after:
“Cultivating the art of conversation goes a long way toward correcting these things,” Dr. Lasch-Quinn said. “Instead of caricaturing someone who says ‘I feel like,’ we can say, what does it mean to say that instead of ‘I think?’ ”
Did she think that readers would just forget like ten paragraphs earlier where she quite obviously… Nevermind.
Worthen’s critique is a poorly reasoned attack on the way young people speak. Expressing opinions as feelings not only makes a discussion more approachable for parties that may disagree, it makes the entire discussion a lot more likely to be a civil sharing of ideas as opposed to an aggressive war with words. Maybe millennials are careful about how they express what they feel because we would rather not spend the vast majority (neat infographic via washington post) of our lives at war? Or maybe we would rather not reproduce the same violent ideologies of racism that flourished in the past? In any case, I feel like the way I choose to express my opinion is not reflective of some broad social ill, it’s indicative of a society changing for the better- and should be regarded as such.