Not a harmless tic

Molly Worthen objects to the substitution of “I feel” for “I think.” She’s not just picking a nit.

The imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates that “I feel like” became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for “I think” or “I believe” only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve, and curmudgeons like me are always taking umbrage at some new idiom. But make no mistake: “I feel like” is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.

Damn right. “I think” is something you can argue with. “I feel” not so much.

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.

And for another reason, which is that they have already admitted it’s “just” a feeling, and only a bully would try to argue with a feeling. As Worthen says, it seems humble but actually blocks disagreement. Neat trick.

The problem here is not the open discussion of emotions. Ancient philosophers ranging from Confucius to the Greek Stoics acknowledged the role that emotion plays in human reasoning. 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 when I called Dr. Damasio, who teaches at the University of Southern California, I worried that he might strike down my humanistic observations with unflinching scientific objectivity. He didn’t — he hates the phrase as much as I do. He called it “bad usage” and “a sign of laziness in thinking,” not because it acknowledges the presence of emotion, but because it is an imprecise hedge that conceals more than it reveals. “It doesn’t follow that because you have doubts, or because something is tempered by a gut feeling, that you cannot make those distinctions as clear as possible,” he said.

But we feel as if it follows, so…loop loop loop.

This is what is most disturbing about “I feel like”: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction — and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction — between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.

Yes it does, and this (as you’re probably tired of hearing by now) is one of the reasons I’m not convinced by some claims popular with some trans activists – because of the way claims about internal feelings are treated as both sacrosanct and dispositive. Internal sentiments known only to each of us are inherently unreliable and incommunicable (the latter by definition). Internal sentiments known only to each of us are no basis at all for demanding “belief” from other people.

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. “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?’ ”

We can, yes, but we should prepare to get a lot of shit in response. We’re expected to comply, not to think and not to ask.

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