Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"I feel like" as argument

Prof. Molly Worthen asked that we stop saying "I feel like".
“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.

Worthen blames "growing diversity and political polarization. No one could blame [college students] from wanting to back away from confrontation". True enough, but I think it's just as important that with diversity has come an erosion of recognized authority. "Authority" isn't intrinsically bad. If it arises from expertise and experience, we honor it. When a plumber tells you not to dump grease down your sink, you recognize his authority.

Somewhere along the road to greater diversity, though, we decided that our diverse opinions deserved their own facts, too. Some of those "facts" are genuine facts, and some of them are just opinions we cite with increasing ferocity when challenged. We self-segregated into tribes that talk among themselves and don't know how to talk to others who disagree. Worse, when we do talk to them, we can't figure out whose "facts" are genuine. Today, no matter your opinion, you can find an "authority" to back you up, one whose putative expertise and experience seem unassailable. Whose authority — whose expertise and experience — do we accept?

The obvious answer is, the one whose pronouncements agree with the facts on the ground. Yeah, well, there's the rub. You'd think we could all agree on what the facts on the ground are, but we can't. There's simply too much information flooding us from all directions, and unless we ourselves are experts in a subject we can't tell what, of all that information, is garbage and what's valid. It doesn't help that we now accept that "authorities" are not above lying to us.

So if we can't reason our way to a common opinion using a common base of facts as determined by commonly-accepted authorities, how are we supposed to argue civilly with one another? You can't have a civil argument with someone you think is deluded about reality.

Worthen also observes:

In her 2001 book “Race Experts,” Dr. Lasch-Quinn (who is Christopher Lasch’s daughter) argued that the vogue for therapeutic self-help has steered the American left off course, encouraging well-meaning activists to push for sensitivity training seminars instead of real gains in racial and economic equality. The phrase “I feel like” is a mundane extension of this pattern, a means of avoiding rigorous debate over structures of society that are hard to change.
You don't need to subscribe to (so-called) conservativism to agree. Some on the left have learned the wrong lesson from the civil rights movement. Not every statement that hurts someone's feelings was intended that way. Sometimes the speaker just didn't know what he was talking about. Not allowing for that possibility leads us to respond with anger and contempt, giving up the possibility of successfully opening someone else's eyes to his or her ignorance. The propensity to find insult everywhere raises people's hackles, leading to the fraught atmosphere on college campuses that in turn has given rise to "I feel like ..." as a preemptive disarming move.

I get Worthen's point, but getting out of the habit of saying "I feel like" isn't going to address the reasons we're saying it. Our problems are bigger than that.

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