For the past 20 years, I have made a conscious effort to articulate views in conversation without saying ‘I feel’, instead using ‘I think’ or merely making a statement.
I knew a business professor at the time, now retired, who often introduced his conversational opinions with ‘I feel that …’ He said it so often that I began listening for those words from others, including friends, acquaintances and colleagues. There was a lot of ‘I feel’ among them as well as in television interviews with famous people.
SpouseMouse also noticed this.
Were we the only two who had?
We had a long wait, but, finally, it now emerges that other people have had enough of ‘I feel’. Before exploring their criticism of those words, let’s look at a bit of background from the late 20th century to today.
Thinking is being
Until recently, secondary school and university students took an introduction to philosophy course.
They read René Descartes, the French philosopher who wrote in his Discourse on the Method in 1637:
Je pense, donc je suis.
In 1644, he wrote the statement in Latin in Principles of Philosophy:
Cogito ergo sum.
Translated in English, it means:
I think, therefore, I am.
This proposition became a fundamental element of Western philosophy, as it purported to form a secure foundation for knowledge in the face of radical doubt. While other knowledge could be a figment of imagination, deception, or mistake, Descartes asserted that the very act of doubting one’s own existence served—at minimum—as proof of the reality of one’s own mind; there must be a thinking entity—in this case the self—for there to be a thought.
St Augustine of Hippo wrote similarly in the 5th century in his works The City of God and the Enchiridion, in discussing the errors of sceptics. By being alive, we are prone to error:
… one cannot err who is not alive. That we live is therefore not only true, but it is altogether certain as well …
Other philosophers and great thinkers also addressed the certainty of our existence, which revolves around the ability to think and to reason.
My point here is not to engage in philosophical discussion but rather to point out that thinking was seen as the foundation for rational expression.
When I was growing up, my parents asked me to substantiate my opinions with facts. Facts require thought in order to process the information therein. Facts give us solid reasons to support certain perspectives.
Thinking is not emotion. As my parents used to say, ‘Any fool can feel. You’re supposed to use the God-given gifts of thought and reason.’ To some that will sound tough, but it will produce critical thinking.
The therapeutic era
Most people under the age of 35 or even 40 will have encountered a therapeutic approach to language rather than a rational one.
If this approach to linguistics does not begin at home, it will certainly be taught at school.
Everything must be couched in inoffensive terms. Prefacing an opinion or even a fact with ‘I feel’ is understood to be more acceptable than using the more definite ‘I think’ or making a direct statement.
Defenders of ‘I feel’ think they and others who use those words are demonstrating humility, gentleness and openness towards others. ‘I feel’, they say, signals a willingness to change one’s mind if a good case can be made to the contrary.
However, there is also a manipulative side to ‘I feel’ when it is used by people who self-identify as victims. It is a passive-aggressive way of saying, ‘I’m a delicate little flower. Therefore, please don’t contradict me, because that will invalidate my feelings. Truth be told, I am not interested in what you have to say, anyway, unless you agree with me.’
The case against ‘I feel’
On May 1, the SundayReview in The New York Times featured an article by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing editorial writer to the NYT. Worthen’s most recent book is Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.
Her article, ‘Stop Saying “I Feel Like”‘, is a must-read for both supporters and detractors of that perspective. The accompanying illustration of a woman opening her mouth with flowers falling out of it makes the point perfectly.
Worthen begins by saying she has been hearing people opine on the presidential candidates this year. Too many of them make statements similar to the following:
Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic
or, as someone said of Rafael ‘Ted’ Cruz, the ex-Canadian:
I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.
Worthen points out (emphases mine):
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.
Although women use the phrase more often than men, she says that among her own students:
male students begin almost every statement with “I feel like.” The gender gap is vanishing because the cultural roots of this linguistic shift were never primarily a consequence of gender.
Some students Worthen interviewed are making a conscious effort not to say the words:
Jing Chai, a senior at the University of Chicago, said: “I’ve tried to check myself when I say that. I think it probably demeans the substance of what I’m trying to say.”
As I said above, ‘I feel’ can be a passive-aggressive conversation stopper. Worthen agrees:
“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.
You know, we can’t have that these days. The atmosphere on campus is meant for victimhood rather than learning. Worthen says that Bradley Campbell, a sociologist at California State University, Los Angeles, has written about the shift:
from a “culture of dignity,” which celebrates free speech, to a “culture of victimhood” marked by the assumption that “people are so fragile that they can’t hear something offensive,” he told me.
People like that should not even be at university, regardless of their intelligence. University is for people who can think critically and encounter new ideas. It’s a place for well-reasoned, tempered debate and discussions which result in learning. Yet, for all their linguistic kindness, today’s university students, sometimes aided by lecturers or professors, violently shut down opposing viewpoints. Think of the Chicago ‘protests’ (assaults and vandalism) a few months ago by university students — encouraged by radical professors — which prevented a Trump rally from taking place. Elsewhere, earlier this year, one student purposely damaged a Trump supporter’s laptop because he couldn’t stand looking at the bumper sticker on it. Trump aside, many universities — including those in the UK — have had to cancel certain speakers’ appearances because they are not politically correct. This is in response to student protest and threatened violence. The wimpy ‘I feel’ is, in reality, manifesting itself as physical harm or damage. But I digress.
Worthen also interviewed Christopher Lasch’s daughter Dr Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse University, who is carrying on her late father’s fine work in social commentary. If you have not read Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, you are missing out on a treat. I read it in the early 1980s and it analyses our society to a T.
Of ‘I feel like’, Lasch-Quinn told Worthen:
It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.
In 2001, Lasch-Quinn’s book Race Experts lamented that no real improvement is being achieved with equality or economics. Instead, the Left focusses on sensitivity training. ‘I feel like’ is part of this pattern:
a means of avoiding rigorous debate over structures of society that are hard to change …
“Cultivating the art of conversation goes a long way toward correcting these things,” Dr. Lasch-Quinn said.
Her father wrote about what, today, Americans call ‘self care’. Worthen explains:
… “self-care” — can lead to what the writer Christopher Lasch called “pseudo-self-awareness.” It can leave us too preoccupied with personal satisfaction to see the world clearly. “The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety,” Mr. Lasch wrote in his 1979 book “The Culture of Narcissism.” “He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life.”
Unfortunately, times have moved on. In the 2010s, it is all too apparent that those who are emotionally-driven actually do seek to inflict their own certainties on others, either by shutting down opposing viewpoints or threatening people. ‘I feel like’ is a contributing linguistic factor to this phenomenon.
Although philosophers have for centuries acknowledged emotion as essential to thinking, we can take our feelings too far. When Worthen spoke to the neuroscientist Dr Antonio Dimasio, who teaches at the University of Southern California, he agreed that ‘I feel like’ is:
“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.
The best gift parents and teachers can give children is to get them to figure out why they like or dislike and agree or disagree with something or someone. Insist that they think about it and articulate it factually, without one-word answers or labels. Furthermore, when they see a soundbite from someone they disagree with, ask them to research further. Did they understand the full context in which a statement was given? Did they read or hear the full quote?
Saying ‘I feel like’ prevents our getting the full story. Using ‘I think’ or — even better — doing away with the first person preface altogether will produce sharper thought processes and a more reasoned point of view, easily articulated to our listeners and readers. Children should learn that as quickly as they can. It will serve them well in life.