Friday, May 13, 2016

#134 / How Does It Feel?

The New York Times ran an essay on April 30th that was headlined, "Stop Saying 'I Feel Like.'" I am not completely sure I know how the image above, which came with the essay, is intended to convey the essay's main message, but I like the image anyway.

I also like Molly Worthen's admonition to stop saying, "I feel like," instead of saying, "I think," or "I believe."

According to Worthen, who is a professor at the University of North Carolina, using the "I feel like" phrase is a temptation to which which we should not succumb. When someone says, "I feel like," the person is making an assertion that doesn't really put his or her own judgment on the line. I think that is a fair observation.

We all are tempted to try to have it both ways, and the "I feel like" phrase seems to let us do that. Whenever we say, "I feel like," and use that construction, we are actually communicating what we "think," or "believe." But if we present our thoughts and beliefs in the "I feel like" mode, we have an easy avenue of retreat if and when challenged.

For instance, if we have said, "I think," or "I believe," and have presented our thoughts and beliefs in that form, and if someone wants to say that we are "wrong," and to debate the point, we are pretty much put on notice that we need to defend the territory we have staked out. There is no easy escape from entering into the argument.

Not so if our thoughts or beliefs are presented in the "I feel like" mode. There is no need to defend them, if we don't want to. We can simply slither out of a disagreement by saying, explicitly or implicitly, "well, that's just what I feel." In other words, what I "feel" may not be true, so don't hold me to it. I don't have to argue for a position if I only "feel like" the statement is correct.

In a democratic politics, the entire enterprise is based on debate and discussion, controversy and conflict. We, as a group, need to make collective decisions, and to make good decisions, each one of us needs to be willing to say what we really think, and to argue for that. We may lose the argument, and we may, actually, be persuaded by opposing arguments; the process, though, demands that real alternatives are debated on their merits. The Abilene Paradox reflects how flawed the decision making process can become, if people don't say what they really think, and what they really believe. We need to be careful that our language doesn't facilitate such flawed decision making.

In the arena of politics, above all, we need to watch our language. As Worthen says, quoting George Orwell: 

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

A corrupted language can make democracy vulnerable to a condition in which we may "feel like" something is right or wrong, but never actually know what we really think, and what we truly believe.

And if we don't know what we think and believe, we don't know what to do!

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