Gentle readers, the time has come for me to hold forth upon a subject that has been giving me grief for months, if not years. If you don’t recognize the phenomenon when I describe it, be thankful that perhaps it has not yet reached your part of the country. In my part of the country, however—and particularly at those elite academic institutions that seem to have nothing better to do than dream up new forms of political correctness—this phenomenon is alive and well.
I’m talking about “I feel like…”
A second semester of classes is now under way here in the lovely and opinionated zip code of 02138, and after being largely out of the classroom for the better part of a month, I had nearly forgotten how many, many student responses begin with this little phrase: “I feel like… the framers of the Constitution wouldn’t have intended that interpretation.” “I feel like… an act done to protect one’s children should be considered self-defense.” “I feel like… such a use is definitely a governmental taking of property.”
Of course, all this might be understandable if the question were, “How do you feel about…?” But it almost never is—especially in law school.
The more I look for it, the more I see it, both in and out of the classroom. In casual conversations among friends, “I feel like” is tacked onto the beginning of nearly every statement that has even the slightest potential for expressing a personal opinion. “I feel like Meryl Streep has been better in other films.” “I feel like people don’t understand the importance of thread count in sheets.” Or, more simply, “I feel like that’s not true.”
“I feel like that’s not true?” What does that even mean? Either it’s true or it’s not, with no particular reference to how you feel about it. Why not just say, “That’s not true”?
The answer lies at the heart of the trend of ultra-political correctness that has already taken over our country’s college campuses and continues to sweep the nation. Political correctness has made us afraid to express any independent thought unless it is carefully couched as a slight, sentimentalized personal opinion that needn’t apply to anyone else and therefore poses no threat to listeners. “I feel like” is a softener, a mitigator—a prefix meant to take the teeth out of your argument and render it harmless.
Consider any of the statements above without the “I feel like.” “Meryl Streep has been better in other films.” “Such a use is definitely a governmental taking of property.”
“That’s not true.”
Stripped of “I feel like,” these statements now come to life as forceful, independent opinions. They challenge the listener and prompt her to respond with an equally vital opinion of her own. Unlike “I feel like” statements, which are so flimsy that they can be met with a simple “That’s nice that you feel that way, dear,” strong opinions force listeners to confront their own opinions and engage in meaningful debate with the speaker.
You might think that the same is true for “I feel like” statements. But you’d be wrong. The insidious effect of beginning an opinion with “I feel like” is that it causes any potential argument to atrophy in utero. Why? Because you can’t argue about feelings.
You might be able to state your contrary opinion by saying, “Well, I disagree. In fact, I feel like…” (Believe it or not, I’ve even heard people begin with “I feel like I disagree.”) But what have you really just said? Someone has told you how he feels, and now you’ve told him how you feel, but you can’t really tell him that he doesn’t feel that way, and the same “protection” applies to you.
Has anyone won the argument? Is anyone right or wrong?
Ah, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We all pretend that we live in a world where everybody is right and nobody is wrong. Really, the only way anyone can be wrong is by believing that she’s right, or (what’s worse) by telling someone that he’s wrong. Relativization of truth and morals, along with relativization of everything else, has led to the phenomenon of everyone tiptoeing around one another in a desperate attempt not to share real opinions and (horror of horrors) offend someone in the process .
Folks, it’s the gradual milquetoasting of America.
Don’t believe me? Go out there today, into your office or classroom or the local bar, get into a conversation with someone, and then—when she states an opinion with which you disagree—tell her, “You’re wrong.” Not, “I feel like you’re wrong;” not, “I feel like others see it differently;” just, “You’re wrong.”
After you’re done wiping her drink off your face, you’ll begin to see what I mean: these days, it has become a thought crime to tell anyone that his or her opinions are wrong. You can only meekly identify the possibility that those opinions may differ from yours. Someone could be standing on the street corner preaching the benefits of genocide, and you’d have to say, “Well, I feel like maybe genocide has some bad points we haven’t considered… but that’s only one opinion.”
And I’ll tell you what happens when we spend all our time talking about our feelings: thoughtful, intelligent discourse in this country enters a state of paralysis. Indeed, it already has. The Supreme Court has long warned of this or that law’s “chilling effect on speech,” but I watch the news and listen to conversations on university campuses and wonder if there’s any speech left to put on ice. Have we forgotten how to be bold?
Remember Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and all the hot water he got into after shouting “You lie!” at Mr. Obama back in September? I think that most of the pundits who were so horrified at his outburst were concerned less with his opinion than with the forceful form in which he expressed it. Of course it’s always rude to interrupt the leader of the free world—we won’t quibble over that—but to tell anyone that he’s wrong? That he speaks untruth? God forbid.
Imagine if Mr. Wilson had quietly approached Mr. Obama after the joint session and said, “You know, Mr. President, I’ve been thinking, and I feel like maybe you haven’t been entirely factually correct in everything you’ve been telling us about that healthcare bill… but that’s just my opinion, you know.” I don’t know if his opinion could have been dismissed any more than it already was, but it certainly wouldn’t have gotten hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube over the past few months.
You see, deep down, I’m convinced that many of long to express our opinions more strongly than we actually do. I wouldn’t be surprised if, deep down, many of us were giving Mr. Wilson high fives (or, to be more de rigueur, fist bumps)—not because he disagreed with Mr. Obama, but because he spoke with the courage of his convictions in a way that we wish we could replicate in our own lives.
I look around and see people burning to speak—really speak—without being so hampered by others’ excessive sensitivity. What’s the worst that can happen? We’re still civilized enough to avoid coming to blows. Are we really so afraid of being misjudged or offending others that we can’t open our mouths and speak freely about what’s on our minds?
If so, the thought police have already won.
If you liked this post and aren’t afraid to speak your mind, be bold: pass it on!