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I Feel Like I’m Too Suspicious of My Feelings

One of the (many) things that regularly irritates my kids about their dear old dad is that he has this exasperating tendency to insist upon precision and consistency in language. I feel sorry for them, on one level. The burden of being subjected to a father with tendencies that can run toward a dry and dour rationalism is surely one that no one should have to bear. This is no doubt among the (many) childhood ordeals they will have to unpack with a therapist at some point in the future.

One of our consistent linguistic and conceptual battlegrounds over the years was around “I feel” language. I would ask some innocuous question like, “Did you clean up the dishes?” and would be met with a response like, “I feel like it’s my brother’s turn.” Or, I would say, “When is your assignment due?” and hear “I feel like it’s next Tuesday.” Often, these interactions would end with a certain someone pleading, with no small amount of weary (and wearisome) vexation, “I’m not asking how you feel, I’m asking what you think!! What I’m looking for is a concrete piece of data not a report on your subjective experience of my question!” At this point, I’m sure that my kids would have been grateful if their dad would have kept his feelings and/or thoughts to himself.

My frustrations with “I feel” language and how it is often used got a bit of a jolt while reading Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the Twenty First Century this morning. In the opening pages of a chapter on “Liberty,” where Harari is musing about the fragility of liberalism, the relative recency of democracy, the mystery of human freedom, and what elections are really about, he says this:

When Britain needed to decide whether it should leave the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t ask Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Oxford and Cambridge dons to resolve the issue. He didn’t even ask the members of Parliament. Rather, he held a referendum in which each and every Brit was asked: “What do you feel about it.”

You might counter that people were asked “What do you think?” rather than “What do you feel?,” but this is a common misperception. Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights—or perhaps any voting rights at all. There is ample evidence that some people are far more knowledgeable and rational than others, certainly when it comes to specific economic and political questions…

[F]or better or worse, elections and referendums are not about what we think. They are about what we feel… Democracy assumes that human feelings reflect a mysterious and profound “free will,” that this “free will” is the ultimate source of authority, and that while some people are more intelligent than others, all humans are equally free. Like [Albert] Einstein and [Richard] Dawkins, an illiterate maid also has free will, and therefore on election day her feelings—represented by her vote—count just as much as anybody else’s.

My back instinctively goes up when I read passages like this. I am a thinker not a feeler, for heaven’s sake! Don’t insult me by telling me that my rational reflection upon the issues of the day isn’t the primary factor informing my vote! Don’t tell me that elections are really mostly about taking the emotional temperature of a population rather than reflecting the will of an informed, engaged, and rational electorate! Um, well, actually, I guess if I really think about it there are a lot of fairly dumb and poorly informed people out there… There actually are a lot of people for whom elections are mostly an opportunity to emote in all kinds of ugly and destructive directions. But that’s obviously just the people who vote differently than me!

And there’s the rub, right? Most of us can look at Harari’s words above and apply them quite easily to others. If we happen to not be huge fans of Brexit or Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau—each being the result of democratic processes, however flawed—we can quite easily and naturally grumble about how unreflective the majority is, how led around by reactive emotionalism and uncritical consumption of biased media, etc. But our views are obviously down to our rationality, moral sensitivity, political acumen, etc. The votes of others might be (and probably are—how else to explain them?!) attributable to mere feelings. But our vote is the result of thinking!

It’s not particularly flattering to liberal democracies or to elections to describe them as essentially referendums on our feelings. But if we take a step back from our natural defensiveness, it doesn’t take too long to see that there is a great deal of truth to this. Fox News is a 24/7 outrage machine, appealing in all kinds of primal and visceral ways to people’s feelings about what’s going on in the world. The New York Times op/ed page has essentially devoted the last four years to howling in protest at the presidency of Donald Trump. Both sprinkle rational arguments into their commentary on the world, but their headlines and general tone appeal often appeal directly, sometimes exclusively to our feelings. Feeling, not thinking, is what drives the Internet, after all. We click on stuff that makes us feel things. As Jonathan Haidt has persuasively argued, human beings are not primarily rational creatures who occasionally let feelings play a role; we are emotional and intuitive creatures who use reason to justify our feelings.

This is, as I say, not particularly flattering, at least on one level. At least since the Enlightenment we have been pleased to think of ourselves as rational thinking machines. But from a Christian perspective, Harari’s implicit analysis of human nature ought not be neither devastating nor surprising. The Christian call has always been (or should always have been) to sacrificial love, to mercy, to forgiveness, to grace. None of these things are rational responses to the world. Each, in its own way, is an appeal to our feelings—they are indeed, a call to feel rightly in the world. We are called to do more than feel, of course. Our feeling must take place alongside thinking and acting. But Christians, of all people, should have the conceptual equipment in our locker to take on board descriptions of human nature like Harari’s. Well of course elections are referendums on human feelings! Feeling is central to who we are how we operate! We have been created not just to mechanically grind through rational arguments but to feel things! And we bear the image of a God who feels and who has loved his creation in all kinds of inexplicably irrational ways. Feelings aren’t an embarrassing interruption into an otherwise rational human nature. They are a crucial part of the package.

Who knows, perhaps my kids were onto something with all their “I feel” language? Maybe they were expressing a fairly deep truth about who we are, about what moves us, and about what’s actually going on under the surface of most of what we say and do (and post) in the world.

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