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Posts from the ‘Discourse’ Category

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.

More Than A Feeling

There are probably better things to think about than the toxic polarizing hostilities of our cultural discourse while riding a motorcycle through the Rocky Mountains on a glorious fall Monday. I could have simply exulted in the beauty all around me or opened myself up to mid-life epiphany of some sort or another. And to be fair, I did do a fair bit of the former—the Rockies in autumn are simply spectacular (no epiphanies to speak of, alas). But I had just listened to a podcast… and just finished a book… and read a few articles about the corrosive effects of social media on democracy and the world more generally. There were some things I just couldn’t get out of my mind. And you have to fill six hours alone with your thoughts inside a helmet somehow, right? Read more

The Pandemic as Moral Laboratory

Six months into this pandemic my sense is that fatigue has well and truly settled in for many people. We’re tired of all the restrictions, inconveniences and uncertainty, obviously. We’re tired of the way the same handful of headlines seem to dominate the news every day, tired of the dull drip of dopamine produced by our listless doom-scrolling, tired of the endless politicizing of this virus, tired of the fear-mongering and conspiracy theorizing, tired of being tired. Many of us have spent far more time thinking, speaking, and writing about this thing than we would have ever wanted. I certainly have. Read more

ABBA Essentials and the Perils of Unlimited Choice

“What do you wanna listen to now?” My wife asked me this question a handful of times from the passenger seat as we made our way over the Rockies and back to help our kids settle into college last weekend. Twenty-five hours in transit gives you plenty of time for listening to stuff, whether it’s podcasts, audio books, or music. Each time the question came, I would half-heartedly ponder the request for a few seconds and then respond with something along the lines of, “Um, I don’t know, nothing’s really coming to mind… I kinda need to see my options.” My wife would then furrow her brow at me, scroll through Apple Music on one of our phones, and then usually end up picking either something that one of us had downloaded recently and was thus near the top of our screens or something we had listened to in the past. Read more

On Cheerleading

I have always been suspicious of cheerleaders. Not literal cheerleaders as in the (usually) female visual accessories to (usually) male sporting events (a sexist and retrograde phenomenon, if ever there was one, but that’s another post). No, the cheerleaders I’m thinking of are those who uncritically line up behind their preferred political party or religious perspective or ideology and, well, cheer along. Read more

As Advertised

I don’t know much about Rachel Hollis. I haven’t read her books or listened to her marriage podcast or engaged with any of the other media she produces. I know very little about the Hollis brand and what I do know comes second hand. There was an article about her that made the rounds recently. And then she came up on a podcast that I listened to recently. My impression is that she’s built a quite significant following by offering a “get your act together” jolt of personal responsibility combined with an emphasis upon and commitment to vulnerability and authenticity. It certainly seems to be a winning combination in the digital age where we can’t seem to get enough of authenticity or advice. Read more

We Are Too Liberal With Our Contempt

Yesterday, a group of prominent artists, writers, and academics signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying the rising tide of illiberalism and ruthlessly policed ideological conformity in public discourse. There are some impressive names on the list: Margaret Atwood, Atul Gawande, Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie, and J.K. Rowling are just a few of the more than one hundred fifty signatories who are growing increasingly uneasy about “cancel culture” and the censuring of any viewpoints that don’t align with the orthodoxies of the moment. Read more

Wagging White Fingers

I’ve hesitated to say much in response to the grim spectacle of America ablaze with protests against the racism, police brutality, and appalling murder of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis. My justifications for silence often wander down familiar trails. What can I say that others can’t say or haven’t already said better? I’m not American; what right do I have to say anything about a social reality that is not my own? What good does adding to an amorphous chorus of condemnation/white guilt really do? Isn’t ninety percent of what’s going online today a flailing combination of virtue signalling and emoting out loud? What good is one more wagging white finger against racism? Read more

Dispatches from the Breaking Point

Last Saturday morning, I, like many others, gasped as I read Ian Brown’s Globe and Mail article describing how L’Arche founder Jean Vanier had sexually abused six women over a period of several decades and known of abuses committed by his former mentor and spiritual director, Père Thomas Philippe. I had received a heads-up from local L’Arche leaders that “something about Vanier might be coming” (our church has close ties with the L’Arche community in our city), but most seemed to think that it might have to do with what and when Vanier knew about Père Thomas’s abuses. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like what I read in the Globe last weekend. Read more

Tuesday Miscellany (On Going to the Gym, Pillow Forts, Trust and Change)

Last June, I decided that I had reached that stage of life where some changes to my routine were going to be necessary. I had injured my knee a few years ago, and due to a perfectly calibrated combination of apprehension, apathy, and procrastination, I had not gone the surgery route. One day, a friend who had been through a similar knee-injury gloriously vindicated my indecision by saying, “Forget surgery, just hit the weights. You’ll be fine.” I very much liked the “forget surgery” part of this injunction. The “hit the weights” part? Well, not so much. But, you know, mid-life and all. I figured that I had reached a point in proceedings where some maintenance was going to be required to stay active and reasonably healthy. So, off to the gym I went. Read more

On “Weather Events” and Other Absurdities of the Digital Age

On Friday afternoon, as I was spinning my wheels on a sermon that just wasn’t coming, I did what I tend to do when the inspiration tap seems to have run dry. I began to click aimlessly around the internet. It’s an inspirational strategy, I know. Feel free to take notes. At any rate, I checked a few soccer scores. I scrolled half-heartedly through Facebook and Instagram. I visited an inbox that somehow, frustratingly, wasn’t magically whittling itself down. And I checked the weather. Read more

On Division and Negativity

Like many Canadians, I had an eye on the national election last night. Election results and commentary provided the background noise throughout the evening, as I had dinner with my son, as I went to the gym, as I watched a bit of soccer and talked with my wife, and as my head eventually hit the pillow. To the surprise of probably no one, the end result of a nasty campaign characterized by polarizing rhetoric, majoring on minors and minoring on majors, name calling, fearmongering, avoiding issues, peddling partial truths or simply outright lying, was a minority Liberal government. This was what many pundits and pollsters predicted and for a change they got things pretty much exactly right. Read more

Fearfully Religious, Religiously Fearful

Like many, I’ve been following with interest the story of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist whose words and actions have been galvanizing young people (and beyond) and dominating the news in recent days. Hers is a voice that speaks clearly and forcefully for a generation that is sick of platitudes and political inactivity when it comes to the looming climate crisis on the horizon. She is unafraid to speak fearlessly to the rich and the powerful—to demand action for the sake of future generations who will pay the price of the reckless and wasteful inattentiveness of we who preceded them. Read more

Emotional Days

It’s been an emotional morning. No, not in that way—nothing bad has happened to me, nothing special is tugging at my heartstrings or causing me elation, sorrow, or confusion (at least no more than usual). Nothing like that. But it’s been a morning where the theme of “emotions” and how they operate in our thinking, our self-understandings, our politics, and our collective discourse has popped up a few times in my quick tour of the news and social media over breakfast. Read more

Our Poisonous Purity

The big news this week here in Canada is that a nearly-two-decades old photo has surfaced of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—heroic champion of diversity and inclusion and tolerance and fierce critic of their opposites—in brownface at a costume party. For scandal-hungry media covering an election campaign grinding along in a rather pedestrian and uninspiring fashion, with candidates trying desperately to make voters’ choices seem like something more sensational than they are (do we prefer a center-left or center-right government this time around?), this is of course pure gold. It was front page news on every major news media site this morning and I expect the commentary will continue for days.  Read more

On Simplifying

Early September is one of a handful of “new years” that many of us use to orient or mark time. The beginning of another academic year is experienced as a new beginning for many, particularly those with kids. January 1 is another, obviously. For Christians, the First Sunday of Advent would be yet another, as we mark the beginning of another year lived according to the story of Jesus. These are logical points on our calendars and in our lives for us to recalibrate, reorient, recommit, or remind ourselves of important truths. Read more

It’s This, But It’s Also That

Last weekend, I read a remarkable piece of journalism. It was about an issue that I knew little about and it described a reality with which I have no personal experience. It was about a city I have never visited in a country not my own whose social conditions are difficult for me to personally imagine. It discussed a material reality has very little bearing on my everyday life in a small city on the Canadian prairies. And yet, the article modeled a way of approaching a difficult issue that I think we can (must) all learn from if we are going to inhabit our cultural moment in honest and hopeful ways. Read more

Love Loses

I’ve had some interesting conversations (online and face to face) recently with people about psychology professor and blogger Richard Beck’s ongoing series on the need for a “post-progressive Christianity.” He’s covered some interesting terrain in the series thus far, everything from how progressives approach the Bible to the phenomenon of deconstruction to how they understand the role of the church and others. In each case, Beck describes how he has found progressive Christianity’s approach to faith insightful in important ways, but also lacking in others. Hence the need for a “post-progressive Christianity,” however much some of us might cringe at the introduction of yet another “post” into our cultural lexicon. Read more