Sometimes I Feel Like . . . a Muddledness Child

May 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Molly Worthen* is fighting tyranny, specifically the “tyranny of feelings” and the muddle it creates.  It’s a tyranny without a tyrant (sorry, Obama haters; you can’t pin this one on him). Instead, it’s like the Yeerks in the Animorphs books my son used to read – worm-like aliens that slip in through a human’s ear, wrap themselves around his brain, and take over his thought. We don’t realize that our thinking has been enslaved by this tyranny, but alas, we now speak its language. Case in point:

“Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida.

Why the “linguistic hedging” as Worthen calls it? Why couldn’t the kid just say, “Sanders is too idealistic”? You might think the difference is minor, or perhaps the speaker is reluctant to assert an opinion as though it were fact. Worthen disagrees..

“I feel like” is not a harmless tic. . . . The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.

The phrase “I feel like” is part of a more general evolution in American culture. We think less in terms of morality – society’s standards of right and wrong – and more in terms individual psychological well-being. (I almost always dislike the phrase “in terms of,” but in this case, it is apt. I am talking about words.) The shift from “I think” to “I feel like” echoes an earlier linguistic trend  when we gave up terms like “should” or “ought to” in favor of “needs to.” To say, “Kayden, you should be quiet and settle down,” invokes external social rules of morality. But, “Kayden, you need to settle down,” refers to his internal, psychological needs. Be quiet not because it’s good for others but because it’s good for you.

In an earlier post (here) I reported that “needs to” began its rise in the late 1970s. “I feel like” is more recent, says Worthen, going back only a decade or two.

[Update: After I originally posted this, Philip Cohen ran “I feel like” through Google nGrams, as did Mark Liberman at Language Log, and found that, like “needs to,” the phrase “I feel like” began its rise in the late 1970s,not in the 90s as Worthen seems to think. Here is my own nGrams version. To ensure that “I feel like” excludes phrases like “I feel like taking a walk ” or “I feel like a motherless child,” I added a pronoun so that “I feel like” has to be followed by a clause, e.g., “I feel like he is too idealistic.” To get both lines on the same grid, I had to multiply “I feel like” uses by 500.]

Regardless of when the tide of “I feel like” starts its rise, Worthen finds it more insidious. She says that the phrase defeats rational discussion. You can argue with what someone says about the facts. You can’t argue with what they say about how they feel.

Worthen is asserting a clear cause and effect. She quotes Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” She has no evidence of this causal relationship, but she cites some linguists who agree. She also quotes Mark Liberman, who does not agree and is much calmer about the whole thing. When you say, “I feel like. . .” people know what you mean despite the hedging, just as they know that when you say, “I feel,” it means “I think,” and that you are not speaking about your actual emotions.

The more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning. “I feel like the emotions have long since been mostly bleached out of ‘feel that,’ ”

Worthen nevertheless insists on the Yeerkish insidious of “I feel like.”  “When new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish.”

“Vices” indeed. Her entire op-ed piece is a good example of the style of moral discourse that she says we have lost. Her stylistic preferences may have something to do with her scholarly ones – she studies conservative Christianity. No “needs to” for her. She closes her sermon with shoulds:

We should not “feel like.” We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.

*Worthen’s op-ed in today’s New York Times is here.


Jonathan said...

The way I see it, it's always an advantage in internet discourse to couch your opinions in phrases that clearly state that they're opinions, such as "I feel like...", "It seems to me..." "I believe that..." or "The way I see it...". Nobody writes books anymore; we are all just commenting on each others' blog posts, so the decision to write as if anchored by one's first-person perspective is a wise one as it gives responders the chance to simply disagree with the original author's feelings.

Jay Livingston said...

In the Language Log post that Worthen links to (and that I should have looked at before writing my post), Mark Liberman or one of the commenters says something similar about "I feel that" opening lines for conversation.

AJD said...

Worthen's article is utter nonsense, nothing more than inane linguistic peeving masquerading, as it always does, as concern with the content of what people are saying when it's really about nothing more than the form. As Deborah Cameron notes in her blog post about this article:

"Worthen’s argument that we’ve become too touchy-feely rests largely on an observation about the contemporary use of words—that ‘feel like’ is now preferred to ‘think’—and on closer inspection this is linguistically naive. The phrase ‘I think’, which she takes to be both completely different from and self-evidently preferable to ‘I feel like’, actually does the same job."

Cameron aptly sums up this whole way of thinking about languages as "overblown nonsense".