This weekend we crossed the threshold into a new month, and the New York Times, paper of record, has marked the occasion with a new condemnation of millennial culture. On April 30, 2016 their Opinion section ran a piece by Molly Worthen entitled “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like.’”
Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, argues that by beginning statements this way, we not only equivocate, but also foreclose the possibility of debate, safeguarding ourselves with claims of individualized experience:
“ Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of broad cultural contagion.
This linguistic hedging is particularly common at universities, where calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces may have eroded students’ inclination to assert or argue. It is safer merely to ‘feel.’ Bradley Campbell, a sociologist at California State University, Los Angeles, was an author of an article about the shift on many campuses from a ‘culture of dignity,’ which celebrates free speech, to a ‘culture of victimhood’ marked by the assumption that ‘people are so fragile that they can’t hear something offensive,’ he told me.
Yet here is the paradox: ‘I feel like’ masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.
When people cite feelings or personal experience, ‘you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,’ [University of Chicago senior Jing Chai] told me.”
In composing this editorial, Worthen armed herself with multigenerational corroboration. College students and tenured researchers alike testify to the case against “feeling like” this or that. “It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group,” historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn tells Worthen, “because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.”
It’s true that the subjectivity of experience cannot be debunked by quantitative reasoning — that wouldn’t be a productive conversation anyway. And it may be true, too, that we sometimes rely on the verb “to feel” when we’re not prepared to commit to an argument.
Worthen claims that the issue may be more coddling educational contexts — classrooms that include trigger warnings on the syllabi or schools that, through some nebulous ways and means, provide “safe spaces” for students that become pernicious agents of linguistic deterioration.
I agree that context matters, but not in the ways suggested by Worthen. Speech patterns like this one do not suddenly rear their heads when we enter “a time of growing diversity and political polarization.” They emerge from the margins, from members of society who have grown accustomed to being silenced before they so much as make a sound. Worthen notes that although many of her own male students begin statements with “I feel like,” “data suggests that young women use the phrase slightly more.” But if we’re going to trace the origins of a phrase implying uncertainty, perhaps even fear, we must attend to issues of race, class, culture, education, and the sprawling web of identitarian elements that shape how we view our positions within society at large.
It’s worth noting that, with the exception of her introduction, Worthen only quotes students attending prestigious, private universities and colleges. One wonders how the student body at a larger state school—like the one where Worthen teachers—would respond to the questions she raises.
Writer Devon Maloney emphasizes the importance of considering intersectional origins. “It’s just another attempt to eliminate the symptoms instead of the disease,” she tells me. “New speech patterns don’t drop out of the sky for no reason...When you live in a world that would prefer you not speak at all, of course you’re going to couch whatever opinion you’re trying to express in language that feels more protected. And it’s no one’s fault that the rest of society has absorbed that way of communicating.”
In this light, Worthen’s assertion that “the phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning” registers as especially hasty. Protective language, as Maloney refers to it, develops when one does not possess the privilege of vulnerability — when one’s emotions are not regarded as legible in the first place.
Rather than condemn millennials—and those, shall we say, contaminated by them—for shirking “responsibility” through discourse, let’s acknowledge our more pressing duty: to stop policing speech, and instead welcome the voices clamoring to be heard.
Image via Getty.