The evolution of language is absolutely fascinating. For example, the word ‘sarcasm’ apparently traces its roots back to the Greek word sarkazein, which means ‘to tear flesh’. The word experimental used to mean ‘experiential’, but now it has more to do with trying different things out. Then you have phrases that were once pop-culture references but have hung around as idioms like ‘drinking the kool-aid’ (which has a deceptively tragic origin).
There’s a particular phrase that I’ve been growing increasingly aware of. I’ve been thinking about it a fair bit and making a conscious effort to evaluate its use. When I started really listening for it in conversation and considering my own instinctive adoption of it, I realised it’s everywhere.
‘I feel like. . .’
This phrase can begin a whole multitude of statements from ‘I feel like pasta for tea tonight’ to ‘I feel like abortion is ok.’ It’s used for everything from a suggestion that we need to do the dishes to accusations that we’re destroying the planet with our shampoo bottles. Does it really matter how we say things when others understand what we mean though?
I feel like it doesn’t matter.
But I think that it does.
Here’s an interesting thing: the way we speak and the phrases we use say a lot about us, both as individuals and as a society. Our words betray our worldview.
We used to think, believe, reckon, suspect. Now we feel like. Granted, ‘I feel like’ is understood as simply a synonym for the above, but I don’t think it’s as innocuous as it seems. A quick word from our accidental prophet, George Orwell:
If thought corrupts language, language can corrupt thought.
Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with feeling like having a burrito next time you get takeaway, but it’s essential to recognise that our word choice matters.
We are a culture becoming ever more focused on feelings over reason, and emotion over thought. We’re so concerned with not hurting other people’s feelings that we’re willing to forfeit the truth and favour delusion so that certain individuals aren’t made to feel sad or angry. Telling the truth in love triggers people, so we don’t do it and our young ones are not encouraged towards temperance or self-control. There is a place for feelings of course, but reason is too high a price to pay.
Saying we ‘feel’ something — as opposed to thinking or believing it — is dangerous because it subtly eases us into the mindset that subjective emotions are more important than objective truth.
‘I feel like. . .’ has two particularly important implications.
Firstly, it means you can’t argue with me. If I feel like you’re being racist towards me, you can’t defend yourself without invalidating my experience. At least if I think or believe that you’re being racist, there is the opportunity for evidence to be presented, discussion to be had, and explanation to be made where there may be misunderstanding. But if I feel it, then there’s little you can do but accept it. If you argue with how I feel, you’re invalidating my experience and saying that you know better than me what I’m going through.
In a world where we are taught to ‘follow our hearts’, we learn to let our emotions lead us — and we all know no one can tell us how we should feel. By emphasising feeling over thought, we make truth irrelevant at best, and subjective at worst.
My sister in Christ could come to me and say that I shouldn’t be stealing money from my parents, but my reply is that ‘I feel like it’s ok.’ At this point, she’s kinda stuck. If she says ‘I don’t think it’s right’, she’s asserting that things are a certain way and that I’m wrong — how judgemental of her. But if she says ‘I feel like it’s wrong’, she’s conceding that this is just how she feels, which is not how I feel and so I need not be dictated to by her emotions when mine say it’s fine. If she feels like stealing from her parents is wrong, then she doesn’t need to worry, I’m not asking her to do that. But I feel like it’s ok for me, so I can just go ahead.
Do you see the problem?This simple word change isn’t a verbal tic. It’s symptomatic of a society in which emotions are the ultimate authority and fact has no right to judge me and get in the way of how I feel. There is no single truth, only what we feel to be true at any given moment.
The second problem is closely linked. Not only can’t you argue with me, but by saying ‘I feel like. . .’ you’ve just made the truth subjective. This phrase is eager to avoid offence and confrontation. Sure, don’t go around hacking everyone off willy-nilly and being an insensitive jerk, but there is a time and place to stand by your convictions — even when they’re unpopular.
For example, there’s a difference between saying ‘I feel like euthanasia is wrong’ and saying ‘euthanasia is wrong’. In the first case, you’re stating a personal discomfort, you’re not making an objective moral judgement, so people don’t mind. It’s ok if euthanasia is wrong for you. The second statement is a statement of fact, which presupposes that there is an objective right and wrong — that it’s true regardless of how you feel.
If I say that I feel something to be true (or not), it’s far easier to stay friends with people because they can accept that it’s my personal truth and go on clinging to their own (different) personal truth without feeling particularly threatened.
Emotion is not the foundation of morality or truth. We mustn’t be hurtful, but neither can we soften our convictions on important matters just to spare the feelings of others. Speak with grace and wisdom, yes, but speak.
I concede that this may seem a minor point — curmudgeonly pedantry — but it matters more than you realise. Our word choice varies throughout our lives, influences by location, upbringing, and culture, but language affects the way we view the world and betrays the very same. A whole deep current of thought and perspective lies beneath our words whether we’re aware of it or not.
‘I feel like. . .’ is a symptom of a society where emotions are more important than thought and reason, and truth has become a highly subjective, privately personal thing.
I believe this matters to us as Christians. It matters because there is an objective truth and a foundation for all of reality. It matters because, as believers, we are called to engage our brains as God sanctifies us, renewing our minds amongst other things. It matters because we are under ever-increasing pressure to renounce our convictions and conform to the world.
You may not feel like it matters, but I encourage you to think about it. How does your language affect the way you think? How does it concede the flawed worldview of those around us? Do you need to be more thoughtful about how you express yourself?
The battle so often begins with the dictionary.
We need to be careful to say what we mean.