Everyone has pet peeves. I have a menagerie of them. One of my favorites is the common (and fairly recent) tendency of English speakers and writers to confuse and conflate the words, “feel” and “think.”
But feelings are not thoughts and thoughts are not feelings. That might seem obvious and elementary, but it drives me nuts how often people miss or ignore the distinction.
Consider headlines and pronouncements like the following:
Three-quarters (75%) of Americans feel that America’s new emphasis on national security will create new job opportunities in science and technology (emphasis added).
More than 65 percent of Central Ohioans feel state and local governments should offer private businesses tax breaks to create or retain jobs (emphasis added).
Majority Feel State is Going in Wrong Direction (emphasis added).
It has become so commonplace that some of us don’t even notice it any more. But do Americans feel that America’s new emphasis on national security will create new job opportunities in science and technology…or do they think so? Do Ohioans truly feel that state and local governments should offer tax breaks to private businesses…or do they think so? Do people feel that their state is going in the wrong direction…or do they think so?
You get the point, I think (see what I did there?). The practice of substituting the term “I feel” for “I think” in phrases like “I feel that our schools are doing a good job” and “I feel what a person does in the privacy of his own home is nobody’s business but his own” accomplishes what Duke political scientist James David Barber calls “a detestation of reason in favor of emotion.” As feelings rule increasingly in place of ideas in journalism, public “opinion,” and governance, it becomes easier to believe utter nonsense (“If I feel it, how can it be wrong?”). It often takes investigation, examination, and deliberation in order to think through an issue, but a person usually needn’t do anything in order to feel something.
More dangerous still, in a culture where we treat thoughts as if they were feelings, disagreement and dissent must be disallowed (“How can you disagree with how I feel?”). Thus, disagreeing with someone constitutes an attack. Legitimate debate is stifled. Bridges to true understanding are blown to bits as soon as they’re begun.
There’s nothing wrong with feelings. And very often our opinions are based more on emotion than on reason. But feelings are not thoughts. And confusing the two—whether accidentally or strategically—is inaccurate and dangerous, particularly for writers who are called to traffic in the truth. Let’s not insult each other by implying that we’ve surrendered the ability to think as well as to feel. Or the intelligence to know the difference.