I recently read an old New York Times Op-Ed from 2016 that was, unfortunately, too prescient. The piece is titled Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’, and it does an excellent job of breaking down what was an increasingly worrisome trend. The gist of this article is that people need to stop couching their beliefs behind their emotions with phrases like “I feel like”. The reason people do it is simple: while someone can attack the merits of an argument or belief, no one is supposed to be able to invalidate your feelings. Moreover, “I feel like” tempers whatever statement it precedes, meaning that other people are less likely to react strongly to whatever is said. It proactively shields the speaker from whatever harm may face them if their statement is taken at its full value.
Since this piece was published in 2016, matters of emotional self-indulgence have only gotten worse. Case and point: “I believe that the vaccine is not safe”, “I believe COVID is a hoax”. The cudgel that is this “absolutist trump card” has led to an age where personal feelings now trump scientific consensus—international scientific consensus at that.
As seen in the Google Trend analysis above, the phrase has become more common over time. As the Times article points out, those who work in academia see it more and more among their younger students. For me, this is completely understandable; given cancel culture, I completely understand why people want to hedge everything they say. I categorize these people into two main groups. The first group that hedges does so as a proactive defence. Simply put, they are so scared of getting cancelled, and as the article points out, “no one could blame them for wanting to back away from confrontation.” Nowadays, it is really quite easy to have your life ruined, or at least your online reputation ruined. Those who are public figures have to be especially careful.
The other main group consists of people who do not want to be challenged. Their reasons for not wanting to be challenged may align with “laziness” ideas mentioned in the article. They might also be more nefarious. For example, the anti-vaccine crowd wants to state unfounded ideas with absolute confidence and without the rigours demanded by science.
What may be encouraging or demoralizing is that this “pseudo-self-awareness”, although not exclusively American, seems decidedly more acute in the United States. In my experience — maybe this is also a cop-out way to begin a sentence! — Europeans are far more likely to state their opinions and stand behind them. Not all American trends cross the Atlantic, so let’s hope this one has a hard time making the jump.