Facts & Feelings

This morning one of my Unitarian Universalist friends dropped a quote (from some unknown source) on her Facebook feed. On the surface, this quote seems to be a nice reminder that we ought to be aware of and considerate of other people’s feelings. But the subtext is not quite so nice. Here’s the quote:

When you debate a person about something that affects them more than it affects you, remember that it will take a much greater emotional toll on them than on you. For you it may feel like an academic exercise. For them, it feels like revealing their pain only to have you dismiss their experience and sometimes their humanity. The fact that you might remain more calm under these circumstances is a consequence of your privilege, not increased objectivity on your part. Stay humble.

I’m more than a bit skeptical about the phrase “and sometimes their humanity.” What does that mean? It seems to mean that if you disagree with someone, they may think that you think they’re sub-human. But am I responsible for the mistaken ideas of everybody around me? That’s too great a burden to expect anyone to bear. For one thing, it involves mind-reading. I’m also worried about “academic exercise.” The implication here seems to be that citing facts and being logical are an ivory-tower activity that is somehow irrelevant. I don’t buy it.

Another strange implication here is that the objective use of the intellect (in an “academic exercise”) automatically dismisses the experiences (and presumably the emotions) of the person with whom you’re discussing a topic. The implication is that one cannot possibly use one’s intellect and articulate one’s intellectual ideas while simultaneously accepting another person’s statement about their lived experience. In order to accept the other person’s statement, one must shut down one’s intellect. That’s what the quote implies.

I have a sort of friend (she unfriended me a couple of years ago, but we’ve known one another for many, many years) who suffers from this cognitive distortion. When she expresses an opinion — let’s say, about the existence of “God” — your only option is to agree with her. If you attempt to point out facts that are not consonant with her position, or even ask her to clarify her position, she interprets your comment as a personal attack. She once claimed that emotions were different from feelings. I asked her to define her terms. She not only refused to do so, she got angry at me for questioning her.

Now let’s talk about objectivity. If someone is experiencing strong emotions during a discussion, by definition they will find it difficult to be objective. That’s the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. For that reason, it’s simply true that someone who is emotionally unaffected will quite likely be more objective. That’s what the word “objective” means. It’s also the case that even someone who is quite calm can be suffering from all sorts of cognitive distortions, or from simple ignorance, so calmness does not necessarily imply correctness! But the remedy is not to tell the person to “stay humble.” The remedy is to use logic and evidence to point out where the person has lapsed into poor thinking.

The subtext of the message quoted above involves postmodernism. As I understand it, Critical Race Theory is rooted in postmodernism. (The book Cynical Theories discusses this in great detail. I recommend the book highly.) Postmodernism denies the existence of objective truth. In the postmodern view, the only reality is what each individual thinks it is. On that basis, if someone says they have been harmed, then ipso facto, they have been harmed. There is no objective test that can determine whether or not they were actually harmed. Their statement of their lived experience must be taken at face value.

Unless, of course, they’re white and male. If you’re a white male, your experience is dismissed, because it’s assumed that you’re coming from a place of privilege. This is how Critical Race Theory works.

We need to talk about “privilege.” The quote states that calmness “is a consequence of your privilege,” but that’s not necessarily the case at all. Your calmness may be a result of the fact that you have worked through some emotional issues that the other person hasn’t worked through for one reason or another. Though the word “white” is not used in the quote, the reference is quite clearly and specifically to white privilege. That is, we’re being advised that when a person of color (again, not identified as such, but that’s what the quote is talking about) reacts emotionally, you are remaining calm because you’re white. And that’s just plain old racism.

What if another person of color is the one who remains calm? Is that because of their privilege? Probably not. This is how slippery it gets when someone tries to advise white people while pretending that they’re not talking about race.

One other detail needs to be noted, I think: One can be very humble indeed and yet remain objective! The last two words there (“stay humble”) imply that if one were humble, one would not attempt to be objective. That is, objectivity is being confused (quite deliberately, I would guess) with arrogance. And that’s grotesque. As an intellectual proposition, it’s beneath contempt.

I suspect that many people are not equipped to see the subtext in a message of this sort. They will take it at face value, as a reminder to consider the feelings of other people. But in reality, it’s a message telling you to shut off your intellect. It’s straight out of 1984.

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2 Responses to Facts & Feelings

  1. Jay Kiskel says:

    I have been increasingly disturbed with the rising notion in UUism that we are no longer able to see the inherent worth and dignity in one another. That the unifying glue of UUs Seven Principles is losing its cohesion. It was not always this way.

    In 2010, Rev. Peter Morales, then the Unitarian Universalist Association president, said at a rally of yellow-shirted Standing on the Side of Love UUs protesting Arizona’s “papers please law,” “We suffer with, not separated from the other. That’s a deeply spiritual experience.”

    “We suffer with, not separated from the other,” would have been a better quote to drop on Facebook.

  2. Marian Elizabeth Hennings says:

    I am weary of the claim that those of us who value reason and evidence are denying the humanity and dismissing the pain of others simply by disagreeing with their point of view. Such hyperbole does nothing to advance sensible discourse or problem-solving.

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