The Mountain Echo, a campus newspaper at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, reported this week that President Simon Newman had proposed culling the freshman class to improve the school’s official retention rate. The plan, ultimately thwarted, was to eject 20 to 25 students before the late September deadline for reporting enrollment data to the federal government. But it wasn’t Newman’s questionable ethics that caught the Washington Post’s attention; rather, it was the language he used.
“This is hard for you,” Newman said before a group of faculty and administrators, “because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
This mixed metaphor—or thorough murder metaphor, depending on how you see it—reflects a larger trend in how we think and speak about students’ feelings. It’s an idea expressed in far more palatable language by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their landmark Atlantic essay “The Coddling of the American Mind,” and by countless others ever since: that a feelings-driven campus culture needs to be replaced with tough love and cold rationality. In other words, it might feel wrong to drown the bunnies, but sometimes it’s for their own good.
With such language, Newman joins a national movement ideologically and financially invested in the idea that higher learning has gone soft, and can only be fixed by a lean-and-mean business mentality. But this rhetoric is based on a faulty premise: that feelings and rationality are mutually exclusive.
The media routinely covers student protests of all sorts as matters of “hurt feelings.” And when professors, me included, stand up to those trying to reduce student concerns to matters of hurt feelings, we’re circularly dismissed as part of the coddling apparatus. In the wider frame of U.S. politics, in which the university is equated with left-progressivism, portraying progressives as privileging feelings over facts—or the idea that for progressives “feelings are more important than logic”—has become a prominent and predictable strategy. The objective of this kind of rhetoric—which you’ll also find in abundance in #gamergate and #tcot social media circles—is to minimize, and sometimes to feminize, the grievances of a political or institutional adversary.
“Feelings” rhetoric works, then, by accepting the faulty premise that all grievance is a state of mind, and thus real-world injustices and power disparities are merely a figment of our emotions: It’s not that you’re hurt, it’s that you feel hurt. Such rhetoric is a tool that people of certain ideological persuasions—mainly “cultural libertarians” and anti-P.C. activists—use to disqualify the material grievances of oppressed groups, and thus to flatten the important distinction between feeling oppressed and actually being oppressed. This is precisely how, at Yale, racist Halloween costumes can come to represent free speech, but speech against racist Halloween costumes becomes a juvenile desire to have one’s “hurt,” “subjective feelings” “validated.”
It’s a fantasy to believe that where feelings are present, logic and evidence are not. If your spouse leaves you for another, you’re going to feel hurt; but that feeling is also predicated, quite rationally, on material upheaval, changes to your lifestyle, your shared financial obligations, your circle of friends and family. It’s likewise entirely reasonable for a black student to be angry when someone who doesn’t have to endure what she endures chooses a blackface party costume that disrespects her heritage or recapitulates the scars and wounds of her ancestral past. At the same time, the fact that she feels angry because someone else is ignorant or insensitive in no way contravenes two demonstrable facts: One, those past scars and wounds really happened; two, the racism that inflicted them then still produces related scars and wounds of another sort today.
Reason versus emotion is a false dichotomy. Even in that mythologized time of reason’s triumph—the Enlightenment—thinkers distinguished between the “passions,” volatile emotions that needed reason as a counterbalance, and the “affections,” a category of emotions accompanied by rationality. Pretending as if emotion always begins at the end or in the absence of reason is a widespread, relatively unsophisticated rhetorical tactic. So the next time you hear someone invoke the language and rhetoric of “feelings” to pretend to an elevated, rational position and minimize someone else’s concerns, ask yourself this: Are the grievances rooted in material conditions of oppression, like institutional racism or structural pay inequality? If they are—even if they’re accompanied by expressions of feeling—you may be experiencing an attempt to shut down the discussion by portraying real problems as matters of “mere” feeling.