Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair

#6: Do Facts Care About Your Feelings?

July 05, 2023 Jarrod Blair Episode 6
Virtue Vibes with Jarrod Blair
#6: Do Facts Care About Your Feelings?
Show Notes Transcript

The slogan, "facts don't care about your feelings," which has been popularized by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, has gained a lot of traction in recent years. In this episode, I discuss what I take to be the underlying truth behind it, as well as the ways in which it is quite misleading. I then use these observations as a springboard to dive into a broader discussion about the proper relationship between feelings and reason, and why this is important for living a virtuous life.

Outro music: "Jazzy Hip Hop Boom Bap" by Music_Unlimited on Pixabay

Intro music: "Lofi Heavy Chill Bass & Keyboard" by Phill Dillow on Pixabay

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Do Facts Care About Your Feelings? 

 

Welcome back to Virtue Vibes, the podcast where we think hard about how to be good. I’m your host, Jarrod Blair, and today we’re gonna ask the question, “Do facts care about your feelings?”  

It’s a battle as old as time: Reason vs Emotion, Spock vs. Captain Kirk, use your head vs. follow your heart. In this round, we have facts in one corner vs. feelings in the other.... Let’s get ready to RUMBLEEEEEEEE!!!!! 

All joking aside, I have been curious about the relationship between feelings and reason for quite some time, so I’m really excited for this episode. I actually wrote a journal entry back in 2012, that goes as follows:  

"Emotions? Rationality? When would it ever be best to subject our reason to our emotions? Is it not ALWAYS the other way around? Should we not strive continually to filter how we feel about a situation through the grid wires of sense and reason?” 

I've definitely added some more nuance to my views since then, which you might hear throughout this episode. But what brought my attention back to this topic is a new slogan that I’ve encountered in the last few years.  

In the U.S., there’s a popular conservative political commentator by the name of Ben Shapiro who’s coined the slogan, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” He usually uses this line as a zinger when responding to someone who uses their feelings to establish some claim, like a biological male who identifies as a woman, or a person who claims to be oppressed because they feel threatened or attacked in some situation. After responding with the quip, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” he then goes on to reason about what he takes to be “the facts,” while setting aside any mention of those pesky feelings that were getting in the way of inquiry. 

This is quite the catchy slogan, and I think I understand the underlying point behind it, and I agree with that underlying point. However, this is a pretty misleading way to make that point. So in today’s episode, I'll first explain the sense in which I agree with the slogan, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” I’m then going to explain why I think it is a highly misleading slogan. And I’ll end by discussing why this question is important for anyone who is trying to lead a virtuous life. With that being said, let’s get into it.  

 

---Interlude--- 

Feelings manifest in your body in a variety of ways, like when you feel tension in your whole body when a bully enters the room, or when you have a burst of energy after hearing some great news, or when your heart flutters in your chest as you work up the courage to tell someone you want to be more than friends.  

And these feelings don’t just affect our bodies, they also lead us to believe certain claims. For example, a spouse who feels lonely and neglected may start to believe that their partner is cheating on them. But it’s entirely possible that the lonely spouse is wrong, and has misinterpreted the situation. Perhaps their partner is on thin ice at work, and the feelings of job insecurity have made them become withdrawn and distant, which gave their lonely spouse the impression that they are being cheated on, even though it’s not true. 

Notice that the feelings of loneliness and being neglected are quite real, whether or not there is any cheating happening. But the claim that those feelings led to, the claim “my spouse is cheating on me...” THAT can be factually true or false, which is why we need to bring along all of our reasoning capacities to help us determine the answer. 

As for the feelings themselves, the raw sensations, it’s not possible for them to be incorrect, because feelings aren’t the kind of thing that even can be correct or incorrect. Is a fluttering heart ...true? Is anger welling up inside you ...false? Sounds weird right. That’s because the raw sensations themselves are not claims, so they can’t be true or false. They’re not that kind of thing. The fact that you are having those sensations can be true or false, so you may or may not be in love, and you may or may not be angry, but the raw sensations involved in feelings themselves are neither true nor false.  

The raw sensations can, however, be inappropriate, or out of place, for the situation at hand. When I was teaching English in Japan, I remember trying to talk to one of my middle school students who was doing his best to communicate with me in broken English. At one point, he replied to my request by saying, “Okay Okay Okay,” in roughly that tone. I flinched. His three “Okays” felt to me as if he were being dismissive of me, or as if he was annoyed by my request. I felt offended at first, and then I felt sad that this wedge had come between me and my young friend. It was only after spending more time in Japan that I began to realize that these three “Okays” said in that tone was somewhat of a set phrase amongst my students, and there wasn’t the slightest hint of annoyance or dismissal behind it. I also learned that “Okay” was one of the few words that my students felt confident knowing when to use it, so one could hardly blame them for flourishing their grasp of it just a little by repeating it three times. “Okay Okay Okay” 

I was originally offended, but my feelings of offense were out of place, and needed to be re-calibrated, which I realized as I learned more about my setting. In other words, my feelings of offense were inappropriate for the situation at hand.  

So there’s something that’s right about the slogan, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” which I think is this; it’s entirely possible for you to feel something that leads you believe some claim that is completely incorrect. In other words, the claims you make based on your feelings can be wrong.  You might feel that your partner is cheating, when in fact they are not cheating. It’s also possible for the raw sensations of feelings themselves to be inappropriate. You might feel offended in some situation, like when a schoolchild says “Okay” in a way that sounds mean, but the sensation of offense you feel might be out of place, and maybe you should work on not getting angry at small schoolchildren haha.  

If this is the underlying message behind the slogan “facts don’t care about your feelings,” then I am completely on board. These may sound like simple truths to you, but trust me, they are in fact highly contentious in many circles today. We would do well to remember them, because they help to provide a healthy sense of humility and open-mindedness necessary to properly understand our world and each other. 

 

-interlude--- 

 

So now that I’ve explained the sense in which I agree with the slogan, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” let’s talk about why I think it’s quite misleading, which is the reason I don’t use it. Let me explain my reservations with an example.  

You’ve probably seen what happens when you submerge a pencil halfway in water in a clear glass. If the pencil is tilted and leaning on the edge, and you look through the side of the glass, then the pencil appears to be broken and cleanly split at the water-air interface. This is a well-known science experiment that teachers use to demonstrate how light defracts, or changes speed, once it goes into the water. Now, imagine a young girl named Lucy, whose eyes are beaming brightly into the side of the glass in amazement at this illusion that the teacher, Mr. Smith, is showing her. 

Lucy: “Woooaaahh,” Lucy exclaims, “Look Mr. Smith, the pencil is broken!”  

Mr. Smith: “Not quite dear. The pencil is actually just fine.” 

Lucy: “No it isn’t... Look, I can see it with my own eyes. It’s broken!” 

Mr. Smith: “You are quite wrong Lucy. And facts don’t care about your eyesight.” 

Lucy: “Oh,” Lucy sighs...  

 

This would be quite a misleading thing for Mr. Smith to say, right? And it might confuse poor Lucy, because he’s making it sound like eyesight is irrelevant to answering the question of whether or not the pencil is broken. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, eyesight is one of our most useful tools in discovering facts about the world around us.  

Instead of quickly dismissing the relevance of Lucy’s eyesight, a better response would have been to explain how this optical illusion works, and why our vision can misguide us at times even though it’s usually helpful. It might also be good to explain to her some of the other ways in which we know that the pencil is still straight and intact despite appearances. Some examples would be the fact that dipping it in water couldn’t have the force required to break it, or that when you pull it out it’s straight once more, which means that it probably didn’t break and then reassemble once it’s pulled out of the water. Explanations like these would help Lucy to place her visual experience in a wider context of inquiry, and it could help her to comprehend why things aren't always as they appear to be. 

Now let’s make the analogy clear. Feelings, just like vision, are an incredibly powerful tool for helping us to learn about our world. They help us to learn about ourselves and our own values ( think of pleasure, guilt, excitement, deep joy, etc.) They also help us to sense attitudes and feelings in others (love, hate, deceit, attraction, goodwill, etc.), and to sense many other things in the world (danger, opportunity, beauty, scientific hunches etc.). Feelings are relevant to the discovery of facts, just like eyesight is relevant to determining whether a pencil is straight or not.  

Think about some time when you were having a conversation, and then you felt that something was wrong about what they said, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. Maybe it just made you feel uneasy, or angry, or confused, but you needed time to process and think more about what they said. Then, after some reflection and introspection, you figured out what was wrong, and perhaps wrote it down in your journal. Experiences like this are common, and they show how our feelings play an important role in our efforts to understand our world.  

This is why it's quite misleading to say that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” It makes it sound like feelings are irrelevant to the discovery of facts. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, feelings are one of our most useful tools in discovering facts about the world around us. 

However, just like with optical illusions, emotional illusions can cloud our view of reality. Contrary to what many folks might tell you, feelings are not sacred. They are not fool proof. And they can sometimes lead us astray, so it’s important to have some humility about what our emotions are leading us to believe. This is why it helps to remember all of the other tools of inquiry we have available to us, like reason and logic, and feedback from others who might help us to understand any emotional illusions we might be experiencing. But we shouldn’t write off feelings altogether in our pursuit of truth. Even though they have their flaws, emotions are still a powerful tool that help us to piece together our varied experiences and to make sense of the world around us. 

 

---Interlude--- 

So this is all very interesting, but what does any of this have to do with leading a virtuous life? How does thinking hard about the role of emotions help us to be good? I've made two central observations so far. Firstly, that our emotions can be inappropriate, or out of place, and they can lead to incorrect beliefs. My second observation was that emotions play an important role in understanding the world around us. Both of these observations have valuable implications for the way we help others and the way we allow them to help us.  

Let’s start with the first observation; that our emotions can be inappropriate and can lead us to incorrect beliefs. I think that a mature person who is well aware of the imperfections of their own emotions will be far more open to hearing new perspectives and receiving advice from the people they trust. They might even be motivated to seek out this kind of feedback, because they understand that their emotions could be leading them astray, and they want to have an accurate map of the world in order to navigate it well. Some of the feedback they receive will be mistaken, and the mature person won’t blindly accept all of it, and they’ll know when to trust their gut. Nevertheless, they will remain curious and open to the possibility of receiving truly helpful feedback that could dispel any emotional illusions they might be experiencing. 

The immature person, on the other hand, who thinks their emotions are infallible, has no need of such feedback. Their emotions are like a god, whose words are absolute truth, and so anyone who questions what they are feeling must be a force of evil, the enemy. Immature people like this are bound live a life filled with emotional illusions, because they inevitably lose access to an incredibly valuable source of emotional course-correction, namely, the insights and perspectives of other people.  

As for my second central observation, that emotions play an important role in understanding the world around us, we would do well to remember this when trying to give feedback and advice to friends and family. We shouldn’t dismiss what their feeling so quickly in the name of facts, because their feelings really are relevant. Even if the actual content of what they’re saying is mistaken, one should wonder, WHY are they feeling that way? What exactly is it about the world that their feelings are responding to, which might be leading them to say these things? It will take time, patience, and mutual trust to answer these questions, but if together you are able to discover the source of any emotional illusions that might be present, and to articulate precisely the real features of the world that those emotions were responding to, then you will have truly helped both them and yourself to gain a better understanding of how to navigate this life well, which is what the virtuous life is all about.