“Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
– Ben Shapiro
“Upon occasion, every now and then, some people get a feeling that isn’t real. They may think that it’s real, it may feel very real, and they may truly believe it’s real, but it’s just a feeling. It is wise to remember that, as important as emotions are, feelings aren’t facts.”
-Barton Goldsmith, PhD
“Anyone who has ever kissed a married man or woman because of a strong “feeling” can tell you this: feelings are, at best, fifth in line to the throne — sultry, like a bearded Prince Harry. But they’re no Queen Elizabeth demanding Prince William stand the hell up during an RAF air display.”
I’d assume most people who maintain any level of interest in politics are familiar with Ben Shapiro. Regardless of your agreement or disagreement with his positions, it would seem hard to me for you to argue that he isn’t an intelligent and principled person. Remember, it is very possible for two intelligent and principled people to arrive at very different conclusions. One of the phrases I most associate with him is one he began saying in order to combat the SJW ideology that rapidly permeated through colleges and universities in the past few years, and even seeped a bit into the wider culture: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” I have no idea if he was the first person to say this or not, but, I think it’s fair to say he popularized the saying.
At some point during my web browsing yesterday, I came upon an article that had a title that hurt my brain: “Debunking the Myth That “Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings”.” If you want to fully understand the remainder of this post, you might want to take a few minutes to read through it.
Done? Ok, let’s continue.
First, let’s get to that title. It is, quite literally, saying that it is a MYTH to say that facts do not care about your feelings. In this context, this title, taken at face value, is saying that the idea that facts don’t care about your feelings is a widely held but false beliefs. The statement is absurd. If facts cared about feelings, then facts would change based upon how we felt about them. I would challenge anyone to provide a single example of where this is the case. I’m going to go ahead and make the bold assertion that it cannot be done, and then I’m going to move on, because, if you read the article, you know that the article itself never really makes any arguments about this claim anyway.
He begins by seeming to completely misunderstand the meaning of the phrase “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” He says: “It’s catchy, and a great play on words. But it’s wrong.” Then he proceeds to illustrate its falsity by pointing out that Republicans, like Democrats (and really all human beings), still sometimes base their arguments on emotions rather than facts. It’s not that he’s wrong when he says that, it’s that he fundamentally doesn’t understand the meaning of the phrase he is trying to argue against.
Ben Shapiro, and, to my knowledge, no other influential conservative political figure, has never argued that no Republican ever bases their arguments on emotions. That isn’t what the statement means. The statement is saying that facts are facts regardless of how you feel about them, and your feelings won’t change the facts. It implies that facts have greater value than emotions. It also proposes that arguments based on fact are better than arguments based on emotion. In other words, ideally, all of one’s positions and arguments are based primarily on reasoned evidence and not emotional response.
Multiple times in the article, he makes the claim that humans are irrational, seemingly in the sense that humans are in fact incapable of rationality. He includes an interesting quote about how when people are in an over-emotional state they will behave irrationally, or form irrational opinions, but otherwise doesn’t seem to attempt to back up his assertion. I have no problem at all agreeing that when people are reacting to events that cause extreme emotional states they are prone to forming bad ideas and dangerous policies as a result. A prime example of this is how congress responded to 9/11, by passing the PATRIOT act, which continues to abridge our freedoms. Or take a look at the response to virtually any mass shooting (which are incredibly rare, unless you decide that any shooting in which 3 or more people are injured is a mass shooting. This itself is a great example of forming one’s opinion based on emotions and then attempting to frame the facts to support that opinion).
Whether or not humans are capable of rational thought is very important. If we aren’t, then by extension science is inherently flawed and anything that it has given to us is at best a happy accident. That would extend to all of mathematics as well. It would also mean that there is no such thing as rationality, except perhaps in an esoteric or figurative sense. Given that it is extremely unlikely that science is fundamentally flawed in that way, given how much it has benefitted us, I feel comfortable using all of our scientific advancement as proof that humans are capable of being rational.
Of course he isn’t wrong that humans also behave irrationally. It is fair to say that we are not purely rational beings. We respond in both rational and emotional ways, and the degree to which we do each is largely based on the related circumstance. Ideally, we are able to keep the emotional part in check. The closer that we are to a situation, the more likely we are to respond emotionally, rather than rationally, to it. The mother of a child who died from a drug overdose is unlikely to be capable of forming a rational opinion on the best way to deal with the issue of drug addiction.
During the most recent Presidential campaign, Libertarian candidates Gary Johnson & Bill Weld were on CNN for a town hall, and CNN trotted out such a person to ask them about their position on drug control. For all his faults, Johnson campaigned on a very reasonable position, that legalizing marijuana would ensure that safe marijuana, not laced with any other drugs, would prevent deaths. This mother was incapable of hearing anything other than “we will eliminate all drugs so no one can ever use them again”, which is, of course, impossible.
Emotions aren’t without purpose. It is because we feel sympathy for those who are addicted to drugs that we try to come up with a means to help them. But basing the entirety of our argument on that emotion accomplishes nothing.
He uses the example of arguments against admitting Syrian refugees to show an emotional argument from Republicans. I don’t question that perhaps many Republicans arrive there in that way, but, he also sets up a straw man in his argument. Here it is: “It’s what convinces you that Syrian Refugees are dangerous after reading a story of how the FBI captured one Syrian Refugee terrorist.” It simply doesn’t follow that if you don’t think we should accept Syrian refugees, then you believe that all Syrian refugees are dangerous.” People that believe they are all dangerous are certainly among the vast minority, even if you ask only conservatives. Whether or not they have reached the correct conclusion is irrelevant, but it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that it is not worth the risk to allow Syrian refugees to come here from a rational perspective.
There is one part of the article that I actually like a lot… the section just before the conclusion, where he offers what I feel is quite sound advice regarding working to reduce your emotional level. Ironically, it is completely in line with the meaning of the quote he is supposed to be arguing against.
Right after my favorite part of the article comes the part that hurts my brain more than the title of the article. At the top of his conclusion, he writes: “Instead of this brash naïve statement that “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” let’s go with “Feelings don’t care about your facts.” It’s more inline scientifically, wouldn’t you say?”
No, I would not say. The statements are equally true and not mutually exclusive. Facts and feelings very frequently have very little relation to each other. I might feel that you did something just to spite me, but perhaps your motivation for taking whatever supposed action was completely unrelated to me. In such a scenario, I feel hurt, but the fact is, you didn’t take said action to spite me.
The remainder of the conclusion is a continuation of his team-based mentality, essentially boiling down to “Nuh-uh, we democrats have the facts and we aren’t basing our arguments on emotion!” Never mind the fact that he just made the basis of his entire argument that people aren’t capable of arriving at positions based on rationalism. Obviously, there are intelligent and principled democrats. There are people in both major parties (and also in minor parties) that hold views that I would argue are impossible to arrive at rationally. But obviously, the inverse is also true. Sometimes, a person might have rationally worked out almost all of their positions, but on just one they have allowed emotions to dictate their position.
There are definite differences in the ways that liberals and conservatives think (I don’t know if there are studies that explore other political opinions, such as libertarians, but I’d be interested to see them). It doesn’t seem that there are any solid conclusions that can be drawn just yet, except to say that there are physical differences in the brain. Whether it is causal or consequential is, so far as I am aware, still an unknown.
The takeaway is this: Learn to identify when you are responding emotionally to an issue. Identify why the issue makes you feel that way, identify the perceived problem, and temper your emotions. Critically and rationally consider the best way to resolve the problem. Perhaps you will discover the problem is different than what you thought it was in the process. Follow the facts to whatever the ideal resolution seems to be. If the facts change, be willing to re-evaluate and change your mind. If you do this, you will be a principled individual, capable of intelligent and productive discussion. And then you can save the world from the over-emotional crybabies who try to shout down everyone they disagree with.