Lexicon Valley

Not Feeling It

It’s hard not to feel at least some of the feels seeing this man carry this puppy above the floodwaters after tropical storm Fung-Wong hit Manila, Philippines, in September 2014.

Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

In the wake of Jonathan Chait’s attack on political correctness for New York, there were those who felt passionately that Chait’s approach was blinkered, and those who felt, equally passionately, that he had diagnosed a rot in the grain of left-wing discourse. Jessica Valenti responded with a defense of P.C. in the Guardian, and her husband, Andrew Golis, tweeted the link like so:

Feel some feels. Along with all the feels and right in the feels, the phrase is everywhere, especially online. I could have picked any number of tweets or posts to back into a discussion of feels, but there’s something right, I think, about siphoning from the molten geyser of emotion unleashed by the Web’s controversy du jour, a polemic animated, in fact, by the belief that our sensitivities—our feels—are clouding reason, strangling dialogue.

The feed-lurker knows little of the language of marital love, so I have no idea how much Golis meant his tweet to be a playful ribbing and how much it was meant offhandedly. But the term, as it is often used, carries with it the whiff of condescension. “Feels” do not seem like an honorable, instructive, or meaningful thing to have. More mild skin condition than noble Romantic sentiment. As a diminution of feelings, they call out for some kind of conversion formula: Five feels equals one-third of a human emotion. Talking about your feels can be a charming eyeroll or ironic shrug, a way of distancing yourself from your reaction. Attributed to someone else, “feels” are more of a dig; the word challenges the legitimacy and/or authenticity of the transport, downgrades the intoxicating swoop of vintage rage to a trickle of Natty Boh in the veins.

To be really reductive about it: According to Jonathan Chait, the P.C. movement is corrupt with “feels”—emotions that shouldn’t be taken seriously because they are false or opportunistic or unreasonable or inconsequential. According to Jessica Valenti, marginalized people have feelings—emotions that should be taken seriously.

There’s a proud artistic tradition of disowning or complicating your feelings through wordplay around the word feelings. You see these moves a lot in the hypermasculine world of hip-hop. Prince Royce is “stuck on a feeling” as if it were a branch snagging his jacket. Drake sings about catching feelings as if they were the flu. A woman has Rich Homie Quan “feelin’ some type of way”—Yes, I am having an emotion. No, I am not going to describe it—the sexy open-endedness of “some type of way” adding to the moody, tough-guy glow.

Know Your Meme has a useful rundown on the genealogy of feels. In 2010 the phrase I know that feel, bro turned up on a German message board; an Urban Dictionary user submitted feels as a shorthand for feelings in 2012. Soon after came right in the feels, an expression of emotional woundedness sometimes accompanied by a GIF of a man getting hit in the balls; another popular GIF showed a Spirited Away character buffeted by ocean waves of feels. Now #feels is a Twitter hashtag that will expose you to branded tweets (Budweiser wants us to know that it is “happy to provide the #feels” with its goofy commercials) and Sam Smith fans, among others. Feeling your feelings, once a phrase for dippy self-help manuals, has morphed into feeling all the feels, a bloggy announcement of self-awareness. (The substitution of a definite article for a personal pronoun, er, feels like another distancing technique, whimsically suggesting that anyone who managed to turn on their “feels” would feel what you are feeling.)

Online, we are light-years from the Victorian drawing room or Wordsworthian countryside, where fine feeling marked a cultivated soul. Feelings come cheap on the Internet, which is so stuffed with emotion it can be embarrassing—basic—to have one of your own, though probably not as deadly as having no reaction at all. A lot of people on the Web feel very ardently about stuff. A lot more people on the Web like to scoff at or troll the first group. It makes sense—if you want to be neither a cynic nor a big soft target—to preface your emotional responses with a self-deprecating acknowledgment that you’re adding to the din. So much of Internet irony—the #firstworldproblems tag, the cute fuming emoji expressing exasperation or anger—is about calling yourself out before someone else can do it for you.

Which could mean (à la Valenti) that we are blind to the legitimacy of certain emotional responses. Or (à la Chait) that we are too intolerant of those who disagree with us. Does anyone else feel that these two writers are actually saying the same thing?