Let Me Tell You How You Feel...

It's strange how we humans can be so different and so similar, all at the same time. I'm continually amazed at how often I find someone with whom I seem to agree on nearly everything, who then surprises me by saying or doing something completely, inexplicably identical to something a member of a group we both oppose would do. I'm even more amazed by how often I am forced to applaud someone to whom I'm completely ideologically opposed, because they did or said something with which I am completely in agreement.

Of late, I've been noticing a huge problem with communication. I'd like to say it's those silly supernaturalists, too dumb or misguided to really understand the debate, or something like that, but it isn't. Or rather, it isn't just! I see it as much or more among supposedly 'skeptical' or 'rational' folk as I do among believers, and it's utter death to mutual understanding.

It's the question of feelings. More accurately, it's the problem of denying someone else's right to feel the way they do.

We all have feelings, and they are a major component of our identities. They have unconscious sources within us, and they aren't rational or controllable. They just are. It's true that too often, we act on them without thinking things through first, and that's a very bad thing, but it's just as true that if we act without considering them, we ultimately find ourselves conflicted and unhappy. So why should that be any different in our consideration of other people?

My wife and I are in the midst of the BIG TALK® about babies. Since I'm an engineer, I am compelled to mercilessly research every potential failure mode in a proposal, and the biggest one I've found is my own utter unpreparedness for the psychological aspects of raising a child. So, I've been reading. One of the most interesting things I've found is that many of the bits of wisdom in dealing with your children seem to revolve around the idea that you have to acknowledge and accept your child's feelings, regardless of whether they make any sense. If a child tells you they feel sad about something ridiculous, the proper response is apparently "I'm so sorry you are sad.", rather than "No you don't, and here are all the reasons that it's silly."

The idea is that taking away someone's feelings is always interpreted as an attack, as it's a criticism of a deep part of themselves that they really are not responsible for. It's no different than telling a gay person that they aren't really gay, or a believer that they don't really believe. If you try to take away a person's identity, they will *always* react defensively, and shut down communications.

I see this everywhere nowadays. The religious apologist who tells unbelievers that they are really just angry at god, or that they really just want to sin. The atheist who tells believers that they are really just afraid of facing the truth, or that they really don't believe what they claim to. The radical feminist who tells men who disagree with her that they really just want to dominate deep down, and that they can't understand her position until they "check their privilege", or tells women who disagree with her that they really only do so because they've been "brainwashed by the patriarchy". Republicans really just want to institute theocracy. Democrats really just want to abandon personal responsibility and never require anyone to work again. Libertarians really just want to live in anarchy.

Most reasonable people understand that a personal attack is never an effective way to persuade. I just don't think most people get that telling someone else what they feel or believe is a personal attack. If we want to make actual progress, we need to start accepting one-another's feelings when trying to communicate our side of a discussion. A person's position may be invalid, but their feelings never are!

Logic is great! Attack arguments all you want. Accept no position unless it's true to your conscience. However, the moment you question motives, or project feelings onto someone else, you have instantly closed the door to further communication.

Just think about it, folks....

About the Author

Despite a decade of Catholic school, I have never been a believer. I guess I was just born without the gene! Nevertheless, I've always tried to explore others' ideas and practices, on the theory that just because you can't use one part of a product, it doesn't mean you have to throw the whole thing away.
I spent over a decade traveling the world, and I've lived in both Europe and the US. I've read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Koran. I've studied engineering, yoga, martial arts, shooting sports, and ballroom dancing. What I've discovered is that a) spirituality is just a spooky sounding word for any of a number of methods for learning about yourself and your mind, and b) whatever word you use, doing so is the single most important thing in learning to be happy.
My blog, The Passionate Rationalist (http://www.societyofreason.com/devoutrationalist) is dedicated to my thoughts both on gaining self-knowledge and using your mind to eliminate misunderstanding and delusion.