The emotive impulse

I don’t know when or how the American experiment will end, but I am fairly certain that the dread day will find most of us texting or carrying about signs or otherwise expressing our deeply felt, ill-reasoned, poorly articulated opinions about it. This nationwide bout of narcissistic expression began, I am certain, with the first parent who let his child get away with saying “I feel” when he ought to have said “I think.” This slip was allowed, I imagine, because the child didn’t have any reason, or knowledge, or wisdom to justify an “I think” statement. But he just had to hear himself talk, so he went with “I feel,” and the nation has been adrift ever since.

I don’t object to self-expression within proper bounds, mind you. Tell your beloved how you feel. Pour out your heart to God. Crochet a furious little doily to express your opposition to warmongering for oil, or oil-mongering for war, or whatever it is that has put a bee in your precious little bonnet. What doesn’t get talked out, after all, gets acted out.

What I object to, however, is this practice of acting out our talk, based on a fantastically inflated notion of our own merit. This might shock you, Kanye West, but I don’t give a good gosh-darn about you, your music, or your opinions regarding who should or should not be winning whatever award they are passing about these days for best demonstrated ability to divorce culturally illiterate teenagers from their parents’ money.

And as for you, Joe Wilson, if my four year-old can keep his trap shut while I hear his brother’s point of view in some petty dispute, then shame on you and your parents, and on every member of your party who has resorted to the “they did it first” defense. If we’re going to start shouting like ill-bred schoolchildren every time we think we hear a fib, then that’s the end of political discourse in this country, as well as most  sermons, for that matter.

Just where did we develop the notion that our opinions are so desperately important that we are justified when we hurl them at people the way monkeys sling their poo? Sure, I have plenty of opinions, but you find them here, or wherever someone pays me to speak or write, presumably for audiences who know what they are getting into. You won’t catch me barking my opinions into my cell phone so that everyone in the airport can hear, or shouting down someone’s speech, or shuffling about in front of the White House with one of those signs which, no matter how cleverly the person has worded it, might as well just read: HAVE GONE OFF MEDICATION, PLEASE NOTIFY MY THERAPIST.

I understand that in a constitutional republic, people are afforded certain liberties to speak their minds. But we are also afforded, please let’s remember, the right to zip it. To keep a stiff upper lip. To grin and bear it. Because for the most part, our opinions are usually much more fascinating to us than to everyone else. Take it from a guy whose website address is his own name.

Comments

  1. Ed Chinn

    Oh, my, Tony. This is a little sledgehammer. I laughed so loud, I woke my dear wife and disturbed our 2 cats. Wonderfully and powerfully stated. Thank you!

  2. Mark

    Tony,

    I just discovered your site as a result of a fine post of yours, “Light beyond daylight”, shared by Brutally Honest. Defending neither Joe Wilson nor Kanye West, worth mentioning, perhaps, is the idea that civil discussion at some point may cease to be useful. The following excerpts do not refute your point, not would I like to. But, they do provide examples of the (legitimate, I think) intention to forceful expression and an interest in the opinions of others that may be worth a mention.

    “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

    AND..

    “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

  3. nichole

    True, true. As I told my daughter the other night, just because you can express your opinion, doesn’t mean you should — wisdom comes in knowing when. And by the grace of God, I’m still learning too!

  4. Dave

    Technologies like blogs, IMing, texting, and Twitter are blurring the lines between the ability to state an opinion and earning the right to be heard. That’s not original, I just don’t know to whom I should give credit. My wife and I started our day today by discussing what we seem to discuss many days; namely, how do we help our 15 year old daughter decrease talking and increase listening. A fool vomits out everything on his or her mind. That last statement is not original either by the way.

  5. Beth

    “This nationwide bout of narcissistic expression began, I am certain, with the first parent who let his child get away with saying ‘I feel’ when he ought to have said ‘I think.’”

    Oh, yes,oh yes! I am fighting the good fight here, Tony — “feel” is only allowed in my students’ essays if it refers to a state of being or literal touch. Otherwise, “I think” or “I believe” or, gasp, just state it boldly! I once had a student write “I feel like Jesus is my Savior . . .” Sigh. Pray for us teachers (and parents) to teach our youth *to* think, and then to own that thinking boldly and humbly. And to be examples of doing it well ourselves.

  6. Eli

    Yep. I almost always go back and edit my e-mails even to take out all the “i think”s and “maybe we could”s. If i didn’t think it i wouldn’t be writing it!

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