The Facts of Feelings


John Oliver’s show covering the RNC convention had an extended piece in which he examined the Republican party’s embracing of feelings over facts—or rather, that the Party is willing to equate and substitute the two interchangeably. It was in the standard vein of Oliver’s mentor, Jon Stewart, whose tenure at the Daily Show was defined by what he called “the war on bullshit”. The main adversarial forces in this war were the media, being led by Fox News, but politicians were routinely in the spotlight as well, peddling misleading statistics, ambiguous aphorisms, and outright lies in order to further their political agenda. Oliver’s monologue on the subject showed just how clearly this trend has taken over the Republican Party this year, and he delivered an articulate lecture on just how pernicious that can be for politics, for society, and for reality.

Truly there is a major problem with purporting that facts and feelings are interchangeable. Although there is an entire field of philosophy that engages in the subject of knowing—can we be certain of anything and what is the difference between thinking, believing, and knowing?—for all intents and purposes it is clear that just because you feel something does not make it so. But the issue is not so black and white. The example used in the Oliver clip—during an exchange between Newt Gingrich and a reporter—of crime and safety (Gingrich claimed that people felt unsafe, and told the reporter she could keep her facts on the lowered crime rates) can be used here as well. To deny that our country is safer in the face of statistics that show lower rates of crime is simply erroneous. However, the assertion that people nevertheless still feel unsafe is not only possibly true, but enormously important as well.

The fact is fact and feelings are not the same nor, as John Oliver emphasizes, are they interchangeable. But exactly for that reason, it is likely, common, and possibly inevitable that people will harbor feelings that go against any or all facts. Gingrich could very well be correct in saying that people feel unsafe, despite the fact that crime rates are down. Many people are scared of plane crashes even though statistics make it exceedingly clear that it is far more dangerous to ride in a car than an airplane. We can hope that facts influence people’s feelings, but even someone who knows and understands the latest crime statistics has the prerogative to feel unsafe. They may live in an area where localized crime is high or they may live in an area of utter peacefulness where their fear is baseless and ridiculous—they may even know how ridiculous their fear is, yet harbor it nonetheless.

Even if Gingrich is right about the state of people’s feelings, though, that does not mean that he is right in waving off the facts. This is the point that Oliver was making: you cannot substitute feelings for facts. Just because Americans feel unsafe does not mean it is unsafe. Statistics—facts—say the opposite.

Yet the feeling of Americans is important as well. In this election cycle, Republicans have capitalized on fears of the American people—and fanned them into hysterical flames—because they understand the political power of feelings and have decided that it is of greater weight than the political power of facts. They may not be wrong. The reason that Gingrich told the reporter to keep her facts is not because he did not need them, but because he did not want them. Those facts went against the feelings that his party has been fueling itself on. Those facts would douse the fear.

This is where it becomes clear this is not just an issue of politicking, but an issue of nefarious politicking. Playing on fear encourages the politician to maintain that fear, and spread it into as many people’s hearts as possible (at least until after the election). Republicans (this cycle at least) want to make people afraid.  They want people to feel unsafe, because then they can say that Americans feel unsafe. They want people to feel like the economy is down, because then they can say that Americans feel like there is no economic growth. Oliver’s point was that many Republicans go the next step of saying that because the American people feel that way, America is unsafe and the economy is down. They substitute feelings for facts and that is inherently wrong. But feelings can truly exist even in the face of opposing facts. And Republicans have been amazingly successful at getting Americans to feel fear (in many forms) contrary to many hopeful facts.

If all Americans are afraid, that is a problem to be addressed. If Americans feel unsafe, that is a problem—but the solution is simply to stop lying to them and let them embrace the facts.

Along the path of public enlightenment that must occur, it is important to not go in the opposite extreme when differentiating between feelings and facts. That is, we must not demonize feelings, or say someone is wrong for feeling a certain way. Someone can live in a safe area and feel afraid. Someone can feel pessimistic about the economy even if all the right indicators are up. They should be exposed to as many facts as possible to show them how their feelings conflict with reality, but ultimately everyone is free to feel exactly how they wish—because there are good feelings too.

Someone living a crime-ridden city can feel safe. Someone down on their luck and out of a job can feel like the economy is doing fine. Everyone can hope as well as fear.

That really was the tale of the two conventions; the RNC got people united by fear and the DNC got people united by hope. Both sides used facts (to varying degrees), but both sides overwhelming fell back on (opposing) universal feelings. After all, the purpose of the convention is to motivate and inspire—the most potent fuel of which is feelings, not facts.

As unpleasant as it is to be afraid, it is wonderful to be hopeful. As damaging as it can be to hate, it is the most pure goodness to love. Feelings are so very important, not just in a campaign and inspiring people to vote, but in everyday life. Our health is affected by our feelings, and our actions as well. A hopeful person can do great things for their friends and family; a hopeful people can do great things for their country.

This is not a defense of those who attempt to dismiss facts and tout the power of feelings over what really is the case. The defaming of science and expert study in recent politics is truly abhorrent and does a great disservice to every level of our society. Absolutely the Republican Party must cease its attack on facts, its dismissal of science, and its knee-jerk reaction to anything done by “experts”. This has been a trend for many years and it has finally created a constituency that has become too boisterous for the party officials to control—it has given them Trump. The RNC must admit to the error of its way if it is ever to recover and step back from the path of ignorance, intolerance, and hate.

But we must learn a lesson from their fall; learn from that which they did too well. Embracing feelings is enormously important politically, but in reality as well. Not to elevate them higher than facts, or to claim that both are equal or interchangeable, but to simply understand that they are even more important in their own way. If people feel unsafe, that does not mean they are unsafe, but it means they feel unsafe. That is not good. There are many negative emotions that people should be protected from as much as possible, and that is the job of government: to create a situation where people can feel good. We must be guaranteed life, and liberty, and an opportunity so that we may pursue happiness.

Then, as much as we must stem the spread of fear, hate, and everything pernicious, we must encourage all the emotions opposite. Support it with facts, but give speeches full of hope, love, and happiness! Spread these good feelings so that people may live good lives and do good actions. Our current president knows the power of hope and has been exemplary in passing it down through his words and his actions. Politicians of both parties must embrace his example: good policies, good words, and good actions to inspire good feelings.

Keep on hoping.




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