Mikitish: Imprecise language

Sometimes, I feel like, especially here at Yale, people can sometimes speak in a somewhat indecisive way.

“I feel like …”

Ugh! What a horrible expression! I remember that, when I was in high school, there was a certain clique that had a habit of referring to every meritorious work, person, or deed as “amazing.” “That movie was AMAZING!” “Mr. Such-and-Such is AMAZING!” And so on. Needlessly to say, this became amazingly annoying.

However, here at Yale, that insidious expression, “I feel like …” is even more rife. Unlike the AMAZING plague, however, this crutch of lame-spoken Yalies both signifies and perpetuates a real problem in our attitudes and intellectual culture.

On one hand, since we were young, we have been taught to use words decisively. (This is why our English teachers are always crossing out passive sentences.) We learn that removing qualifiers like “In my opinion …” is not a sign of arrogance, but rather one of confidence. Confidence is effective and persuasive. These “personalizing” expressions invalidate the persuasive force of the speech (or, in the case of writing, simulation of speech) in other ways as well.

After all, who cares about “your opinion?” Shouldn’t we be concerned about what is, rather than how each of us, individually, “personally speaking,” feels it is?

This might strike many readers as crassly insensitive. But that’s just the problem. From primary school on, we place too much emphasis on self-esteem. While in some instances such a concern is legitimate, often it is not. Teachers must make sure that all “opinions” are equally valued. But, when we value all “opinions,” the search for truth is reduced to a search for self-satisfaction. If everyone validates my “personal truth.” then all I seek is a “personal truth” with which I am comfortable.

I have no need to look behind the next door, peer beyond the curtain; I stop looking for what is real.

At a university, it is this search for truth that should be at the center of our academic, or more broadly, intellectual, experience. Otherwise, what are we doing here? We can selfishly seek ourselves at any school, in any place, at any time. If you only want to find self-affirmation, fine. But why do it at Yale?

Now being a Yalie is rather satisfying. We are an exclusive club. We are the best of the best, supposedly. But we are afraid to be wrong.

This fear is what makes so many of us cower behind an emotional, intellectual and verbal wall of “personal opinion.” That’s why, so often, our conclusions are couched in our “feelings.”

Whether we’re talking about literature or history, sociology or linguistics, “personal interpretations” reign supreme. It’s only behind another wall, that of Internet anonymity, that we feel free to speak without qualification. And often, we use this opportunity to do nothing more than attack others — another flaccid exercise in self-validation.

I’m certainly not immune to this pestilence which infects our speech (even if I try to avoid using such expressions) any more than I’m immune to the feel-good-about-yourself-and-your-opinions disease which cripples our campus (and even national) dialogue on nearly every political and social issue of our day. The roots of the problem stretch deep into our society and consciousness.

But before taking mattock to the stump, we must first cut down the tree. Start by tackling the surface problem. Just make an assertion without a timid “I feel like …” tacked on. Not only will save yourself some breath and others a headache, but you’ll be making a step, however small, towards a healthier, more open, more honest, less selfish, culture.

Comments

  • Matthew Mitcheltree

    May I propose someone write a counter-opinion piece in defense of the first person?

    When executed effectively, “I find that’s” and “to me’s” certainly don’t detract from an argument’s integrity, especially in particularly controversial spheres of argument. In alluding to the degenerate discourse of the internet, perhaps this author undermines his own thesis — I would argue that it is exactly this dissociation of author and claim that has driven web discourse toward employment of stronger, less justifiable, more dangerous assertions.

    To me, an argument is only as effective as its supporting evidence, and is only as responsible as its author. Perhaps counterintuitively, to the extent that a work of expository writing acknowledges its authorship by a single, human author with opinions and biases, the arguments contained therein can ultimately hold more water.

    Matt Mitcheltree

  • Hitch2

    I’m starting to really like this guy.

  • Incognition

    As my HS English teacher used to say, you don’t have to say it’s your opinion, because it cannot be anything BUT your opinion. As Clinton would say, let’s get into a fact-based mode and compare the arguments – it’s just easier to do when language is direct and precise.

  • ted

    It’s unfortunate that not everyone who goes to Yale speaks a uniform, prescriptivist dialect of English. At least that way it’d be a lot easier to be overtly classist.