Critical Feeling

In March I published this piece on “Critical Feeling” in Inside Higher Ed


With the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories and claims of hoaxes and stolen elections, educators have been asking why so many people so easily find themselves misinformed or downright deceived. Is it the human need to belong to like-minded groups? The power of social media to accelerate the filtering of information to suit preconceived ideas? We should have by now recognized the bottomless ability of those in power to lie with impunity, but the signs are not encouraging. So many Americans continue to rush off to seek the comfort of like-minded groups, heedless of whether those groups misinform or mislead.

Educators often insist that in order to strengthen our ability to resist being misled we should become better at critical thinking. And that’s understandable. For more than 50 years, educational theorists have stressed that colleges should help students determine what kinds of information are most reliable, what makes a good argument and which kinds of fallacies are associated with particular contexts of persuasion and enforcement. The Foundation for Critical Thinking points to “universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth and fairness.” Even if one has one’s doubts about the universality of how these values take shape in in particular situations, teachers can enhance students’ appreciation of these values and, in turn, their resistance to being misled.

Yet as I think about my own students, I find myself at least as concerned with critical feeling as with critical thinking. The Norwegian psychologist Rolf Rieber has argued that “critical feelers can interrupt inappropriate feelings, use feelings to extract information about the state of another person or of the environment, and are able to change the external environment and internal states in order to be able to spontaneously perform appropriate actions by following the lead of feelings.”

It’s the “following the lead of feelings” that interests me most, given that we have been so misled due to the manipulation of emotions over the last several years. The previous presidential administration corrupted the news media with alternative facts, to be sure, but it also damaged the very soul of the public sphere by manipulating emotions — by stoking racism, xenophobia, mistrust and, perhaps most of all, resentment.

More thinking alone isn’t an antidote to this manipulation of feelings. As theorists as different as Judith Butler and Bryan Garsten have pointed out, Trump used resentment to fuel the revenge of the shamed — arousing a sense of empowerment in those who felt deplored, condescended to, dismissed. The tendency to find scapegoats for one’s misery isn’t confined, of course, to Trump supporters. Rejecting another person as being beyond the pale — be it called “canceling” or labeling someone “the enemy of the people” — provides pleasures of righteousness across the political spectrum.

Critical thinking alone will not turn us from such pleasures; reason alone never supplants sentiment. We need critical feeling — practiced emotional alternatives to the satisfactions of outrage. Outrage today is braided together with self-absorption, with the tendency to intensify group identification by finding outsiders one can detest. The outrage of many Trump supporters, often fueled by racism, targets enemies in elaborate conspiracy narratives. Among the intellectual set, outrage is sublimated into irony, allowing the chattering class to police the borders of its in-groups without overtly subscribing to their norms. One can humorously dismiss outliers without seeming to hold any beliefs of one’s own.

How to use critical feeling to dislodge these tendencies? Teachers do this all the time when we enthusiastically introduce works that students find foreign or offensive, when, as Mark Edmundson puts it, we teach what we love. We do this by using Shakespeare to expand their capacity for empathy, or when we use James Baldwin to deepen their understanding of racist betrayal. When we help students to appreciate a character in a novel who is not wholly sympathetic, or to admire an argument even when it runs counter to their own assumptions, we are expanding their emotional registers as well as intellectual ones. When our teaching invites students to occupy identities and ideologies they would never encounter in their own curated information networks, we are enhancing their consideration of the power of emotions.

When my students try to understand why Aristotle made his arguments about habit, why J. J. Rousseau saw inequality linked to the development of society, what Jane Austen meant by vanity as an obstacle to love or why Toni Morrison’s Sethe holds what haunts her, they are exercising their empathy and strengthening their power of generous insight. Whether or not they are engaging in what Merve Emre has called critical love studies, they are becoming more aware of how their feelings are aroused or redirected. In being willing to make emotional as well as intellectual connections to ideas and characters who disturb where they are coming from, they broaden where they might be willing to go. If we want our students to learn discernment and not just critique, we must give them more opportunities to consider ideas and emotions that they wouldn’t encounter on their own.

Expanding the repertoire of feelings has long been a goal of liberal education. Through history, literature and the arts we make connections to worlds of emotion, creativity and intelligence that take us beyond our individual identities and our group allegiances. The exercise of critical feeling should make us less susceptible to demagogic manipulation and to the misleading politics of resentment. It should make us more understanding of why other people care about the things they do.

By exploring the complexities of the world, our students practice making connections that are intellectual and affective. And in a political and cultural context that encourages crude parochialism under the guise of group solidarity, helping them do so through increasing their powers of critical feeling is more important than ever.

Go Positive!

It’s been more than a little depressing to listen to debate performances over the last couple of months, in which candidates seem to gain in popularity by refining a formula of indignation and hostility. “How dare you,” says the candidate, puffing out his chest, wondering how any questioner could sink so low to ask about a character flaw. The same candidate then dives even lower to cast aspersions on anyone who might be considered a rival.

The research tells us why the candidates “go negative.” It works. SuperPac donors know where to invest, and they are investing in negativity in a big way. The Wesleyan Media Project research shows outside money “went from about 3 percent of total ad airings in the 2008 race to almost half, about 44 percent, in 2012.” As we leave Florida and head out to Nevada, I’m afraid we can only expect more of the same.

I’m embarrassed to say that one of the key places where candidates and citizens acquire a taste for — and skills in — negativity is higher education. For decades now, we have promoted a culture of criticism in which you show how smart you are by tearing apart somebody else’s ideas. That’s a lot safer than showing how you might build your own set of ideas into something meaningful. In my recent book, Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past, I urge my colleagues to go beyond this culture of criticism to practices of creative exploration. The first off-campus reviewer of the collection couldn’t resist bringing up my dust-up with Zonker Harris. Here is an excerpt from one of the essays in the book, “Beyond Critical Thinking.”


I doubt that this [cultivation of negativity] is a particularly contemporary development. In the eighteenth century, there were complaints about an Enlightenment culture that only prized skepticism and that was only satisfied with disbelief. Our contemporary version of this trend, though, has become skeptical even about skepticism. We no longer have the courage of our lack of conviction. Perhaps that’s why we teach our students that it’s cool to say that they are engaged in “troubling” an assumption or a belief. To declare that one wanted to disprove a view would show too much faith in the ability to tell truth from falsehood. And to declare that one was receptive to learning from someone else’s view would show too much openness to being persuaded by an idea that might soon be deconstructed (or simply mocked).

In training our students in the techniques of being critical, we may be giving them reasons to remain guarded — which can translate into reasons not to learn. The confident refusal to be affected by those with whom we disagree seems to have infected much of our cultural life: from politics to the press, from siloed academic programs (no matter how multidisciplinary) to warring public intellectuals. As humanities teachers, however, we must find ways for our students to open themselves to the emotional and cognitive power of history and literature that might initially rub them the wrong way, or just seem foreign. Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.

But the contemporary humanities should do more than supplement critical thinking with empathy and a desire to understand others from their own point of view. We should also supplement our strong critical engagement with cultural and social engagement by developing modes of teaching that allow our students to enter in the value-laden practices of a particular culture to understand better how these values are legitimated: how the values are lived as legitimate. Current thinking in the humanities is often strong at showing that values that are said to be shared are really imposed on more vulnerable members of a particular group. Current thinking in the humanities is also good at showing the contextualization of norms, whether the context is generated by an anthropological, historical, or other disciplinary matrix. But in both of these cases, we ask our students to develop a critical distance from the context or culture they are studying.

Many humanities professors have become disinclined to investigate with our students how we generate the values we believe in, or the norms according to which we go about our lives. In other words, we have been less interested in showing how we make a norm legitimate than in sharpening our tools for delegitimization. … If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative rather than as critics of normativity, we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public culture. This does not have to mean an acceptance of the status quo, but it does mean making an effort to understand the practices of cultures (including our own) from the point of view of those participating in them. This would include an understanding of how cultures change. For some, this would mean complementing our literary or textual work with participation in community, with what are often called service-learning courses. For others, it would mean approaching our object of study not with the anticipated goal of exposing weakness or mystification but with the goal of turning ourselves in such a way as to see how what we study might inform our thinking and our lives.
The fact that language fails according to some impossible criterion, or that we often create misunderstandings in our use of it, is no news, really. It is part of our finitude, but it should not be taken as the key marker of our humanity. The news that is brought by the humanities is a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear in the languages people use the possibilities of various forms of life in which we might participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are not just becoming adept at exposing falsehood or at uncovering yet more examples of the duplicities of culture and society. We are partially overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand something from another’s artistic, philosophical, or historical point of view. … Of course hard-nosed critical thinking may help in this endeavor, but it also may be a way we learn to protect ourselves from the acknowledgment and insight that humanistic study has to offer. As students and as teachers, we sometimes crave that protection because without it we risk being open to changing who we are. In order to overcome this blindness, we risk being very uncomfortable indeed.

My humanities teachers enriched my life by showing me details and patterns and relations. In so doing, they also helped me to acquire tools that have energetically shaped my scholarship and my interactions with colleagues and students. It is my hope that as guides, not judges, we can show our students how to engage in the practice of exploring objects, norms, and values that animate diverse cultures. In doing so, students will develop the ability to converse with others about shaping the objects, norms, and values that will give substance and character to their own lives. They will develop the ability to add value to (and not merely criticize values in) whatever organizations in which they participate. They will often reject roads that others have taken, and they will sometimes chart new paths. But guided by the humanities they will increase their ability to find together ways of living that have meaning and direction, illuminating paths immensely practical and sustaining.

 cross-posted from Huffingtonpost