What I most clearly remember from the 2016 Presidential Election was a bumper sticker with the enlightened message “Trump 2016: F*** Your Feelings!” Four years later, after a harrowing election and a moralizing society even more at war with itself, this is the message we desperately need.
For feelings have conquered the world, at least if we are to believe William Davies’ book Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World. Presciently written a few years ago, it fits 2020 to a T ‒ a year where feelings mattered more than usual and facts were troublesome details to be ignored and shoved aside.
The book is centered around one quite ridiculous notion: that no difference exists ‒ neurologically ‒ between words and physical harm, that we’re constantly in a “nervous state,” not quite at war but never fully at peace.
This seems odd and irrelevant for most things until we realize what Davies has taken aim at: the essence of the premise that supports Western liberal democracies. In a pop-culture phrase, it’s “Live and let live” ‒ or “You do you, girl,” while I do me (Legal scholars may recognize that same idea in “An Englishman’s home is his castle.”) Contrary to almost every civilization that came before it, the West’s legal and political foundation holds this to be true and has followed the ‘harm principle‘ of John Stuart Mill:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
With Nervous States, Davies has mobilized an ingenious challenge to this doctrine: if we redefine “harm” to mean whatever we want it to mean, we can rule over others. If your speech causes me discomfort, that’s harm. If your clothes offend me, that’s harm. If your moral or political opinions are different from mine, you’re harming both me and everyone else that I am angelically trying to help. If you’re objecting to my spending of the public money, you’re harming the people I say I intended to help.
And on and on it goes in a cycle of increasing preposterousness. Davies reflects on the opioid pandemic of a few years ago and the rapid increase in reported pain that has been a social and political football in the U.S. and the U.K:
“Because the body in pain can be neither fully rational nor at peace, it simultaneously undermines the Cartesian divide between mind and body and the Hobbesian opposition between war and peace, and so threatens the very idea of a rationally chosen, scientifically governed society. Nervous voters make for nervous states.”
We feel that we are in pain, we feel that something blatantly untrue is true and damaging us (immigration, global warming, pandemic disaster, racial violence, crime wave or whatever the issue may be), which to Davies both undermines reason as a procedural aim and justifies the very feelings that undermine it. And we can’t correct it by showing facts to people, as experts from economists to public health educators like Hans Rosling or optimists like Steven Pinker or Johan Norberg have naively attempted, because:
“If people don’t feel safe, it doesn’t matter whether they are objectively safe or not […] Telling people that they are secure is of limited value if they feel that they are in situations of danger.”
Civilization-destroying stuff, if taken to its logical conclusion. For how do we tell someone that they are wrong, if not by telling them that they are wrong…?
All of this is delivered to us in a most splendid performative contradiction. Davies is not merely recounting his feelings on the topic, but actively trying to persuade his readers that feelings reign supreme using words, logic, and reason to do so. He is not painting a powerful story that makes me feel that he is right; he tries to persuade me, using words and reason. That is, he appeals to our minds and rational capabilities to ask us to reject them. It is, to put it mildly, not exactly convincing.
Though Davies probably did not predict the pandemic, his theory fits 2020 expertly as everyone is now a threat. We walk around one another on very real eggshells. Nobody knows where the virus is, or when and where it spreads ‒ which means that any interaction with other people of any sort is a risky venture, with the capital-letter Harm looming over us like the sword of Damocles.
Unless, of course, you follow the government mandated hoops which may or may not help to limit the spread. Or wear cloth before your face, which doesn’t seem to help you and probably doesn’t help those around you. Whether it works or not is not the point: it feels like it’s working, and therefore it’s right.
Through Mill’s harm principle, that fleeting threat also seemed to lend credibility to strong government actions ‒ and explains why so many libertarians, in usual times strongly attached to the values underlying the West, found themselves siding with governments that strip its subjects of rights, choices, and freedom. From Mill they learned that state power may only be wielded to protect harm against others; with this new virus, harm was everywhere. Governments could therefore righteously do almost anything to its population and these Millean libertarians stood powerless to oppose it.
Double down on madness
If you thought this was enough nonsense for one 272-page book, you are sorely mistaken. In lengthy and pretty obtuse prose, Davies dives far into the dichotomy between facts and feelings, getting further and further away from sanity as he does.
With economic and social inequality, Davies maintains, aggregate facts produced by far-away experts ‒ statistics, mainly ‒ don’t “capture lived reality for many people.” For somebody without a job, the unemployment rate is 100%, as confused economists are prone to say ‒ and consequently the official labor statistics are useless. Us data-focused and reality-constrained truth-seekers haven’t understood that there are other moral and political priorities than “numerical aggregates and averages.” We don’t understand that statistics, published and curated by experts, don’t “provide a common picture of reality on which strangers might all agree.”
Here’s what Davies and those praising his ideas have overlooked: lived reality is not a thing, at least not a thing that concerns the rest of us. Your lived experience of “getting poorer” when you’re actually getting richer is not something the rest of us must take into account. You’re simply wrong, as Hans Rosling forcefully expressed in a much-viewed video clip with a fact-resistant Danish journalist. Facts aren’t subject to individual feelings, which is why we use them in civilized discourse. Your “lived experience” of poor health and premature death, when the general ‘you’ is living substantially longer than their ancestors, is just wrong. Your “lived experience” of oppression, when living in the freest and least discriminating society in history, is similarly wrong. That your feelings tell you otherwise is not reason enough to publicly broadcast them, let alone trust them as indisputably obvious.
The reason this perspective trumps the feelings-only is, as Steven Pinker has compellingly explained, that it’s the only moral way to describe the world since it values everyone’s experiences equally. What the proponents of feelings are saying ‒ whether in its backward right-wing version or the woke left-wing version that Davies personalizes ‒ is that my experience and my (mis)understanding of the world matters more than everyone else’s. That’s fundamentally cruel and unsuited for a world that knows better.
Anticipating my objections, Davies writes that “economists will argue that free markets are a peaceful way of improving the lives of everybody, but the reality of capitalism can sometimes feel closer to war than to peace.” And naturally, all along the libertarians and the economists are to blame: Davies spends a full chapter on the early Austrian economists’ attachment to subjectivism.
Selectively procuring quotes from Hayek, Mises and Schumpeter, he attempts to show that subjective experiences of the world are what run economies, and therefore these neoliberal economists are at fault for the feelings-only society we find ourselves in. I leave it to the reader to decide whether that makes sense, that Austrians have had that much influence, or if what Davies says therefore follows (hint: no).
What Davies has delivered in Nervous States is populism (of the bad kind) fused with post-modernism into an indecipherable soup of contradictions from which he does not emerge. Had he merely wanted to investigate this worrying challenge to the basis of Western civilization, that would be one thing, but he seems to wholeheartedly agree with the feelings-only view. If that were the case, I wonder, why would you bother writing a book about it, with citations, statistics, and arguments, in a sense trying to reason with the rest of us?
Christopher Ferguson wrote recently in Quillette exactly on this tendency to take others’ feelings greatly into account:
“Individuals will say that a speaker or a piece of writing has caused them to become distressed or sad or angry or frightened, and they will support these claims with allegations of ‘harm’ or even threats to their ‘right to exist.’ […] Reasonable debate and discussion then becomes impossible as activists make unfalsifiable but furiously emotive claims about alleged threats to their safety and wellbeing amid much weeping and claims of exhaustion and mental fragility.”
The creator of that 2016 bumper sticker was on to something.