Anyone who has ever sought to persuade another that their feelings on a subject are irrational knows that it’s a waste of time. Feelings aren’t based on reason; they’re feelings. Ultimately, it always devolves into, “well, that’s how I feel,” and the time spent discussing it is lost forever.
We used to be a society that embraced the “sticks and stones” mantra, which has since fallen into disrepute. For many, it’s been replaced with the assertion that hurt feelings are every bit as real and painful as broken bones, and for them, this is not an issue worthy of discussion. That’s how they feel.
But the substitution of tangible harms with emotional harms has become a driving force in the call for new crimes outlawing and punishing things that give rise to hurt feelings. Bullying, for example, has become a huge issue, despite its defiance of any cognizable definition and the inability of criminal laws to define the parameters of unlawful conduct in a way that allows a person to know, before he commits the “crime,” that what he’s about to do is criminal.
Almost invariably, whether or not the conduct forms the basis of a crime is dependent on the reaction of the “victim.” I put “victim” in quotes because of the inherent circular reasoning, a person cannot be a victim unless the conduct is criminal, and the conduct is criminal because of its impact on the victim.
Historically, the law was wary of overly sensitive people. Different people have different thresholds of sensitivity; some will be cut to the quick by a look, while others won’t be bothered no matter what you say to them. To base a crime on the peculiar sensitivity of another person is to provide no line at all for criminal conduct. How does one know when he’s hurt someone’s feelings so badly that conduct goes from being lawful commentary to unlawful bullying?
We know when a bone is broken. We don’t know when a feeling is hurt.
But given that many are dedicated to the notion that hurt feelings are the equivalent of broken bones, and are prepared to abandon all objective measure in order to stop the harm they feel needs stopping, there is no arguing the point. That’s how they feel.
The question remains, however, whether those who feel so deeply that feelings are a sufficient measure of criminality are helping or hurting their own cause. When someone we care about feels badly, our natural reaction is to comfort them, to try to cheer them up, to make them feel better. We do this not to vindicate some societal right to retribution against the party causing the hurt feelings, but because it mends the hurt. The point is, we try to help.
Granted, break a bone and a doctor will set it, but he doesn’t urge you to lie there, feel the pain, get angry, and angrier, at the person who broke it, and suffer, beforehand.
Is it beneficial to encourage people whose feelings are hurt to wallow in their misery? Does it make their situation better or worse to perpetuate the hurt, to emphasize it and to empower those who suffer from hurt feelings to suffer as long and hard as possible?
Past discussions of these issues, most notably with regard to workplace bullying, raised some very strong feelings, if not much thought.* But then, there can be no rational discussion when feelings are involved, and if you don’t give their feelings the compassion they feel due, you just don’t get it.
It’s fine to advocate for civility, courtesy and compassion as a human behavior, and most of us (myself included) could do far better in this regard. But this isn’t a question of encouraging civil behavior, but criminalizing uncivil behavior by elevating the hurt feelings to the level of harm like broken bones. Or rape. Or murder.
Wouldn’t we all do better, and be far happier, if we ended this adoration of feelings and encouraged people whose feelings were hurt to let it roll off their backs, not let it bother them and move on to better, happier things? That won’t happen if we spend our time harping on the hurt, reliving the misery and encouraging people to wallow in it as much as possible.
So if you really care about other people’s feelings, about your own feelings, why aren’t you choosing the path that alleviates the hurt as quickly as possible and returns us to the comfort of knowing that just because some jerk said something mean to us, we will get past it and be fine? While “sticks and stones” may be a nursery rhyme, that doesn’t make it bad advice.
Ask yourself, would the people whose feelings are deeply and sincerely hurt not be better off if they were able to brush it off rather than wallow in them? We that not help everyone to feel better?
* Yes, I realize that those who disagree with me will immediately resort to attacking me and calling me mean names. The irony eludes them, of course, because irony, like reason, has no role to play when it comes to feelings.