On Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver delivered a really entertaining bit on the duel between–or conflation of–facts and feelings that played out during the Republican National Convention:
We talk a lot on this blog about the vested interests present in any interpretation or identification. Appeals to facts and empiricism all too often present them as implicitly neutral or self-evident. Vaia Touna calls our attention to the sticky wicket of interpretive acts in this post, for example, on the hermeneutical quicksand that attends reading maps and recording history.
So I grant John Oliver’s hilarious and biting critique, especially in his role as a comedian whose job it is to show the seams of political rhetoric and pandering as they play out in a presidential contest. His piece provides a nice opportunity, though, to think about the occasions that make us prone to chastise or cling to feeling-speak. When does reliance upon feeling look ridiculous (the interview with Newt Gingrich is my favorite part of the whole thing), and when does it appear as an insight into otherwise ignored experiences? We privilege presumably internal states of feeling all the time, after all. Think any romantic comedy you’ve ever seen ever. Or, from a different perspective in the political sphere, people were asked to “feel the Bern.” In scholarly circles, I find a similar impulse when that complex category “experience” is at stake. The question really is whose feelings are valued and whose aren’t in any given case. The problem with right-wing politicians invoking their emotions is not that feelings are necessarily an obvious or diametric opposite of facts. The problem is more to do with, er… the fact that those same politicians have demonstrated a tin ear for the articulated feelings of other groups they identify as marginal or cutting against their own interests. The same is true on the left, to be sure. When these contradictions appear so publicly and directly in a convention watched by millions, they’re just a bit easier to recognize.
In the field of religious studies, the same political investments in the rhetoric of feeling can be seen in discussions of belief. But so many folks still want to think about the category as internally animated, allowing it to be condemned or privileged depending on the circumstance. This idea calls to mind Donald Lopez’s take on belief (one that makes an appearance here on our blog in this Cites post, incidentally): “[T]he statement ‘I believe in…,’ is sensible only when there are others who ‘do not’; it is an agonistic affirmation…Thus a statement of belief is a convention appropriate to a specific situation, sanctioned by a history and a community.”
During this election season when just about everything sounds like an agonistic affirmation, it’s good to keep in mind that nothing stands isolated outside of political combat. Even feelings.