Facts, Feelings, Values, Politics

Updated: Feb 19

[May 2019]

Ben Shapiro - Photo credit Gage Skidmore

Making the curious but concerning journey into the world of YouTube politics, it is impossible to travel far without encountering the phrase ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ [FDCAYF]. Coined by American lawyer, intellectual and part-time PewDiePie guest, Ben Shapiro, this phrase has become a mantra for thousands of conservative and right-leaning youths across the English-speaking world, and a supposed trump card played in innumerable online debates.

While it would be all too easy to dismiss FDCAYF offhandedly as just another political banality (because it is), it is also an articulation of a dangerous belief held in certain parts of an increasingly important political arena. In the world of social media politics, Shapiro, his ilk and his followers have seized the initiative and used memes, videos and newsfeeds to carry themselves, FDCAYF and its unsavoury connotations to a prominence and influence worth analysis.

To call FDCAYF dangerous may seem an overstatement, as taken literally the phrase is perfectly unobjectionable. Indeed, taken literally the phrase is all but meaningless, rendered so by an incredibly narrow scope which covers no more than the claim that undeniable facts – empirical data, logical truths etcetera - are unresponsive to emotions; water will boil at one hundred degrees Celsius whether you like it or not. A platitude not worth even stating, as even those who scrutinise the values underlying the scientific method rarely question the hard data garnered from rigorous experiment.

Tellingly, however, it is not often in philosophical discussions of the scientific method that the phrase arises. Rather, it is in the political and moral spheres and in these spheres it operates like a Trojan Horse, smuggling along with it claims that are much more substantial, and much less undeniable.

Take Shapiro’s comments on two of the modern right’s greatest hang-ups; the transgendered and abortion. Shapiro said of Caitlyn Jenner:

‘forget about the disrespect, facts don’t care about your feelings… every cell in Caitlyn Jenner’s body is male… how he feels on the inside is irrelevant to the question of his biological self… someone who is biologically male is a male’

On abortion, Shapiro retorted to a question by the BBC’s Andrew Neil by claiming:

‘my answer is something called science. Human life exists at conception; it ought to be protected’

Even If, for the sake of brevity, we grant Shapiro and his pro-binary, pro-life crusaders their interpretation of the science and accept (hypothetically) that both statements start from ascertained facts, it is obvious that neither finish there. The relationships between biological sex and gender identity and between an embryo and human rights (of both it and its mother) are the primary issues in these debates, and the explosive disagreements which surround them are symptoms of, among other things, neither being settled matters of fact.

What Shapiro is really stating in both quotes are prescriptive values. Regarding transgenderism, he is saying biological sex should take primacy in issues of gender identity; regarding abortion he is saying that embryos should be treated as fully human from the moment of conception, and afforded the same rights.

And here we come to the issue. If the world is to be divided between facts and feelings, values will inescapably fall in with the latter. The human inability to logically infer values from facts is one of the most intractable problems of philosophy, highlighted by everybody from Protagoras to David Hulme to Bob Dylan. Rather than admit this and face the insurmountable task of logically arguing from a fact to a value, or the difficult but possible task of pitting one’s values fairly against another’s, in their use of FDCAYF Shapiro and his followers use a sleight of hand to attempt to pass their values of as facts and dismiss opposing values as ‘mere’ feelings.

This is even more dangerous in the political sphere, as politics is in its nature a game of values. Questions of how resources should be allocated or how far individual liberty should extend can be informed by scientific or statistical fact, but they cannot be decided by them. Yet FDCAYF is both a symptom and a cause of a belief expressed by many online commentators that while the political left deals with transient feelings and emotion, the right has adopted as its sole currency the cold hard cash of indisputable fact.

Accusing political opponents of flippancy, inconsistency and dubious motives is, of course, the standard. But presenting one’s own political opinion as indisputable fact is a dangerous move that can easily entail, or at least advocate, the silencing of dissenting opinion. So while Shapiro and his chorus are correct in the most narrow sense, they are quite incorrect about something much more significant, and it is important that they are shown to be so. Facts may well not care about your feelings; politics most certainly do.