Feelspeak is the new language of television. It's a way of talking without saying anything -- TV is the illusion business, after all -- but also of appearing to be terribly profound on human matters. On fact and fiction TV, personalities who master a few code words and buzz-phrases can feelspeak almost endlessly, and do.
To the hoary cliches like "very special" perpetuated by television, we can add all those urgings to "express your feelings," to "get in touch with your feelings" and to love your feelings. Thinking is not mentioned so much. No, thinking is hardly mentioned at all, because it takes initiative and intelligence to think, and not to feel.
Naturally, The Big Feel started in Southern California, as anyone could guess. When Ohi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker to "trust your feelings" in "Star Wars," he was sanctiflying a theology hatched in the minds of shrinks, therapists, druggies, est-ees, bodybuilders, health foodists and other denizens of the Deep Me Decade. In the wacky and wonderful West, the hot tub passes for a think tank, but it's not a thinktub. It's a feeltub.
Through Marlo Thomas, the philosophy traveled to America's heartland and Chicago's Phil Donahue, who morning after morning in his . . . syndicated talk show urges guests to express their feelings, share their feelings and, or course, feel their feelings. "What are your feelings about" so and so, he will ask, or he will implore guests to say how they "feel now" about something they have been through or how they felt going through it.
If people are asked what they think -- it does happen -- what they're usually being asked for is their opinion, which can be a product of their feelings, rather than any kind of rational conclusion reached through logic or deduction.
TV movies are often written in a delirious state of feel consciousness. ABC's recent "Freedom," about a rich girl's battles with her divorced mother, ended happily when the girl got in touch with her feelings. "I'm here for you," said Mom. "But I'm only me. Take what you need." That's feeltalk. Exposing oneself as an emotional creature is now considered an act of personal courage second only to hugging a member of the same sex. Oh, the self-realization of it all!
Realizations not directed toward the self aren't any more welcome than a Susan B. Anthony dollar.
The attitude has permeated American culture to an impressive if dismaying degree. It surfaces in news programs and documentaries (like the recent Capital Cities special "For Better? For Worse? The American Family") as well as in television's desultory pop fictions. You're as likely to find secularly sanctimonious feelspeak oozing from Geraldo Rivera or David Hartman as from sappy Alan Alda on "M*A*S*H." John Davidson's talk show is full of it; unctuous film "critic" Gene Siskel doles it out in heaps on the PBS "Sneak Previews"; lousy-actor-turned-gushy-emcee Gary Collins on the syndicated "Hour Magazine" serves it en brochette.
Madison Avenue has of course adopted and circulated feelspeak with a vengeance. Hence, "It's nice to feel, so good about a meal, so good about Kentucky Fried Chicken." And Toyota is not so much a car as "oh, what a feeling." They've all but given up on making provable practical claims for products, opting for the new cuckoo-banana approach. Madison Avenue isn't selling soap any more, nor is it selling cleanliness; it's selling to good feeling you get from using soap, the self contentment and satisfaction.
Perhaps never in history have so many people been told so often to feel so good about themselves. What is it doing to them and their concept of reality?
Commerical television is not a glorifier of language, it is a debaser. It is directed at lowest-common-denominator vocabularies in addition to lowest-common-demoninator everything else. Pedants who rail about injuries to the language are tiresome, of course, but when a society devalues its symbols to this degree, what is left? Cheap words may cheapen human experience as much as cheap drama and cheap comedy do; when all people are exposed to is chic simplisticism, day afer day and night after night, they lose sight of whatever really is grand or noble, or even genuinely "special," about being human and able to think.
If someone were to come on television and say "trust your thoughts" or "trust your brain" instead of "trust your feelings," and millions of people took the advice, trusting to intellect for a change, they would by definition have to do the logical if unthinkable thing: They would have to turn off the set.