Identity: Knowing What It’s Like To Be Something

Like most people who hang around on social media, now and again I come across an exchange which goes like this: “I think such-and-such,” “How dare you think such-and-such? You’re not a so-and-so. I’m a so-and-so and because I’m a so-and-so I can tell you that you have no right to think such-and-such.” At the heart of such collisions is a serious question: how and to what extent does having a particular identity allow one to assert authority for one’s own truth claims as they relate to that identity and deny legitimacy to the truth claims of others?

How Do I Know What It’s Like To Be A Man? 

To some, the answer to this is axiomatic: being a man means that I know what it is like to be a man. It sounds commonsensical enough, and if it is the case then a bit of introspection should be able to back it up. Consciousness gives me access to a wealth of information: my perceptions, memories, emotions, desires, experiences, behaviors and so on. If being a man means that I know what man-ness is like then I should be able to construct my knowledge of it from there. Let’s start with one of my desires. I’m a big fan of dark chocolate. If my mind is not actively preoccupied by something else, its attention tends to wander Leopold Bloom-like to thoughts of that devilishly enticing confection. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean I eat chocolate every time I think about it. Countering my desire for chocolate is my ability to suppress acting upon that desire (perhaps responding to an even more fundamental desire to continue to exist past next Christmas). Is that part of what it’s like to be a man? Is some small aspect of man-ness connected in some way to a liking for chocolate? Or is it connected to the ability to resist the temptation?  Is man-ness reflected in the struggle? Is it connected with the strength or weakness of one’s will-power? I’m not going to try to define man-ness. I’m simply considering what the attempt to do so might look like. So, let’s imagine I’ve already gone through that process and each nugget of observation has been collected into a large gunny sack, which is now bulging with reflections on the nature of man-ness. If I’ve done a really thorough job, shouldn’t I now be able to declare with some confidence what man-ness is?

No doubt you will already have identified a number of problems with this method. First, I’ve being working on the basis that I can know man-ness simply from the contents of my consciousness. But what about all those instincts, desires, perceptions, experiences and so forth which rarely or never impinge upon my consciousness or perhaps were accessible to me in the past but aren’t any longer. It may be that a proper understanding of man-ness is impossible without being able to take such dark matter into account. Second, as in the chocolate example, the answer may lie in the way many different qualities combine and interact (desire and willpower, for example), making the search exponentially more complicated. Third, there is the need to assess all this material. As cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have demonstrated, my ability to reason will be afflicted by various bugs and biases. Fourth, I am, of course, not just a man. I am white, heterosexual and human. But I also have, or have had, a far larger number of mutable identities: teacher, Liverpudlian, atheist, father, husband, friend, writer, customer, patient, etc. Then there is the fact that I’m a child of the sixties, which will have provided me with a very different experience of life than that of someone born in the twenty-first century. How can I know if some desire, perception or behavior is a characteristic of being a man or of being white or heterosexual or human or one of my other numerous mutable identities? Finally, even if, by some unimaginably Herculean effort, I were to overcome all these problems, another difficulty awaits. How would I know that whatever it was I’d identified was man-ness? To know if these features are characteristics of man-ness, I need to have prior knowledge of what man-ness is, but that is precisely the knowledge I’m searching for. All in all, it’s hard to see how introspection on its own is up to the job. To get anywhere, it looks as though I’m going to have to go outside of myself.

How about if I go and speak to John, a friend who also happens to be a man? I could ask him if he knows what it’s like to be a man and together we could discuss our thoughts on the matter. That will allow us to narrow our search by filtering out many of the complicating non-man identities and enable us to focus on what we have in common as men. It might remedy some of the psychological biases and bugs in our analysis. As we’ve known each other for a long time, we might even be able to access information about each other not available via our own individual consciousnesses. Nonetheless, it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Obviously, if I involved more men that would be better. But how many men would I need to consult to be able to take all the confounding variables into account?  Given the many hundreds of millions of men in the world, it is unlikely that my personal interactions with, and observations of, other men could ever be anything more than anecdotal. To obtain information that would enable me to draw conclusions that were representative, I would need to go beyond the personal experience, either of myself or of others.

Fortunately, there is a large body of scholarly work that inquires into the biological, social and psychological characteristics of various identity groups, in particular those defined by gender. These characteristics are discussed in the form of averages, scores, probabilities and norm distribution curves. A man will have a certain chance of experiencing physical violence over a twelve-month period. He will have had a specific number of years of higher education on average. He will achieve a score of x on ratings of pain thresholds and tolerances. He will consume this or that number of units of alcohol each week. He will fall within some particular range on tests of introversion and extroversion. He will have an average reading score of this or that. And so on. There may be features of man-ness that are not measurable. What it is like to be something will always be an approximation, a matter of degrees of confidence, and bordered by uncertainty. Remember, we are considering the legitimacy of truth claims and assertions of authority over truth claims. It would be difficult to see how an absence of evidence could be used to bolster either legitimacy or authority. In fact, we don’t really have to define what man-ness is in precise terms at all. We are not searching for some sort of quintessence of man or a Platonic form. We only need to demonstrate that there are qualities, experiences, perceptions and so on that are consistently experienced by men. Whatever man-ness is, it has to have something to do with men. It would be absurd to posit the existence of man-ness in a world without men. As the information collected is representative of all men, to the extent, at any rate, to which it is statistically and practically feasible to draw that conclusion, we can reasonably claim that if I experience those characteristics then I know what it’s like to be a man.

It’s likely that the experience of most men won’t line up exactly with each average. In any representative sample of men and women, on average men will be taller than women although, of course, some men will be shorter than some women. That is the nature of averages. Would it make sense to say that a man of below average height could not know what it is like to be a man? Clearly not. It might be possible, of course, to say that he experiences what it is like to be a man differently from a man who is above average height. Now, if there were, for argument’s sake, a thousand such measurable qualities, most men would no doubt find themselves above average on certain measures and below average on others, accepting also that certain qualities might be weighted as more important than others. There would be some men, of course, who would find themselves consistently above or below average on a significant majority of these measures. In fact, it is entirely feasible that a few men would be below average on almost all measures. This raises the possibility of men who have more in common with an average woman than they have with an average man. Would we then have to conclude that such men know what it is like to be a woman more than they know what it is like to be a man? Taking that further, would we have to conclude that some men know what it is like to be a woman more than some women do (for instance, those women who scored closer to the averages for men than the averages for women)? Consider Saga Norén, the protagonist of the Scandinavian noir crime fiction series The Bridge. Her profound lack of empathy, coupled with her literalness and inability to read people’s intentions arguably mean that her male detective partner, Martin Rohde, knows what it is like to be a woman more than she does.

So, to what extent do you have to experience what it is like to be something in order to know what it is like? For instance, might a woman know, in a non-experiential sense, what it is like to be a man better than I do? Imagine a woman who was brought up in a household with a father, grandfather and several brothers, who attends schools in which there are equal numbers of male and female teachers and students, who enrolls for courses largely populated by male students, who embarks on a career dominated by men, who marries a man and has male children and who goes on to study men and masculinity and ends up becoming a very reputable scholar on the subject. Moreover, she possesses strong powers of empathy. Alternatively, I myself, although I am a man, may score significantly below average in terms of the measures of man-ness described above. It would be difficult to maintain that I know what it’s like to be a man better than she does.

This could be this case with other identities, too, including immutable identities such as those based on lineage and sexuality. Why couldn’t somebody who is black know what it is like to be white and vice versa? Or someone who is homosexual know what it is like to be heterosexual and vice versa? If you are of a particular identity you may be more motivated to inform yourself about what it is like to be that identity than somebody who isn’t, but that is not inevitably the case. And motivation alone doesn’t guarantee achievement. If you are of a particular identity, it may give you access to knowledge that a person who is not of that identity would find it more difficult to obtain, but access to knowledge—even experiential knowledge—relevant to a particular identity is by no means restricted to people of that identity. Then there the question of how you make use of that knowledge. Once a truth claim has been constructed, it stands or falls on its own merits, irrespective of the person making it. If I were to put together an argument about some aspect of man-ness and pass it on to a woman to deliver on my behalf it would make no difference to the strength or weakness of my case. The identity of the person making the argument doesn’t add some magical extra ingredient.

It is hard to see how having a particular identity confers special legitimacy and authority over the truth claims a person may make on matters relevant to that identity. It certainly can’t be used as a basis to claim a veto over the voices of others. Personally, I have no idea what it’s like to be a man, as strange as that may sound. In fact, I’m not even certain I know what it’s like to be me.

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  1. I largely agree with the article, but I don’t think it fully allows that “you don’t know what its like to be X” often means “you don’t know what its like for people to react to you in the way that they react to X” rather than “you don’t understand the interior life of X”.

    For example, attractive women and high-status men experience life very differently to unattractive women and low-status men, simply because of the ways that other people tend to behave towards them.

  2. I know what it’s like to BE me. The ideations. The qualia. The umwelt. The way my mind constructs reality inside my little skull. My inner monologue. The conversations I have with myself. The things that make me stressed, distressed, relaxed, hopeful, content.

    That’s about it though. I honestly know fuck-all about what it’s like to BE any other creature, of my species or any other, that has ever or will ever live. I’m an expert in myself only because of assiduous self-examination, copious tracking of real data on myself, huge tracts of my own writing, and introspective meditation both with and without the aid of tryptamines and dissociatives.

    The idea that any of this is relatable to another person of the same race or ethnic background, the same gender, etc. is ludicrous. Even the two people closest to me, my father and my brother, are total mysteries to me.

    1. “The idea that any of this is relatable to another person of the same race or ethnic background, the same gender, etc. is ludicrous.” Really? Not any of it at all? You seem to be implying that you have as much or as little in common with every member of the human race. Aren’t there just some things that you have in common with the people in your culture than, say, a tribal culture somewhere with little or no contact with the outside world?

      1. Yes. But we are individuals.

        The two people closest to me (genetically, in terms of lifestyle, in terms of geographic area, in terms of “experience,” etc.), my father and my brother, are still probably on the order of 95% different from me. If I could jump inside the mind of either of them for five minutes I would find an utterly alien apparatus with nearly none of the things that orient me to my world and my cumulative reality. Despite our similarities, every second of our lives has been experienced in a vastly different way — and this says nothing of the fact that the actual events we’ve each been through vary drastically from each other.

        I don’t know nor will I ever know what it is like to be my brother. I don’t know nor will I ever know what it is like to be a member of an insular tribal culture. You can say I have more in common with the former than with the latter, but we’re really talking about very superficial artifacts of the human umwelt, a crass constriction of an irreducible individually complex “selfishness” into statistical categories rather than actual knowing.

        No, I don’t go around thinking I know what it’s like to be a “white person,” or a “male,” or a “third-generation Danish-American guy,” or “straight,” or any of these other identity groups. Nor do I feel some kinship with others who fall within these groups simply because they do. I’m aware collective identification is in vogue today, but I think the biggest thing that connects us to each other is simply our humanness, and beyond that our person-to-person individuality is of vastly more import than our various identity categories could ever be.

        I think it’s a graceless compression of the human condition to pretend we can know what another experiences. Maybe in another 100 years of neuro-technical research and engineering it will start to be possible to do so. And I’m definitely not trying to argue for a post-modern interpretation of subjective reality or that there is no such thing as objective truth. Anyway, to this bit from the essay:

        __”I’m a so-and-so and because I’m a so-and-so I can tell you that you have no right to think such-and-such.” At the heart of such collisions is a serious question: how and to what extent does having a particular identity allow one to assert authority for one’s own truth claims as they relate to that identity and deny legitimacy to the truth claims of others?__

        …I would answer “by no means and to no extent does having a particular identity allow one to assert authority for ‘truth’ claims having to do with identity…” If we’re talking about verifiable statistics, facts, evidence, real-world happenings, etc., then we can certainly talk demographics, events, policy positions, etc. But the smug conceit that somebody could authoritatively and genuinely speak for the “experience” of an entire swath of individuals is just so much crusty nonsense.


        1. “I think it’s a graceless compression of the human condition to pretend we can know what another experiences.”

          ^ From my fourth full paragraph. Came back to add a counterpoint. I’ve heard the pithy saying, “there are only two things I love in this world: Dopamine and Serotonin.” And despite all of the above, there is also a part of me that views experiences (particularly pleasurable ones) as, on some level, interchangeable, within an individual and between individuals, because they engage the same neurotransmitters. In other words, the satisfaction I get from listening to a favorite album on my audiophile system, or completing a good book, or solving puzzles in a new PS4 game, or making and eating homemade lasagna, is in a very similar vein to the satisfaction I’ve ever gotten from any activity or sensation or stream of thought, and is in a very similar vein to the satisfaction any human has ever gotten from anything.

          Shower thoughts…

  3. I don’t think Dave Thompson’s essay quite captures what people mean when they talk about ‘what it’s like to be a [insrt identity here]’. Like most of the extreme positions taken by contemporary social justice enthusiasts, there is a particle of truth in the statement made which puts people off dismissing it as completely invalid. For example, there *is* ‘something it is like’ to be a man (or, a man of a particular age, in a particular culture) which is not generally experientially available to people who are not men (of that age and culture). It is not experientially available to people who are not men (of that age and culture) because part of the experience is to actually be a man of that age and culture. Typically, the kind of experience I am talking about accrues of a long period of time as the result of repeated experiential episodes which are in themselves unremarkable, and so is not easily identified even by the subject. It would take an extremely perspicacious person to grasp the ramifications of such deeply ingrained experience, in terms of attitudes, expectations, and outlook, without their actually being in the same position.

    I have an example: I had been to see the Tom Hanks film ‘Bridge of Spies’ with a couple of women friends. In the film (set in the Cold War) and American air force pilot is captured by the Soviets before he is able to get to the suicide pill which he has been ordered to swallow in that eventuality. He is later returned to the US, where he protests to sceptical interrogators that he gave away no secrets. After the film, on the way home in the car, one of my friends remarked, “I think he told them” – the other agreed. I was struck, suddenly, by how different their response was to mine. It wasn’t whether or not the guy was telling the truth or not, but that to my women friends it was a matter of insouciance. I realized that I’d been sucked into the movie emotionally because I had been conditioned, ever since boyhood, to be prepared to die, when it became necessary, for Right – whether in a war, protecting family, protecting women, or just sticking up for defenceless people. There were so many movies I saw growing up which were like that – all the John Wayne movies, ‘Seven Samurai’, about a thousand WWII movies that I don’t remember the names of … the emotional attitude was so deeply ingrained in me that it’s still there, despite the fact that I would definitely refuse to participate in a war and I’m inclined to let women defend their own honour. Later I tried to explain it to one of the women – she was old enough to remember the Cold War and the attitudes which predated it – and I had no sense that she understood at all. Even if she had, it would take a huge leap of imagination to think through how an unconscious attitude like this one would colour every aspect of life, to some extent.

    On the basis of this experience, I would certainly feel justified in saying to some people, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like to be a man’. I certainly wouldn’t say that someone had no right to speak on the topic but if what they said didn’t chime with my experience I would point that out. There must be experiences for other identities which work in similar ways. For the person who has such an experience it is like the water they swim in – it’s very difficult to objectify. For the person outside, it will be almost impossible to comprehend the pervasive ramifications for the experiencer’s subjectivity. That will be the case, of course, whether the experience is generally negative or generally positive. However, the impossibility of different groups fully understanding one another’s experience is no excuse for stopping discussion of it, or for saying that only people who have a certain identity are licensed to discuss it.

  4. Because I evidently inspire trust in people, I have had very interesting conversations with all sorts. I’ve asked my black friends what was South Side Chicago like in the 70s. My Bible Belt friends have shared stories about teaching sunday school and going to New Orleans to help after Katrina. I’ve hung out with a motorcycle gang and been friends with preachers. I have some famous friends and friends who are carpenters and plumbers. By being a good listener, one can get inside other people’s experience and life. Even if you can never BE them, you can imagine being in their shoes. On the other hand, your personal sample of maleness or blackness is a sample of one and may not represent all males or all blacks. Thus at the same time we can imagine and empathize with others not like us and we can NOT claim to represent all those in our “group”. Claiming to represent is just a power play.

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