The phrase lived experience seems to be part of the new normal of modern identity politics. Activists appeal to lived experiences to make their case against perceived social exclusion and political oppression. So ubiquitous has this become that in his recent Executive Order on Ensuring an Equitable Pandemic Response and Recovery, Joe Biden underlined that the Health Equity Task Force will include “individuals with lived experience relevant to groups suffering disproportionate rates of illness and death in the United States.” In her victory speech last year, Kamala Harris promised to share her lived experience of race and gender with Biden to influence policymaking.
As a concept, lived experience derives from the early twentieth-century phenomenological movement, which was championed most notably by Edmund Husserl and subsequently by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Max Scheler, amongst others. They emphasised interior consciousness of oneself and the world around one: reflection on everyday experiences was considered the true source of knowledge. Concepts such as lifeworld, intentionality, intuition, empathy and intersubjectivity dominated the lexicon of phenomenologists. Over time―as so often happens with philosophical ideas―the phenomenological worldview was surreptitiously adopted by sociologists. Qualitative sociologists came to see the lived experiences of their research participants as scientific―objective―knowledge, which could be tailored to addressing practical social conundrums including racial discrimination, gender inequality, urban segregation, crime and deviance.
There is nothing wrong with taking individuals’ lived experiences into account in policy matters—in fact, justice demands it. Philosopher Miranda Fricker has reasonably contended that epistemic injustice happens when people’s experiences are ignored or disbelieved because of their race, gender, religion or other components of their identity. However, we are likely to make gross moral errors when we consider lived experience as all there is to knowledge, as unique to specific groups and as something that cannot be understood, critiqued or assessed by people from outside those groups. This halts conversation. Indeed, the appeal to lived experience has polarised modern society into two warring camps: the in-group, whose experiences enable them to comprehend everything about their condition; and the out-group, who lack the experience to be able to understand the conditions facing the in-group. The in-group are victims of oppression; the out-group are oppressors for whom maintaining the status quo is a priority. The consequences for democracy are dire.
Take race, for example. In her bestseller Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge claims that white people in Britain will never understand her experiences because to make sense of blackness and anti-black racism one has to be black. Conversations about race are only possible with black people with lived experiences of anti-black racism, for they are the only ones who can make sense of the structural difficulties that impact black lives:
I’m no longer talking to white people about race. I don’t have a huge amount of power to change the way the world works, but I can set boundaries. I can halt the entitlement they feel towards me and I’ll start that by stopping the conversation. The balance is too far swung in their favour. Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.
Such an analysis assumes that there is a unique lived experience of racism that black people everywhere share. But there is no such single lived experience. A black person living in a multicultural neighbourhood in Toronto might have a different experience of blackness than a black person in Chicago. That about 8% of American black people voted for Donald Trump in 2020, despite allegations that he was a white supremacist, shows that we should be leery of universalising assertions about racial groups. In addition, lived experiences are profoundly subjective and people are susceptible to biases that may distort their picture of the social world—as when people see racism in everything, for example. It is thus unsurprising that some institutions now recommend implicit bias training as an antidote to the unconscious racism that purportedly pervades public life. Finally, the argument from lived experience sidesteps the fact that social change is possible through conversations. It would be preposterous to suppose that racism would end if black and white people lived in segregated communities where they conversed only with their own kind. Prejudice is overcome through intergroup contact.
Gender identity carries the same burden as race. Activists contend that biological sexes do not correspond with gender identity. What matters, in this view, is individuals’ lived experience of gender. But this is also a barrier to conversation. Because experience of gender is subjective and inaccessible to anyone save the subject, it is ultimately not open to discussion or analysis. To understand gender identity, so the argument goes, one has to have a particular feeling that contravenes biological sex as we know it. Such a posture threatens the fabric of society because societies where scientific evidence is discounted in favour of subjective preferences risk disintegration. Such views also have far-reaching implications for equity in sports and in scholarship allocations for women and girls, among a host of other issues.
Lived experience does matter, but it should not be invoked to justify intolerance. Subjective experiences should not replace empirical evidence. Yes, people may have multiple experiences as a direct result of their identities, but that does not mean that anyone’s individual experience is representative of everyone of a particular identity. There is no black experience common to all black people; nor is there a common gender experience. Men and women, blacks and whites, Christians and Muslims, all experience the world differently, as individuals and as members of social groups. Citing one’s lived experience should be an invitation to conversation, but should not replace objective knowledge derived from science.