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.
All understanding is generated from the subjective self-position outwards. All experience is of course subjective with the socially and culturally constructed “I”, ego, or presumed separate self being the center-pole which generates every possible experience in the scale of things, from the degraded experience of the drunk in the gutter to the sublime expanded consciousness of saints, yogis, mystics and sages. And yes the kinds and limits of ones experience are to a large degree determined by the culture in which one lives.All cultures have taboos against unacceptable experiences and knowledge. Western culture in both its “religious” and secular forms has strong taboos against anyone becoming too “mystical” or even finding who or what they are in Truth and Reality. Alan Watts wrote a marvelous book on this topic titled The Taboo of Knowing WHO You Are. The necessary key to true human maturity is to thoroughly investigate and understand… Read more »
Here’s a nice concept of a “lived” experience: How about conducting one’s affairs in the world, out in public, within institutions, educational, workplace, and wherever there is a mixture that is not conformed to uni-racial agreement (if such a thing were even possible.) And now imagine experiencing (whether one is aware of this or not) a constant flow of ‘performance’, a watered down and even dumbed down collection: the soft bigotry of lowest expectations. The eggshell tippy-toeing subservience, the platitudes and plastic observation of safetyism, the faux respectful attitudes and behaviors that many people adopt when they feel that they’re around something dangerous… How’s that for an ‘unconscious bias’? This massive effort to dumb down what took centuries to build up into some level of intelligence that could be maintained, added to, shared and understood – to what purpose? We don’t like most of the people who are this smart.… Read more »
This is a fantastic article by Mr. Ejiofor about this topic. And there’s another one here: https://uncommongroundmedia.com/lived-experiences/
Here’s an extract:
The appeal to lived experience and/or hurt feelings is part of a wider anti-intellectual trend that has crept, or rather strutted, into universities and public discourse. These tropes exemplify the total relativism and subjectivism that counter-Enlightenment activists use to stifle debate and foreclose discussion.
The tactic is not to present opponents with a better counter-argument; they don’t have one. Rather, since they can’t win the argument, they avoid it. Instead of appealing to reasons (better ones), they avoid reasoning altogether and instead appeal to what is entirely subjective.
Arguing on the basis of one’s ‘lived experience’ is tantamount to accepting total relativism. It is an ideal go-to phrase for anyone who doesn’t have good reasons for a conclusion, because no one can refute your personal experiences.
At a very young and therefore malleably impressionable age I was emphatically told by my mother about the exceptionally kind and caring nature of our Black family doctor. She never had anything disdainful to say about people of color; in fact she loves to watch/listen to the Middle Eastern and Indian subcontinental dancers and musicians on the multicultural channels. Thus essentially by chance I reached adulthood unstricken by uncontrolled feelings of racial contempt seeking expression. Conversely, if she’d told me the opposite about the doctor, I could have aged while subconsciously associating his skin color with an unjustly cynical view of him and, by extension, all Black people. Not as lucky, some people—who may now be in an armed authority capacity—were raised with a distrust or blind dislike of other racial groups. … Remove the greatest difference among humans—race/color—and left are less obvious differences over which to clash, such as… Read more »
I have had black friends who considered themselves winners and not victims (and they retired at 57 to prove it). Other black friends and I talked about racism 50 yrs ago, but they said no one had bothered them personally in at least 20 yrs. A black man I read about who escaped the genocide in Rwanda considers the US so nice and friendly by comparison.
It is also possible that people can be paranoid and see racism everywhere when it does not exist. When I was in college 50 yrs ago, I never encountered anyone from the administration and could not say I was “welcomed” or “cared for” as students seem to demand today–but why do they expect that? In general, whatever your color or sex, large institutions are not your friend and don’t care about you whether student or employee.
The saddest part of all of this how defeatist Reni Eddo-Lodge is. Is having everyday conversations with people about colour, and being challenged by it really that bad? Anti-racist, uber-hero Daryl Davis (musician by trade), frequently sits down to have private conversations with virulent racists. Over the years he has managed, purely by having casual conversations, to convert dozens (whom have converted others themselves) from white supremacy to anti-racism. These were serious neo-nazis and Klux members, not some random “Karen” oblivous to the world of racism. Friendly, everyday conversation will always have far more impact than turning one’s back in arrogant disgust. I really wish Reni Eddo-Lodge would read his book “Klan-destine…” I think that she would learn a lot from his lived experience.
The idea that “Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Max Scheler, amongst others … emphasised interior consciousness of oneself and the world around one: reflection on everyday experiences was considered [by them] the true source of knowledge.” is, I thought, rather strange. These guys were existential phenomenologists; they – especially but not only Heidegger – actually gave a critique of the idea of ‘interior consciousness of oneself’ as the ‘true source of knowledge’. Sure, they resisted the idea that the natural sciences were to be considered the ultimate arbiters of knowledge. But this wasn’t because they instead wanted to wallow in subjectivity. They instead saw scientific knowledge as a valid yet derivate form of knowledge, and saw the fundamental form of knowledge as neither subjective nor objective but as grounded in the ‘lifeworld’, ‘Dasein’, ‘intentionality’, ‘being-in-the-world’, ‘being-with-others’, ‘the inbetween’, etc. In fact if you want allies in the fight… Read more »