Not Wong: In defence of lived experiences

Brian Wong crafts a compelling case for the importance of lived experiences to social justice

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Amidst the increasingly trendy fashion of bashing mainstream progressive concepts, an underlying theme consistently crops up—an allegation that progressives are ‘exclusionary’ and epistemically myopic, confined perpetually to ‘attacking the person’ instead of the arguments. Indeed, when coupled with essentialist reductions and exaggerated hyperboles of ‘privilege’, such criticisms appear almost persuasive—the progressive is portrayed as a detached member of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, and the concept of ‘lived experiences’ becomes part of the weaponry deployed by the Revolutionary Guard to secure their ideological agenda.

Such characterisations cannot, and do not, stand. Whilst a thorough purveying of all progressive concepts would not fit the word limit (nor the spirit of this blog), I’d like to focus on lived experiences, and make a case for why—despite the seemingly exclusionary and elitist connotations the term has acquired amongst reactionaries—it serves a crucial role in social movements and campaigns for social justice. A person’s lived experience refers to the first-hand accounts and knowledge of the individual. When applied in the context of social justice, it typically refers to the localised and marginalised knowledges (cf. Foucault, 1969) of individuals that are accorded or granted epistemic privilege by social movements seeking to rectify injustices perpetuated against them.

Two preliminary comments must be made beforehand. First, I do not believe that individuals should ever be universally silenced across all spaces and contexts because they lack the lived experiences pertaining to a particular topic (that’s the twisted premise upon which the misguided view that ‘social justice warriors hate free speech’ is constructed). Second, lived experience does not operate as a threshold concept, but as a continuum that is mediated by degrees of privilege. A relatively wealthy Chinese student studying in the UK has a very different lived experience to a first-generation Chinese immigrant working a low-pay job, whilst a white gay man may have a very different understanding of the implications of queerness to a black woman residing in a country where the law enforcement is heavily racialised and prejudiced towards her.

These may be crude generalisations, but the essence is clear: lived experiences are heterogeneous and multi-faceted, and they ought to be taken with varying pinches of salt. It would be absurd for me to claim, as a Chinese student, that I have the ‘lived experience of working in Chinatown’. Lived experience is a qualifier, but in its qualifying it also disqualifies those who do not meet its necessary criterion.

Valuing lived experience allows for the identification of otherwise invisible problems, and encourages individuals to collectivise and mobilise in lobbying for political action. There’s no need to grapple with unnecessary struggles over the desideratum of social justice. Whether it be equality grounded in terms of relations, resources, or advantages, a salient feature of most prominent theories of justice is their emphasis upon the subjective experience of the individual. Lived experience is epistemically valuable here for three reasons:

  • The privileging of mainstream discourse—problems affecting a quantitative minority are often underreported in mass media, which respond either actively to political incentives, or passively to the absence of market demand, in underreporting abuses or injustices confronting minorities. Consider, for instance, the fact that entertainment news occupies a far greater share of public discussion than instances of racially motivated hate crimes or implicit misogyny, which—due either to their obscurity or ubiquity, respectively—are systemically underreported. Valuing lived experiences not only allows the subjective reports of the realistic cases of violations to be reported and brought out into the open. It also encourages more individuals to step forth, upon their realising that their efforts to seek publicity and reparations are not futile.
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  • The ignorance of sympathetic allies—suppose that there exist sympathetic allies who are generally interested in the cause of resisting oppression. The trouble with a lot of oppressive experiences is that it is never possible for those who haven’t endured them to imagine or genuinely understand. The sceptic may posit: “Surely, oppression is just feeling bad and miserable, right?” But such homogenising statements ignore the heterogeneity of experiences. Analogies could be drawn to ‘exceptional’ experiences like skydiving, or seeing the Grand Canyon and/or the Taj Mahal in person, or tasting live octopus. It may be possible to analogise and make comparisons within families of resemblances—but there exist fundamental difficulties in explaining highly unique sensations like experiencing the Grand Canyon, or tasting live octopus, or skydiving. This is also the case with the even greater difficulties of accounting for what specific forms of oppression feel like to individuals who have, at best, only experiences of other types of oppressions in their memories. As I said above—it would be impossible for me, even if I were to have the best of intentions and the most imaginative of minds, to genuinely understand how a first-generation Chinese immigrant feels as he travels to work and is subjected to deeply racialised abuse on the streets of London. There are elements of similarity, but these elements of similarity are diluted by the gaps and differences which define our relations. Let alone consider the statement proclaimed by certain cis-, het-allies that they really do understand what being trans, or gay, or lesbian, or non-binary means.

 

  • The skewing of discussion platforms—a lot of ‘free speech advocates’ enjoy positing that their views have come under increased attack in certain spaces, such as in academic sites such as universities. To an extent, I think that they are correct, and there is valid cause for concern: there are instances of no-platforming that have denied other students opportunities to engage with genuinely groundbreaking theories of ethics and alternative visions of political theories. There have probably been cases where the refusal to platform particular panels has left the possible audiences worse off than their counterparts in some other scenario. Yet this does not negate the greater and more statistically prevalent phenomenon—one where discussion platforms are actively skewed by rules and laws that assign ‘merit’ to particular instances of speeches. Socialisation and norms can discourage certain types of individuals from speaking out, and rules of adjudication and aesthetics can shut out or discredit certain types of discourses. In these cases, valuing lived experiences isn’t skewing the platforms—by temporarily ‘biasing’ or prioritising the value of lived experiences reported by what is often a quantitative minority, it restores the global balance of discussion and ensures that voices from both sides of the debate are genuinely heard. It takes one homophobic politician in a conservative society to rally up fears and paranoia about pro-LGBT legislation (cf. Hong Kong, where an attempt to introduce anti-discrimination legislation has been branded ‘antithetical to family values and ideological warfare’). It takes a lot of emphasis placed upon a group of otherwise silenced LGBT individuals even to begin to combat the entrenched hegemony of ideas that rejects them and their experiences.
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A common objection to the value assigned to lived experiences is that an over-emphasis of them backfires—it makes the movement unwelcoming and off-putting to potential allies. There is a plurality of responses to be made here. Firstly, valuing lived experiences is not akin to silencing all alternative voices. This is particularly the case when the desideratum of social justice movements is not purely epistemological—there is, obviously, the practical element of gaining buy-in and support for the causes involved, too. Furthermore, individuals do have a prima facie right to speak and voice their concerns pertaining to a particular topic, independent of whether they have the relevant lived experiences.

Yet in cases where resources for speech are scarce—e.g. time, money, platforms etc. (cf. Fiss)—it is not impermissible to limit effectively certain speech in order to allow the least represented of all voices to be heard and publicised. Above all, to the extent that experiences vary in type, there may indeed be a multitude of cases where first-hand experience is not a necessary condition for individuals to have adequate epistemic access to the topic. I don’t need to be a professional football player to be able to comment on how football is played. The hard cases—and the cases where this claim matters—are not ones upon which common critics of lived experiences often fall back.

Social movements are ultimately an exercise of balancing ideological purity with anti-essentialist strategy. But the defence of lived experiences is not, contra certain critics, an exercise in tyranny—but a beneficial and often necessary component of the struggle for justice.