Not Wong: In defence of lived experiences

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:



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.