The tyranny of ‘lived experience’

Long-read

The tyranny of ‘lived experience’

How the woke elites are gaslighting the entire population.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Feminism Free Speech Long-reads

Thou shalt not disrespect another’s lived experience. On the surface of it, this would appear to be the key commandment of the woke age. A person’s ‘lived experience’ carries an extraordinary amount of moral weight in the 21st century. Public debate is built around it. Policy, increasingly, is shaped by it. Journalism is full of it: column after column about the lived experience of systemic racism, transphobia, misogyny, mental health. Lived experience is the moral currency of campus life. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard student activists recount their ‘lived experiences’ — always oppressive, always tragic — and round furiously on anyone who dares to question said lived experience.

‘Lived experience’ is the great incontestable. No doubt may be expressed about a person’s lived experience. It is the truth and nothing but the truth. We’ve witnessed this over the past few days as people have been demonised, hounded and in some cases even sacked for having had the temerity to question Meghan Markle’s ‘lived experience’ of royal racism and mental-health problems.

Piers Morgan got the heave-ho from Good Morning Britain for saying he didn’t believe a word of what she said. That’s pure blasphemy. Disputing lived experience is to 2021 what disputing the Word of God was to 1521. Ian Murray of the Society of Editors was pushed out for challenging Harry and Meghan’s claim that the British press is racist. ‘Show me proof’, he essentially said. Big mistake. You do not ask for evidence to substantiate claims of lived experience. Data and analysis count for nothing in the face of what people feel. The truths of social experience — the measurable reality of racist attitudes in the press or among the population, for example — are subordinate to an individual’s perception of what his or her lived experience has been. To muddy a victim’s impression of life with cold talk of analysis is to compound the oppression they feel. Just genuflect to their lived experience. Ask no questions, venture no facts.

And yet appearances can be deceptive. For even amid this almost religious elevation of ‘lived experience’, things are not as they seem. Not all lived experiences are taken seriously. Some lived experiences are more equal than others. Consider the stark contrast between Meghan Markle’s professed experiences and Priti Patel’s. Meghan’s — her impression that there is racism in the royal family, in the British press and in the hearts of many ordinary British people — was made sacrosanct with extraordinary swiftness. It acquired the status of moral incontrovertibility almost overnight. Patel’s lived experience, on the other hand — her experience of racism as a child and sexism as an adult — was disparaged, mocked, and consciously denied any social importance whatsoever.

What is striking is that the censorious assault on Patel’s experiences of racism was conducted by the same kind of people who have transformed Meghan’s impressions of racism into a gospel truth of the woke era. It was in June last year, at the height of the Black Lives Matter disturbances, when Ms Patel, the UK’s home secretary, confronted Labour MP Florence Eshalomi for claiming that the Conservative government Patel works for has no understanding of the issue of racism.

In the Commons, Patel made an emotional address in which she said it must therefore have been ‘a very different home secretary’ who was frequently called a Paki in the school playground. And who was depicted as a ‘fat cow with a ring through its nose’ in the Guardian (Patel is a Hindu and the cow is a sacred symbol in Hindusim). And who was advised later in life to adopt her husband’s name because, well, Patel is a bit foreign, isn’t it? These were Patel’s experiences. Her lived experiences, one might say. Were they respected? Forcefielded from questioning? Not even remotely.

What happened to Patel was astonishing: she was publicly shamed for recounting her personal experiences. A group of Labour MPs, led by Naz Shah, wrote a letter to Ms Patel reprimanding her for touching on her own lived experience. The chilling letter of rebuke damned Patel for ‘using’ her ‘heritage and experiences of racism’ allegedly to try to silence the discussion about racism against black people. It expressed ‘dismay’ at what it clearly viewed as her weaponisation of experience. ‘Reflect on your words’, the woke scolds insisted.

So not all lived experiences count. Some lived experiences will be accorded moral weight, others will be denied it. What is striking in this instance is that Ms Patel’s experiences of racism are more believable than Meghan’s. Anyone who, like Ms Patel, was born in 1970s Greater London and who grew up in the 1980s will be able to attest that, sadly, the word ‘Paki’ was commonly used in playgrounds, and elsewhere. People of Asian heritage were often subjected to racial and religious mockery. Meghan’s claims come off as far more shaky. Her supporters have not been able to point to a single example of explicit racist commentary in the British press. They have offered no information about the royal who allegedly asked what colour skin Harry and Meghan’s children would have. And yet Meghan’s vague impressions of having suffered racial oppression are deified, while Patel’s far more truthful-sounding recollections are punished.

Or consider the transgender issue. We are expected to bow down to trans people’s ‘lived experience’ of transphobia. In the broadsheet media, in leftish political circles and on campuses across the Anglosphere, the lived experience of systemic transphobic bigotry — as many see it — is a constant talking point. And yet when it comes to women’s ‘lived experience’ of encountering trans women (ie, biological males) in a less than desirable way, that is instantly written off as insignificant, partisan, bigoted and worthy of nothing more than censorship.

So when Holly Lawford-Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne, set up a website called ‘No Conflict They Said’, on which women were encouraged to share their ‘lived experiences’ of encountering born men who identify as women, she became a hate figure for woke elites across the West. ‘Tell us your story’, her website said. It asked women to share their personal experiences of encountering biological males in women-only spaces, including ‘changing rooms, fitting rooms, bathrooms, shelters, rape and domestic violence refuges, gyms, spas, schools’, etc.

Anonymously, women told of encountering male-bodied people in changing rooms. Of having biological males join women-only swimming events. Of males behaving menacingly in bathrooms. All ‘lived experiences’, right? But again, these experiences do not count. They’re the wrong ones. The reaction to ‘No Conflict They Said’ has been furious. Lawford-Smith’s fellow academics signed a McCarthyite letter denouncing her and demanding that the site be taken down. ‘Why the University of Melbourne must shut down No Conflict They Said’, declared one newspaper headline. These lived experiences, it seems, stand for nought. We don’t want to hear from women who have had difficult experiences with a deified ‘marginalised group’.

UK home secretary Priti Patel at a press conference at Downing Street, 12 January 2021.
UK home secretary Priti Patel at a press conference at Downing Street, 12 January 2021.

That a ‘lived experience’ can be either transformed into indisputable orthodoxy or rubbished as opportunistic and dangerous — depending on whose experience it is and what, exactly, they have experienced — is testament to the ideological nature of the category of ‘lived experience’. As James Lindsay has argued, ‘lived experience’ does not refer to mere experience, to the ‘firsthand experiences’ we all have, but rather to experiences that have been dutifully interpreted through the prism of the social-justice lens. ‘“Lived experience” refers to an interpretation through theory’, he says, which means it is ‘only the “lived experience of oppression”, as theory will have it, that counts’.

No one who occupies a ‘relatively dominant position’ in society — and in the eyes of the woke, that would include not only the usual suspects of white, heterosexual males, but also Indian-heritage people like Priti Patel and ‘cis’ women like Holly Lawford-Smith — can ‘appeal to their experiences and call them “lived experience”’, says Lindsay.

That is because lived experience, fundamentally, is not experience as we understand it. It is not individual engagement with reality and situations and challenges, and the impression, often long-lasting, that such engagement can leave on the individual. That is experience. Something we all have, something we all tussle with, something we all are shaped by. No, ‘lived experience’ is the filtering of one’s engagement with life through a pre-existing script of systemic oppression. It is the subjugation of experience to orthodoxy. It is the negation of the openness that human experience requires — openness to risk, to change, to transformation — in favour of forcing one’s every experience into a narrative written by others for expressly political ends.

In this sense, ‘lived experience’ is the opposite of real experience. It is not the individual opening himself up to the trials or risks or joys of life and through them learning more of himself and more of the society in which he lives — the true import of human experience. Rather, it is the individual closing himself off to such possibilities in preference for reading his life through the preordained ideologies of the new ruling class. This warps experience. It makes it less real, not more; less reliable, not more. ‘Lived experience’ is not a good guide to the truths of the 21st century. It is our duty to be sceptical of it.

Use of the term ‘lived experience’ has exploded in recent decades. Analysis shows that its use in public commentary started creeping up slowly between the 1960s and 1980s but then shot up between the 1990s and today. It is used in psychology, the health service, political circles and media debate, often to indicate the ‘expertise’ of people’s personal experiences. For example, the National Health Service has an ‘Experts by Experience’ programme that uses the ‘lived experience’ of people with mental-health issues or people who care for someone who is mentally unwell to try to improve services.

Few would deny the importance of engaging ordinary people in discussions about the best way to organise public services and society more broadly. People are the experts of their own lives, and as many of us have been arguing in recent years, we need a broader, sweeping expansion of democratic engagement in order to ensure that the wisdom of the crowd is marshalled in every situation.

But the term ‘lived experience’ has morphed over time to mean something rather different to respecting individual experience and the wisdom it can bring. Indeed, it is important to note that very often the same section of society that has sanctified ‘lived experience’ also tends to emphasise the crucial role that the apparently expert elites must play in governing the minutiae of our lives, including telling us what to eat, how to raise our kids, and, right now, even when we may leave our own homes.

This is because ‘lived experience’ is not encouragement of individual experience and respect for the role it can play in transforming individuals, communities and society itself. It is not trust in the expertise of ordinary people. Rather, ‘lived experience’ has become an ideological function of the new elites, a political category that is used to police cultural and identity borders and to monopolise the way in which society is understood and the way in which we are permitted to talk about it.

According to the writer James Walker, in the identitarian era experience has been put ‘beyond reproach’; it has become ‘the embodiment of the sacred’ — ‘that which cannot be laughed at’, in the words of Hubert Dreyfus. But of course it isn’t experience per se that has been sacralised. On the contrary, people’s experiences are discounted and disparaged on a daily basis. Not only individuals like Priti Patel and Holly Lawford-Smith but also significant sections of the working class, broad swathes of women, black people who do not consider themselves victims, Brexit voters, and so on. These people’s experiences — of being ‘left behind’, of feeling uncomfortable with the cult of genderfluidity, of conceiving of globalism as a threat to their community life and cultural security — are reproached all the time, ceaselessly. An entire culture of linguistic admonishment has been created to devalue and delegitimise such experiences. They are a product of false consciousness, apparently, or of internalised racism or misogyny, or of poor education. Such experience is psychologised into insignificance.

No, it is only ‘lived experience’ that is put beyond reproach. It is only experience which, as Walker puts it, has been ‘abstracted’, and abstracted in the correct way, that is sacralised and marshalled to the broader identitarian task of policing public life and public expression. This is why the distinguishing term ‘lived experience’ is used, rather than just ‘experience’. Because ‘lived experience’ is a special category of experience, belonging only to that most celebrated social group of our era — victim groups, marginalised groups, those whose ‘lived experiences’ matter to the reorganisation of political and cultural life around the impulses and ideologies of the post-traditional elites.

The ideology of ‘lived experience’ plays many important roles in the current transition from modern democratic societies built on the aspiration to equality to a new form of social organisation that is built around identity, difference and the technocratic management of race relations and identity relations more broadly. One key role is its elevation of subjective sensations above concrete, objective reality. As Madeline Grant of the Daily Telegraph said in the wake of the Meghan interview and subsequent controversies, we live in a ‘world where “lived experience” can, and often does, supersede objective reality’.

The spectre of ‘lived experience’ is now frequently used to obstruct and even silence discussions about material social reality. This is why the fate of Ian Murray of the Society of Editors is important. His call for evidence of widespread racism in the British press was a challenge not only to Harry and Meghan’s specific claims in that Oprah interview, but also to the very notion of ‘lived experience’, to the idea that what some people feel to be the case is more important than what others can see to be the case.

In that instance, what we can see — in surveys, studies and, dare I say it, our everyday experience — is that Britain is becoming less and less racist. Its institutions, its media and its public are increasingly free of the kind of racism that existed in the past. But pointing to these objective truths, these demonstrable and positive transformations in our culture and society, is a challenge too far in the eyes of a new elite that depends for its existence and its claims to moral authority and managerial jurisdiction on the idea that our societies remain riddled with racism, Empire nostalgia, hatred for minorities, various phobias, and so on. This is where ‘lived experience’ comes in — it is the subjective sensation that is weaponised against objective reality.

The recounting of ‘lived experience’ — that is, the abstracted, filtered experience; the unreal experience — is a means of hushing broader, reasoned discussion about how people’s attitudes and society itself have changed. Many of us have witnessed this firsthand — people saying, ‘How dare you question my lived experience?’. It’s the debate-ender, the distraction from objective truths. As a writer for Prospect puts it, the cult of lived experience implies that ‘working a problem out through reflection and reading is insufficient’. It promotes the idea that ‘feeling, not thinking, is the most important thing when solving a problem’. It is used as an ‘argument-winner’ against those who call for cooler, more reasoned reflections on relations in society.

If this were only happening in public debate, that would be bad enough. But increasingly the subjective sensation of lived experience is being institutionalised in law, with potentially dire consequences not only for reason but for liberty, too. The American writer Janie B Cheaney recently wrote a piece titled, ‘When lived experience becomes the law’. She highlighted the case of the student at Smith College who believed she was being subjected to racism by the college janitor and whose belief was accepted as fact by her peers, the college administration, the ACLU and much of the media. It was her ‘lived experience’, right?

The reality turned out to be very different to what was reported. The janitor’s reputation had been trashed and his livelihood threatened on the basis of an interpretation, a cynical abstraction, that a privileged student had made of her experience of his behaviour. As Cheaney puts it, the ‘ruin’ of a reputation was apparently a small price to pay for upholding ‘the lived experience of an elite student belonging to a historically oppressed group’.

And this kind of thing is being institutionalised further in the US. Cheaney argues that the Equality Act — which has passed in the House of Representatives but is unlikely to pass in the Senate for the time being — puts ‘lived experience’ on a legal footing.

‘“Lived experience” is a key phrase to keep in mind when contemplating the Equality Act’, she writes. By very broadly defining the ‘discrimination’ faced by transgender people, gay people and other groups — for example, using a trans person’s old name, their ‘dead name’, is apparently discriminatory — this Act would further assist the victory of subjective sensation over the reasonableness that once defined public life and the law.

Similar has already happened in the UK. Our measurement of hate crime is infused with the impulse of subjective interpretation. Over 10 years ago the Police Service and the Crown Prosecution Service agreed the definition of hate crime to be ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’. That is, if anyone thinks or feels that a crime was motivated by hostility towards race, religion, sexuality or transgender status, then it was. The feeling trumps what might be the reality.

Meghan Markle tells 'her truth' to Oprah Winfrey on a CBS Primetime Special, 7 March 2021.
Meghan Markle tells 'her truth' to Oprah Winfrey on a CBS Primetime Special, 7 March 2021.

The UK police actually discourage the pursuit of evidence that a crime was driven by identitarian hatred. Their Hate Crime Operational Guidance stresses that perception ought to be the deciding factor. ‘Evidence of… hostility is not required for an incident or crime to be recorded as a hate crime or hate incident’, it says. ‘[T]he perception of the victim, or any other person, is the defining factor… the victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief, and police officers or staff should not directly challenge this perception.’

You must not challenge their perception… This could be the rallying cry of the ideology of lived experience. Perception rules. Feeling is king. Objectivity be damned. This is a central function of the cult of lived experience — to shift public discussion from the terrain of truth and objectivity and into the realm of subjective interpretation. Worse, a realm of subjective interpretation underpinned by a pre-existing ideology that says racism is rife, ‘phobias’ are widespread, and the masses must have their emotions, beliefs and interactions managed by a new elite. The subjective sensation of a few is sacralised to the end of more closely controlling the behaviour and beliefs of the many.

This leads to another key role of the ideology of ‘lived experience’ — to establish the authority of a new elite who desire nothing less than a monopoly over how society is understood. Through the denigration of people’s genuine experiences as unimportant or ‘false’, and the supplanting of objective public discussion with a new feudalism of subjective sensation, the new elites can position themselves as the only people truly capable of understanding reality and who thus must be charged with patrolling the borders of identity and the relations between groups and individuals.

What they seek, in the words of James B Meigs writing in Commentary magazine, is ‘rhetorical supremacy’. The elite-selected groups that get to ‘claim the status of victim, or that of protector of victim’, have ‘bulletproof moral authority’ conferred upon them, says Meigs. This authority allows them, he says, to ‘invalidate any opposing argument, and banish the arguer from the realms of legitimate discourse’, without ‘having to deploy a single fact’.

It goes deeper than that. From this position of authority, dubiously earned via the ideology of lived experience, the new elites can divide and rule (deciding which identity groups are oppressed, or good, and which are privileged, or bad); police public discussion (via cancel culture); educate a new generation to embrace the hierarchy of identity and the need for thought control in the name of social peace (via the education system and in universities); and even define reality itself. Apparently, our reality — our experiences, our understanding of the world we live in, our truths — does not matter. It has been falsely planted; it is based on lies or ignorance. They, on the other hand, can see reality as it truly exists. They have a borderline religious insight into the ‘real truth’ of society — beyond all those apparently questionable surveys, studies and experiences that the rest of us cling to — which we lack. This positions them above us, in a neo-priestly fashion, with their gospel of lived experience striking down objective truth and mere ‘experience’.

This is what makes it so grimly ironic that these elites constantly use the word ‘gaslighting’ against their critics. If anyone is gaslighting, if anyone is trying to convince others to discount the reality before their eyes in favour of bending the knee to an entirely invented ‘reality’, it is them. Such is the new elites’ moral arrogance that they now seek to assume moral and social control over how reality and experience themselves are understood. This is the dire accomplishment of the ideology of lived experience.

The elites’ subversion of truth to the end of expanding their control over social and public life is bad for individuals and bad for society. It corrupts human experience, encouraging individuals to interpret their lives through the eyes of others, to conceive of their every contact and engagement as further proof of the hatefulness lurking in society. This shuts down the possibility of genuine experience and genuine learning, which require a free, open mind, not the aversions and cynicism of bad faith. And it is bad for society because it exaggerates its problems, further divides its social groups, and makes it less likely that society will benefit from the true experiences and knowledge of its members. The institutionalisation of ‘lived experience’, of perceptions of oppression, of certain groups’ subjective sensations, closes off the space for the real experience of experimentation and transformation.

Walter Benjamin, in the 1930s, wrote about how the incessant shocks of life in modern society made it harder for people to connect their individual experience to a broader social story. ‘A person’s inner concerns are not by nature of an inescapably private character. They attain this character only after the likelihood decreases that one’s external concerns will be assimilated into one’s experience’, he wrote. The question, he said, is whether ‘an individual forms an image of himself, whether he can take hold of his experience’.

The contemporary cynical use of narrow, narrated ‘lived experiences’ to denigrate broader individual experience and people’s capacity truly to understand the world they live in will intensify this problem. What we need to do is create the conditions in which experience can truly flourish and connect to and shape the world all about us, in which we can ‘take hold of our experience’. That requires honesty, truth, freedom and experimentation — all things the tyranny of lived experience grates so furiously against.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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