anti-intellectualism, lived experience, Munroe Bergdorf, logical fallacies, free speech
Photo courtesy of Munroe Bergdorf

Anti-Intellectualism and Appeals to ‘Lived Experience’

The ‘appeal to lived experience’ as part of a wider anti-intellectual trend is stifling public debate. Should subjective experience override facts?

We’ve heard a lot about people’s ‘lived experience’ recently. Back in September, L’Oreal model and transgender diversity icon Munroe Bergdorf told Piers Morgan that he is ‘part of the problem’ because he denied her ‘lived experience’. We are also likely to be told by some that merely listening to viewpoints with which they disagree makes them ‘feel physically sick’ or that offensive speech hurts peoples feelings in some drastic or irreparable way.

anti-intellectualism, lived experience, Munroe Bergdorf, logical fallacies, free speech
Transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf clashed with Piers Morgan, claiming he had denied her ‘lived experience’. Image: Evening Standard

The ‘lived experience’ appeal and anti-intellectualism

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.

“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”

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.

If you claim to be bored right now, or to have a headache, there isn’t really anything I can do or say to persuade you that you’re wrong. You know your own experiences better than anyone else. Therefore ‘lived experience’ is a sure winner, since the person wielding it is always right. He or she is the authority when it comes to what is completely subjective.

Countering the ‘appeal to lived experience’

This ploy, however, need not end the debate. The relativist can be pushed to say something meaningful about his experience, thus putting it into the form of a proposition. Propositions can be tested against shared standards of validity and empirical evidence.

An experience is always an experience of something. So the Yorkshire Ripper had an experience of ‘God’ speaking to him and telling him that he must kill prostitutes. Hundreds of Americans have had lived experiences of seeing UFOs or aliens. We can then ask whether it is likely that beliefs about the experience are mistaken, or whether the claim about what caused the experience is really the best possible explanation. Once people make a claim about their experience, they are back in the realm of meaningful discourse and debate.

Merely reporting your ‘lived experiences’ to others, however, is rather trivial from a political perspective. It is like talking about your feelings. You don’t reject, say, a policy legalising abortion on the basis that it makes you feel angry or sad.

Contested definitions of terms

Claims that use general definitions like ‘abortion is murder’ or ‘I experienced racism’ require us to have a consensus about what kinds of killings constitute ‘murder’ and which kinds of behaviour constitute ‘racism’.

This is where certain essentially contested concepts undergo a process of refinement. The boundaries of the definition must be worked out in a process of interdisciplinary and inclusive debate. The consensus can always be broken with the introduction of new discoveries or theories.

“The consensus can always be broken with the introduction of new discoveries or theories”

With essentially contested definitions, the meanings of words like ‘adult’ or ‘murder’ or ‘racism’ cannot be worked out just by looking at the material facts. It must be decided by reaching some kind of a public consensus about the definition.

anti-intellectualism, lived experience, Munroe Bergdorf, logical fallacies, free speech
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

There needs to be consensus on a working definition that best fits with our current knowledge and human wellbeing. We have decided, for example, that eighteen is a reasonable age at which to mark our definition of ‘adulthood’.  Collectively, we have decided that some acts of killing constitute ‘murder’ while others are ‘manslaughter’ or ‘accidental homicide’.

Western liberal democracies currently have a consensus that a foetus is a ‘potential child’ rather than an ‘unborn child’. Abortion is not regarded as the murder of an existing child but rather as the prevention of a child’s existence.

This is certainly a debatable matter, and the consensus could always be broken.  Some issues–such as the question of when a foetus becomes a ‘human person’, or when a child becomes an ‘adult’–cannot be decided by discovering more evidence, because we very probably have all of the evidence we need.

The burden of proof in debate

When one accuses someone of doing something for which he/she can be punished, or deprived of reputation or freedom, the burden of proof falls on the accuser–not the defendant. He/She must demonstrate that there is a logical basis to deprive the defendant of liberty or reputation.

“When one accuses someone of doing something for which he/she can be punished, or deprived of reputation or freedom, the burden of proof falls on the accuser–not the defendant”

This is a serious matter. Racism is the kind of charge that should require that the accused has actively (and consciously) done something that is knowingly racist. In other words, you cannot just spuriously claim that all white people are racist by default, as Munroe Bergdorf implied in her now infamous Tweet.

The far left seem to have no trouble understanding this when it comes to Muslims and terror. A Muslim has to actually commit an act of terror to be accused of being a ‘terrorist’. That is all very well. But it seems that a white person does not actually have to do anything to be accused of racism.

“A white person does not actually have to do anything to be accused of racism”

There is a strange inconsistency in the far left’s attitudes to these two things. ‘Lived experience’ and the appeal to ‘hurt feelings’ are two forms of misdirection–an umbrella term for a genre of fallacious arguments that includes: genetic fallacy, ad hominem, poisoning the well, and misleading vividness.

Reason, logic, and ideas

Reason is the universal faculty by means of which humans sift through good and bad ideas. Logical arguments form a common apparatus through which ideas can be rigorously tested for their soundness and validity. This marvellous exercise plays an important role in allowing progress to be made and individuals to flourish. If an American today rejected an idea written in 1950 by an African philosopher solely because it was not part of his ‘lived experience’, we would rightly condemn his attitude as narrow-minded and parochial.

Ideas know no physical location or time. They cannot be fixed to particular nations, peoples, or eras. Ideas have no race or gender. They form part of a rich collective store that human beings share. This allows humans from different cultural, ethnic, or linguistic backgrounds to share knowledge. Someone at the opposite end of the earth may share your idea of what constitutes the good life. Your next door neighbour or brother might have a completely opposite one.

“Ideas…form part of a rich collective store that human beings share”

If we really want to follow the diversity priests’ commandment to share our world with others, to embrace difference, and to transcend our own subjective experiences,  then we will need to employ the one faculty we all share in common: reason.

About Terri Murray

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Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years

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3 comments

  1. “You don’t reject, say, a policy legalising abortion on the basis that it makes you feel angry or sad.”

    I disagree entirely. I think this is exactly what most people do. On both sides of many important debates. They then rationalise their decision (to reject or not, in this case) post-hoc, in what seems like a logical argument as to why they made their decision.

    This is why it is so difficult (impossible?) to shift people’s opinions with reason and logic. You are really arguing against a ‘feeling’. You cant win, and end up forcing people to rationalise better, pushing them further into their existing position (dissonance).

    The psychology of it is simple.

    Dr Paul Williams (Australia)

  2. This article confronts the worst uses of the term “lived experience” without considering its provenance or usefulness. “Ideas know no physical location or time”: this claim suggests zero engagement with the philosophical traditions which underpin the concept of lived experience. The author could quarrel with those traditions (ideally constructively), and/or opine that the use of the term has become detached from these traditions, but that’s not what is going on here. There is no mention of the constellation of supporting social justice terms which render the concept intelligible (privilege, intersectionality, interlocking matrix of domination, systemic oppression). E.g. an exploration with feminist standpoint epistemology would be a first step; another good move would be to check out in at least a cursory way some of the concrete history of divisions in the US left over the last century or so. I don’t necessarily think it was written in bad faith, but the author hasn’t actually done the most basic necessary preparatory research.

  3. “The personal is political” was a feminist slogan to refute those who said that misogyny was a “personal matter” – and they also gave examples of their personal experiences, as did Blacks & others, to demonstrate how discrimination works. At that time it was a valid tactic: they demanded HEAR OUR VOICES.
    A TACTIC not some *principle*.
    The women’s movement was also fairly down to earth in fighting for things like equal pay in everyday jobs, and in making “personal* matters like childcare, contraception, domestic violence and sexuality more *political*
    However, the “

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