by I. Karamazov
Political dissidents who get into arguments with Woke Folk over the exact nature of “systems of oppression” will inevitably find themselves confronted by rhetoric of a sort that often catches them off guard. This rhetoric is, by design, meant to paint political dissidents as myopic stooges who are unwilling to “listen to the Lived Experiences of marginalized people,” thus making them unwittingly complicit in systems of oppression. In this essay, we will explore the concept of “Lived Experiences” (capitalized and scare-quoted) as understood by Woke Folk, and why this conceptualization is fundamentally deficient. Political dissidents would be well advised to consider the arguments of this essay with care, as “Lived Experiences” are foundational to Woke Ideology; indeed, dismantling Woke notions of “Lived Experiences” may be the single most effective means of preserving the integrity of liberal democratic institutions from Woke encroachment. Consequently, a firm understanding of the topic and of how to address it when engaging with Woke ideology will be the focus of this essay.
Before we can address what the concept of “Lived Experiences” entails, however, we must address its function. As was mentioned in an earlier essay, the empirical claims that are made by Woke Folk seldom survive evidential and analytical scrutiny. This is a problem for ideas in a culture which values such things as evidence and reasoned argument (as opposed to arguments from authority and moral blackmail.) Evidence and reasoned argument are the currency with which ideas earn their right to be taken seriously in liberal democracies. The tenets of Woke ideology, which are in frequent conflict with both, must therefore somehow be made adaptable to an environment which is hostile to dogmatic proclamations of unsubstantiated certainty, and the concept of “Lived Experiences” is the mechanism intended to achieve this.
The context in which Woke Folk are likely to appeal to the “Lived Experiences” of certain demographics is in the generation of knowledge claims. Indeed, intersectionality, which is the dominant paradigm under which Woke Folk are influenced, is practically founded upon the notion of “Lived Experiences.”
At first glance, it might appear that the term “Lived Experiences” is merely a somewhat belabored way of referring to events that one has personally experienced: i.e, while I was walking down the street, someone bumped into my shoulder without stopping to apologize. Under this innocent conception of the term, “Lived Experiences” are synonymous with “events,” “experiences,” and “occurrences.” A “Lived Experience,” under this view, is merely a report of what happened. This is not what Woke Folk are talking about when they refer to “Lived Experiences.”
A “Lived Experience” is an event that has been interpreted by Woke Folk as manifesting oppression: i.e, while I was walking down the street, someone bumped into my shoulder without stopping to apologize because they were racist. This is the difference between an experience and a “Lived Experience;” the former is an empirical claim that relays an event that is independently verifiable and is thus subject to scrutiny under public reason. The latter is a phenomenological claim which colors an event with intentionality, or its “aboutness relation;” and crucially, that relation is not subject to independent scrutiny. The empiricist reports on an event that occurred at some point in time and space; the phenomenologist relays the meaning of that event as interpreted by the phenomenologist.
It might be helpful to illustrate the difference between these two types of thought in terms of scientific study versus literary criticism. Two engineers might be engaged in a disagreement over the amount of rocket fuel needed to deliver a spaceship into orbit. One might argue that there isn’t enough fuel to sustain the rocket’s flight, and the other might argue that the mass of the fuel will weigh down the rocket too much and prevent it from reaching escape velocity. The empirical and mathematical frameworks afforded to the engineers will allow them to resolve their dispute through mathematical argumentation and, if it comes to it, experimentation (i.e launch two otherwise identical rockets with different amounts of fuel and see which of them, if either, makes it into space.) Ultimately, there exist conceptual tools that are at the disposal of the scientifically-minded empiricist which, when properly applied, allow for the unambiguous resolution of disputes.
By contrast, two bibliophiles might be engaged in a disagreement as to the proper interpretation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. When the titular character commits suicide at the end of the novel by crouching under a train, the question might be posed as to whether Tolstoy was condemning his adulterous protagonist to her rightful comeuppance in a sexist scene that was intended to leave the reader satisfied with her punishment, or whether he was presenting a sympathetic portrait of an unfairly maligned outcast in a feminist scene that was intended to leave the reader outraged at the hypocritical society that drove Anna to kill herself. Our two hypothetical readers might argue endlessly over their interpretations of this scene and its connections to the themes of the story. One might argue that Tolstoy was sexist because he was influenced by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, who was quite misogynistic even by the standards of 19th-century Germany, and that these sentiments seeped into Tolstoy’s novel. The other might argue that Tolstoy himself had expressed sympathy for Anna in personal letters to friends, and that the structure of the novel lent itself to a tragic, rather than triumphant, ending. Still another interlocutor might butt in and argue that the author’s intentions are completely irrelevant and that our own interpretations are all that matter in literary criticism, and that in their own view, Anna seemed to them (for whatever reason) to be a repressed lesbian, so Tolstoy’s scene is actually guilty of homophobia. Regardless of whether or not these arguments ever end up getting resolved, one thing is for certain: there is no unambiguously right answer to the question of whether Anna’s suicide in Tolstoy’s 1877 masterpiece was an expression of his misogynistic sentiments, a feminist lamentation over his society’s treatment of women, or neither. Answers to this question cannot be regarded as true or false because the question falls outside of the category of questions that can be addressed by true or false propositions. The very best that one might be able to do is to marshal textual arguments in support of one’s own interpretation and try to convince others of its merits, but at no point will there be a stage in which the question is decided in the same manner as the aforementioned engineers’ dispute concerning rocket fuel.
Matters which are of interest to those who analyze the truth of empirical claims have unambiguously right and wrong answers, and matters which are of interest to those who evaluate textual interpretations have no such answers. It is a category error to attempt to apply the equations of force and motion to the question of how to properly interpret the ending of Anna Karenina, and it is similarly erroneous to attempt to apply to the tools of literary criticism to the question of how much rocket fuel needs to be loaded onto a spaceship. It is this category error that is central to the problems of Woke Folks’ understanding of “Lived Experiences” (as well as much of the contents of social science research which rely on interpretive methodology- a discussion for another time.)
The issue with the role of interpretation when assessing empirical claims is the potential unavailability of unambiguously true judgements. This problem is not limited to textual criticism of the sort favored by psychoanalysts and phenomenologists, but to scientists and engineers as well. The problem is that, even in apparently clear-cut cases such as the hypothetical rocket scenario, there exist a plurality of relevant facts that are connected to one another via inferential relations such that the meanings of the theories employed can only be found holistically. That is to say, the theory endorsed by the first engineer in their solution to the rocket problem employs one web of inferential relations between the relevant facts, and the theory endorsed by the second engineer employs a different web of inferential relations between the relevant facts. They are both working with the same set of facts, but they assign different weights of importance to those facts and consequently arrive at different conclusions. In the case of the rocket scenario, and in science generally, experiment is the ultimate mediator between competing theories, which is all well and good when the system under study can be understood by well-established theories with predictive and explanatory power. Though there are some scientific questions at the cutting edge of research that are too ambiguously underdetermined by the available facts to allow for anyone to render conclusive judgements, the body of scientific knowledge that is widely regarded as “established” does just that. And the reason for this is that the systems described by the body of “established” scientific knowledge are cast in terms of theories that demonstrably meet the predictive and explanatory criteria that are demanded of them.
The situation becomes much murkier when the system under consideration is not described by such theories- systems like those regarded by Woke Folk as being institutionally oppressive. In such instances, there do not as yet appear to be any comprehensive theories with predictive and explanatory power that can arbitrate between competing models of society, and in many ways, this is a central problem to the social sciences more generally (again, forthcoming essay on the topic.) Thus the social theorist who wishes to evaluate the workings of such systems must employ theories which, in their character, much more closely resemble the analytic frameworks employed by the textual critic than those employed by the engineer; consequently, the problem of the unavailability of unambiguously true judgements carries over.
The “Lived Experiences” meme is an attempt to bypass this problem by casting knowledge in terms of a pluralistic epistemology. Epistemology is that field of philosophy which is concerned with the nature of knowledge, and might be best understood in terms of its relation to the egocentric problem. The egocentric problem, simply stated, is that knowledge contingent upon our senses is subject to possible error and manipulation, which renders absolute certainty as to the state of the world a potential impossibility. The history of epistemology, from Plato’s allegory of the cave in Book VII of The Republic to Kant’s transcendental idealism in The Critique of Pure Reason, is a history of the tension between the egocentric problem and the practical demands of living in a world where one’s beliefs have consequences. We simply cannot, as a practical matter, treat our perceptions of the world as inconsequential simply because we lack certainty of their verisimilitude. Epistemology, from a cynical perspective, might be regarded as the application of philosophical tricks, from Descartes’ Cogito to Kant’s synthetic a priori, to give an account of our perceptions of the world and why they matter. It’s the field of philosophy in which we acknowledge that despite our lack of direct access to a world beyond our senses, we still need to find a way to explain how it is we can come to know anything, as well as what it even means to “know.”
It is this latter question of what it means to “know” something that represents the point of greatest philosophical divergence between Woke Folk and political dissidents, as the former hold to radically subjectivist accounts of knowledge whilst the latter insist upon at least some measure of objectivity. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the epistemic chasm that separates Woke Folk from political dissidents; indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that if this epistemic dispute were to be resolved immediately, the Culture War would end tomorrow.
The problem is that Woke Folk are radically skeptical of objectivity; they do not believe that it is possible to acquire knowledge of the world in a manner that stands independently of particular social values. A detailed exposition of how their epistemology is derived lies beyond the scope of this article, as does a comprehensive critique of it; for the present purposes, it is sufficient to note that Woke Folk believe in a plurality of “knowledges” that are dependent upon membership in particular demographics, and that “objectivity” is just the name given by straight white males to their own particular type of “knowledge.”
Woke Folk assert that the balance of power in society between straight white males and everybody else has imposed a culture that values evidence and reasoned argument over the more “authentic” ways of knowing that are particular to other demographics, including storytelling, mythologies, and traditional forms of “knowledge.” The philosophical lines of thought that inform these conclusions are, for our present purposes, immaterial; what matters here is the function served by this move. By pivoting from standards of discourse that are universally and independently accountable to our senses and reason, to standards of discourse in which the conclusions that are rendered are not open to challenge or confrontation from the outside, Woke Folk aim to introduce ideas that are effectively immune from criticism. Under a paradigm that values reason and evidence, an interlocutor is welcomed to challenge ideas in a fashion that allows anyone from any walk of life to evaluate concepts. But under a paradigm in which “Lived Experiences,” which are the subjective interpretations of events from one’s demographically-dependent base of “knowledge,” are held as immutable and not open to discussion or debate, all interlocutors are obligated to listen and believe.
Whether Woke Folk realize it or not, the call to “listen to the ‘Lived Experiences’ of the marginalized” is an attempt to subvert the standards of evidence and reasoned argument for the purpose of sneaking in claims that aren’t meant to be challenged. The reason for this should be fairly clear to those who are familiar with the few arguments of Woke Folk that are actually touchable by evidence and argumentation: under even minimal scrutiny, most of the beliefs offered by Woke Folk, from Implicit Association Tests’ supposed ability to demonstrate the subconscious mechanisms by which structural racism is promulgated, to the allegation that the gender earnings gap is a consequence of institutional sexism, quickly fall apart. Recognizing this, it became necessary for Woke Folk to artificially inflate their repertoire of arguments and evidence with a form of “evidence” that is immune to scrutiny; thus were born “Lived Experiences.”
It is generally inadvisable to engage in a comprehensive critique of the epistemology of the Woke, as few of them are even aware of how their ideology works. Advice for how to engage in those rarer, more complex discussions will have to await essays that explicitly and comprehensively tackle the ins and outs of Woke epistemology. This essay is meant for the more practical interlocutor who simply wishes to engage the average Joe who parrots the Woke talking point of “Lived Experiences.” The political dissident, though well served by a deep understanding of the flaws in Woke epistemology, will have difficulty interpreting that knowledge to their opponent during an exchange, who might interpret the pivot into esoteric philosophy as a diversion. No- for the typical conversation with the ordinary Woke activist, it is sufficient to simply dismantle their application of “Lived Experiences” by making the conversation about evidence and reasoned argument, and this requires the following to be articulated.
First, the political dissident must make clear that the standards by which the contents of Woke ideology will be evaluated are evidence and reasoned argument. If this is not granted, then no conversation can be had without a thorough discussion of epistemology, which this essay is not intended to prepare the reader for. In response to the political dissident drawing a line in the sand, Woke Folk are likely to retort that the “denial of the ‘Lived Experiences’ of the marginalized” is tantamount to “erasing their voices,” “denying their humanity,” and just all-around lacking compassion.
It is at this point that the political dissident must pounce. The political dissident must state clearly and unequivocally that subjective interpretations attendant upon anecdotal testimonies will not be accepted as evidence, as though the marginalized people being cited were the Pope speaking ex cathedra. No- all human beings, as fallible creatures, might be wrong in their interpretations of their experiences. And what is being rejected is not the collection of experiences of the marginalized, but the interpretation of those experiences as issuing from systems of oppression. This is a critical distinction that must be recognized if a productive conversation is to ensue, and unless Woke Folk are prepared to posit the infallibility of the marginalized, then they must accept the legitimacy of skepticism towards subjective interpretation as a metric for truth. The simple fact of the matter is that until the social sciences come up with a theoretical paradigm in which differences of interpretation might reliably be adjudicated, disagreements over the interpretations of “Lived Experience” will yield as little truth as disagreements over the interpretations of the ending of Anna Karenina.
Armed with all of this information, the political dissident is now armed to engage in confrontations of the following character.
Political dissident: “What is your reason for believing in the existence of a system of oppression pertaining to x?”
Woke Folk: “There is a gap in outcome x between the dominant group and the marginalized group. This suggests that the dominant group is oppressing the marginalized group.”
Political dissident: “The existence of a gap in outcomes is not necessarily a consequence of systemic oppression. What evidence do you have to suggest that the cause of this gap is owed to oppression?”
Woke Folk: “I listen to the Lived Experiences of marginalized group x. If you’d have done that too, then you’d have all the evidence that you need.”
Political dissident: “But the anecdotal testimony of a person, or even of the several people you’ve listened to, isn’t sufficient to establish the existence of these systems that you speak of. All that these people’s testimonies would establish is their interpretation of their experiences, which can differ from the actual causes of their experiences.”
Woke Folk: “Why are you denying the Lived Experiences of marginalized people? Where is your compassion? Do you consider marginalized people to be unworthy of being listened to by you? Why are you denying their humanity and erasing their voices?”
Political dissident: “My rejection of these testimonies is predicated upon my recognition of the fact that the members of this demographic are, like all human beings, not infallible. Their interpretations of their experiences are not incorrigible, and acknowledging this is not tantamount to lacking compassion, considering them to be unworthy, denying their humanity, or erasing their voices. I simply think that these subjective experiences should not be treated as though the people expressing them are omniscient.”
Woke Folk: “I never said that I think that they’re infallible, I just think that it’s virtuous to be compassionate and to listen to other people’s truths.”
Political dissident: “I agree that it’s important to be compassionate and to listen. But being compassionate and listening does not obligate me to share in their interpretation of their experiences. If you agree that they’re not infallible, then you will not object to this.”
Woke Folk: “Fine, so what would it take to convince you that differences in outcome x between these groups is owed to systemic oppression?”
Political dissident: “Evidence and reasoned argument, neither of which can admit personal interpretations of anecdotal testimony. Are you prepared to have that conversation?”
Woke Folk: “Fine, let’s talk evidence.”
Having thus successfully maneuvered Woke Folk into the realm of evidence and reasoned argument, the political dissident is now in a position to deliver a coup de grace, for the intersectionalist who is barred from relying upon appeals to “Lived Experience” is as helpless as a fish in the desert. Sit back and enjoy watching the ideologue flop around helplessly in the hostile sands of empirical reality and under the garish sunlight of reason.
The appeal to “Lived Experiences” is not the only rhetorical strategy deployed by Woke Folk, but it ranks as among the most important (if not the most important.) Still, there are other rhetorical strategies at play, and counter-strategies must be developed and understood so that engagements with Woke Folk end favorably for the political dissident. If there is interest in future essays to this effect, please share and clap for this essay. With enough encouragement, I might be willing to impart additional experience on these matters to the devoted reader.
This article was originally published at Medium.