Plumbing the Depths of Lived Experience

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 12/12

To what extent do our personal experiences determine reality?

No, you didn’t just step into a philosophy seminar. The question is not nearly as esoteric as it may sound—in fact, your answer would serve as a decent gauge for whether or not you could land (or keep) a job in today’s academy.

Consider this all-too-familiar scenario: You teach at a law school, and in one of your classes you say a derogatory word while reading from some historic case proceedings. A group of students gets offended and reports you to your higher-ups, after which you are placed under a formal investigation. You argue your innocence, claiming that you merely referenced a case that your class needs to learn. Your students, meanwhile, allege discrimination, because they felt offended upon hearing the word in question.

How do the university investigators decide who is right? Do they side with you since you were indeed reading aloud from a historical document? Or do they side with the students since they felt offended? In other words, to what extent do their personal experiences determine reality?

Here we have “lived experience” in action, a concept dictating that our personal experiences determine reality to a great extent (or at least the experiences of some, as we will see). The term has become a buzzword among academic activists, who claim that lived experience should be on equal, or even higher, footing as compared to empirical evidence when conducting research. Striving for objectivity, we are told, can even be harmful.

But make no mistake: just like the now-ubiquitous Critical Race Theory, lived experience is by no means confined to the musings of a few radical professors. For starters, it has also made significant inroads in higher ed administration. Take, for example, the 2015 professional competency requirements for Offices of Student Affairs, co-authored by the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. The first required “Foundational Outcome” it lists for student affairs educators is to “[i]dentify systems of socialization that influence one’s multiple identities and sociopolitical perspectives and how they impact one’s lived experiences.”

This social justice word salad has real-life consequences, leading to entire offices of administrators who allow subjective experience to define reality. Moreover, the appeal to lived experience erodes the bedrock of higher education itself: the disinterested pursuit of (objective) truth. How, then, ought we respond? In a recent article for Minding the Campus, Professor Timothy Hsiao offers a long-form critique of lived experience—as well as the broader concept of standpoint epistemology—arguing that it is fallacious to its core. He writes,

This term usually refers to the experiences of minority groups who live under allegedly oppressive power structures. They are said to hold special epistemic weight because they offer unique insight into the nature of oppression and structural injustice from the standpoint of those who are dominated. … Woke activists often use lived experiences as evidence of widespread injustice, which they then accompany with a call for action and social change. Yet basing one’s entire case on lived experiences is, quite simply, bad statistical reasoning. 

… oppression is something that can only be understood if it is felt. Those in dominant groups lack this epistemic prerequisite, as they cannot be oppressed on account of their being in a position of power.

We see that lived experience can only go one way—the lived experience of the oppressed, not the oppressor, determines reality. According to this thinking, the aggrieved students described above would be indisputably correct, regardless of the facts of the matter. Hsiao goes on to argue that in defending the validity of lived experience, postmodern activists often beg the question: “if lived experiences only derive their weight from a specific epistemic framework, then using lived experiences as a way of validating that framework is rigging the game by assuming the very thing in question.”

To be sure, there is some value in considering lived experience. But we must always weigh our experience against the relevant facts so as to ground our experiences in reality. The more academia embraces lived experience as the primary arbiter of reality, the farther it will stray from its core mission, destroying any semblance of education in the process.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: James Eades, Public Domain

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