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The Tyranny of Lived Experience
My second speech from the Battle of Ideas
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Two weeks ago, I was privileged to speak at the Battle of Ideas in Westminster, debating some of the biggest issues facing society. Below is a transcript of the opening speech I gave on the ‘The Tyranny of Lived Experience’:
“According to some, I am nothing more than a straight, white, ‘cis’, male. Minus the ‘cis’, these descriptors are all factually accurate. Yet, tellingly, they are almost always used as a putdown and, crucially, they tell you next to nothing about me or my unique life experiences.
Identity politics, where one’s ‘lived experience’ is prized above all else and where groups of individuals are placed into categories of ‘privilege’ or ‘victimhood’, is the fashion of the day.
At best, I argue that the concept of ‘lived experience’ is an utter irrelevance – what other experience does one have than that which they have lived? The moment at which you stop experiencing ‘lived experience’ is surely, the moment at which you die? I recently came across an NHS Trust hiring a ‘Director for Lived Experience’ – what are the job requirements – to have the ability breathe to oxygen?!
However, at its worst, it is a regressive tool, used to shut down conversation and place people into rigid boxes from which they cannot escape, solely based on personal characteristics often completely outside of their control.
I recently attended a webinar hosted by Pink News, an organisation known for its pushing of identity politics in its supposed journalism.
At the very beginning of the day, the host told us he and his panellists were “open to challenge and debate but that should not be around ‘lived experience”. This was the ultimate oxymoron – in other words, there was to be no challenge.
I hear time and time again of important debate and dialogue, including in educational institutions, coming to a grinding halt the moment someone utters: “you don’t have my lived experience”. There is no comeback to that and the individuals who use it, know it. It places people into the ultimate double bind – “you must understand me but you can never understand me”. So it can pay dividends to invoke ‘lived experience’, especially if you are lacking any coherent or substantive arguments to support the case you are making.
I have spent the last number of years advocating on behalf of child safeguarding and women’s rights. And yet, not infrequently, I am effectively told to sit down and shut up because I have no children and am a man.
However, this type of approach flies completely in the face of one of the core tenets of psychotherapy, and indeed humanity in general, empathy.
As human beings, we have the unique ability to put ourselves into the shoes of others and conjure up a sense of what is going on for them in that moment. One does not need to be Ukrainian to empathise with and understand the plight of the Ukrainian people. One does not need to have been a migrant to be eligible to debate a country’s migration policy.
I thought we as a ‘liberal’ society were moving away from regressive stereotypes and judging appearances. However, it appears as if we are right back in the bad ol’ days.
I recently came across an “educational tool” being used in schools called the Wheel of Power/Privilege. Its purpose is to teach about ‘intersectionality’ and ‘lived experience’ and people are placed into buckets entitled ‘power’ or ‘marginalised’ based on their personal characteristics.
Here are some of the characteristics, which, if you possess them, should signal to you that you are ‘privileged’ or ‘powerful’:
Being married – Would a wife living in an abusive relationship consider herself powerful?
Being slim – Would someone struggling with anorexia consider themselves privileged?
Being European – Would someone on the front line in Ukraine consider themselves privileged?
I could go on.
This type of rhetoric ignores the complexity of human existence and the fact that you cannot make such sweeping judgments about individuals with such limited knowledge. It also shames people – sending a message that if you possess certain characteristics, that you are not deserving of praise when you succeed or empathy when you struggle, on the basis that you are inherently ‘privileged’.
Furthermore, far from instilling resiliency in our children, crucial in a world often unpredictable and unfair, it tells swathes that they are victims because of certain characteristics they possess and that they will, to some extent, always remain victims.
Finally, a word on this. The obsession over ‘lived experience’ relating to objective, factual characteristics is bad enough. However, in a world of postmodernism, we are now witnessing people claim ‘lived experience’ over a ‘self-identity’ that they have essentially invented. We see this in the ongoing ‘trans’ debate – how can a male who has never been biologically female have any comprehension of what it feels like to be the other sex? Should we now start to allow adults to self-identify as children, if that aligns with their internal ‘lived experience’? I fear it is only a matter of time.
The assumption that we can break down the complexities of a fellow human being into bitesize labels based on a perception of ‘lived experience’ from certain immutable characteristics they possess is disingenuous and dangerous. ‘Straight, white, men’ can also suffer from poverty, ill-health, abuse, lack of education, relationship conflict, etc.
We all have ‘lived experience’ – in fact, it is the only experience we have. The sooner we start to treat each other as the complex, unique humans that we are, rather than homogenous blobs, the better.”