Will lived experiences divide us?

Lorenzo Benitez thinks we’re more capable of empathy than identity politics grants.

To fully understand the experience of marginalisation requires you have first hand experience of that marginalisation. This assumption is fundamental to today’s practice of identity politics, with many claiming we should give more credence to those who have actually experienced racism, sexism, transphobia and other forms of oppression. This is evident in how people of a marginalised identity often invoke it—for example, “as a gay person of colour, I believe ..”—so as to assume a more authoritative position from which they may pontificate. Speaking philosophically, this is the primacy of phenomenal knowledge: the idea that a conscious being’s first-hand experience of a phenomenon is unknowable in a complete sense; even if you learn everything about that conscious being, right down to the atomic structure of their neurobiology, you’ll never know what their subjective experience is like. This view undergirds left-wing orthodoxy, common on campuses in the US and increasingly Australia, that victims of marginalisation have the final say on what it’s like to endure that marginalisation.

For much of its history, identity politics has been nobly concerned with giving oppressed people the resources to understand their own experiences. It helps address what philosopher Miranda Fricker has called hermeneutical injustice, which is the social disadvantage that prevents the oppressed from interpreting the realities of oppression. For instance, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the word ‘racism’ entered the English language: before that, it’s difficult to conceive of how victims of racism would have been able to make sense of what they were suffering. Or take the American civil rights movement, which helped people of an oppressed racial identity conceptualise their oppression as shared and hence mobilise in response to it. Identity politicians invoke this concept in advocating for victims of injustice. But we should question the consequences of taking this position to its logical extreme.

The problem with this view is its disavowal of empathy; doggedly believing that we can only understand our own lived experience risks a kind of phenomenal solipsism. Different people experience what it is like to belong to a particular identity in different ways, according to other intersecting characteristics: for example, we might think a person who identifies as bisexual has the authority to speak about bisexuality.

But, if that person is a PoC and from a Catholic nuclear family, their experiences may be very different from those of a white, bisexual person with an a religious upbringing. Pursuing this line of reasoning forces us to recognise no two people have the same lived experience. We must therefore conclude that each of us are relegated to our own separate corners, lonely with knowledge about our experiences that we can never fully share.

Considered philosophically, this phenomenal solipsism has a lot going for it, and it is admittedly difficult to rebut. However, humans are an inferential species: we can generalise from our personal experiences, projecting our observations into concepts about the way the world works. It’s this inductive capacity that has allowed us to build our material world: the sciences depend on our ability to isolate variables and project their causal relationship to subsequent phenomena. Even beyond the sciences, our inferential capacities let us communicate deeper, emotional experiences. For instance, psychology argues that literature broadens empathy, in a way that anyone who has ever cried at the end of the book can attest. Even something as rudimentary as words on a page can offer significant insight into the phenomenal quality of a character’s subjective experience.

When it comes to actual human interaction, our inferences are even more successful at establishing empathy. We can convey meaning through language and the other affections of real-life conversation. Surely, this suggests we can at least try to imagine someone else’s phenomenal experience; even if that image is sometimes hopelessly inaccurate, the capacity at least is there. This is similar to how science periodically gets things wrong, but for the most part yields true insight. For example, every person has likely been excluded at one point in their life because of characteristics arbitrary to their personal identity. When talking about racism, a PoC who has experienced it can invoke these common experiences to ensure even their Caucasian friends are not beyond empathy. Hence, being able to theorise about racism should not depend on one’s racial identity.

Leftists should therefore question the phenomenal solipsism implied by the most extreme forms of identity politics. It’s assumptions can sow disunity between people based on the arbitrary nature of identity, stifling progressive visions for a fairer and more united world. While such solipsism may have logical merit, so too do the foundations of our inductive, empathic abilities. Since they’re equally sound positions, we should favour that with more social merit. Between the view that could divide us into epistemic cubicles, or that which holds such boundaries can be transcended, it should be obvious which between the two we ought to favour.