One of the more toxic concepts of Critical Theory is the overriding importance of ‘lived experience’ and the disqualification of empirical data and statistical reasoning. The latter are seen as tools of the western white male patriarchy and not to be trusted. There are several problems with an approach that centres unverified ‘lived experience’ and excludes other forms of evidence.
1. According to Social Justice Theory, not everybody’s ‘lived experience’ is equally important and it is only the ‘lived experience of historically marginalised groups that counts. Who decides what these marginalised groups are? The high priestesses (mainly) of Social Justice Theory decide, and given the subject matter of this blog that means the ‘lived experience’ of women but not men. However, it gets worse, that ‘lived experience’ has to conform to Social Justice Theory, in this case, orthodox feminist liturgy, or it does not count. If an account doesn’t align with ideas of pervasive misogyny and (imaginary) patriarchal power structures, it is excluded. You can see that, in effect, this approach comes pre-loaded with the required answers and it is illiberal and antiscientific.
2. The ‘lived experience’ approach discounts empirical forms of knowledge that have been the mainstay of our culture since the enlightenment. It is with good reason that some commentators have referred to the rise of Social Justice culture in our universities as the de-enlightenment. A good example of the problems that can arise from the neglect of empirical principles comes from a recent article in Quillette, Lived Experiences Aren’t Special by Tim Hsaio. He argues that ‘lived experience’ is a source of emotional bias that easily leads us astray. He cites the example of all the evidence from large and rigorous studies that smoking is bad for our health and can cause lung cancer. Using the ‘lived experience‘ approach you might argue ‘my Uncle Bob smoked all his life and never got cancer’ and his ‘lived experience’ means smoking doesn’t cause cancer. That, of course, is a facile argument but not much different from the rhetoric you hear every day from activists. In a similar vein, in my post of May 9th, Laura Bates and Pervasive Misogyny, I cited data from empirical studies that contradicted the litany of unverified ‘lived experience‘ data being collected by Laura Bates.
That is not to say that quantitative data can not lead us astray and statistics can be used to mislead as well as enlighten. But you are more likely to be found out misusing empirical data because it can be independently verified. Neither do men have a monopoly of wisdom when it comes to statistical reasoning just look at the pioneering work of Florence Nightingale who studied mortality in military hospitals in the Crimea. It is not a western white male way of looking at the world.
3. Our memories are unreliable. I remember telling somebody about my reactions to the first moon landing. I gave an account of how our conversation and our play at primary school that day centred around those events on the moon. However, when I checked the dates of the moon landing, I realised that my account could not possibly have been true because I was at secondary school by the time of the moon landing. I needn’t have felt bad, this sort of unreliability is commonplace, even normal. When we remember an event we are really remembering the last time we recalled it and each time it is retrieved from our memory it can subtly alter.
The research of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus from the University of California has explored the ease with which false memories can arise or even be inadvertently planted by well-intentioned therapists. Her work has been used to expose false memories in historic sex abuse cases, for example. Looking at volunteers, she demonstrated how easy it is to implant memories of events that never happened. She showed how people going into therapy for depression and eating disorders were coming out with a more serious problem – false memories of traumatic events that they thought they had repressed. It isn’t that their therapist deliberately implanted these memories but their worldview was that repressed memories were the best explanation their clients difficulties and they needed to find them. In doing so they sometimes managed to implant false memories. For a good account of her work, I recommend an article from New Scientist here. The YouTube video below also gives a useful account of her work.
I will come as no surprise that a line of research that cast doubt on recovered memories in sex abuse cases should have attracted the ire of activists. There were letter-writing campaigns to get her sacked from her university position and she even received hate mail and death threats. More recently she has endured ad hominem attacks from a feminist writer at the New Yorker. Rachel Aviv complained that her work ‘collided with our traumatised moment’ – whatever that means (see here).
It should be clear that our memories of our ‘lived experience’ are unreliable, particularly, if they are viewed through the prism of ‘Social Justice’ in general and feminism in particular. It doesn’t mean that we should disregard oral histories but they need to be viewed alongside empirical evidence and we should be wary of those stories presented through ideological frameworks.
For example, I am interested in World War One and an account of the battle of the Somme that only deals with numbers of men, quantities of arms and strategic positions would be lacking. But an account, based purely on oral histories of soldiers, from one side only, filtered to conform to the ideological perspective of the author would paint an even more inaccurate picture of events. The latter approach is what we get from too many activists.