James Innes-Smith

A brief history of ‘lived experience’

A brief history of 'lived experience'
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All experiences are lived, of course, but it seems some experiences are more 'lived' than others. Truth has become a moveable feast. This may seem like a contradiction. But this is where we find ourselves.

How you define the notion of truthfulness is yet another signifier of where you stand in the increasingly wearisome culture war. Whether you see the subjectivity of lived experience as a progressive force for good or just another postmodern mash-up will depend on your age and political persuasion.

Those who view experience through the lens of victimhood - mostly the activist young - tend to see objectivity as a tool of oppression.  In an article on the Everyday Feminism website entitled 4 Reasons Demanding ‘Objectivity’ in Social Justice Debates Can Be Oppressive, the author even goes so far as to assert that: 'Objectivity is often a sign of privilege and distance, not expertise.' Those interested in the facts are simply trying to undermine the voice of the victim and their right to be heard. Your concern with the facts cannot trump my experience of 'truth' - or so the logic goes. As such, the truth becomes little more than interpretation.

For those who have yet to pass through this strange looking glass, the denial of empirical evidence as a foundation of truth telling can feel deeply demoralising and quite frightening, especially when any 'victim' can speak their 'truth' with all manner of consequences for those who are implicated in it. Abandon objective truth and what's left other than a lot of shouting into the void? The consequences for civil society are immense. When vice-president Kamala Harris revealed that she had promised Joe Biden that she would always share with him her 'lived experience, as it relates to any issue that we confront', the implication was that her truth should override any inconvenient reality. Chilling doesn't even come close. 

So how did we arrive at the belief that the subjective experience of certain people exists in a realm that is beyond doubt?

The term 'lived experience', translated from the German Erlebnis, can be traced back to The Second Sex by the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, a seminal work of second-wave feminism. De Beauvoir argued that in order to answer the question 'what is a woman?' one had to dig much deeper than mere biological characteristics. Women were constrained by patriarchal social structures that were hard to quantify in purely objective terms. As the 'consciousness-raising' 1969 feminist Redstocking Manifesto put it: 'We regard our personal experiences and feelings about experience as the basis for an analysis of our common situation … Our chief task is to develop female class consciousness through sharing experience and publicly exposing the sexist foundation of all our situations.'

The term, then, is rooted in feminist scholarship, which is why it has become such a talking point around issues of male violence. The murder of Sarah Everard caused understandable outrage but it was remarkable how quickly women's anger shifted away from the actual perpetrator to the broader issue of women's lived experience of male abuse. It was as if an abhorrent but isolated incident of abduction and murder had become part of the female 'narrative'.

Shifting the focus onto women's lived experiences may appear to address the broader issue of male dysfunction but it can easily escalate into tribalism where violence is seen as innate to all men and must be reined in by strict curfews and re-education programmes.

The wording of this recent £50,000 per annum job advertisement for Head of Lived Experience at the mental health charity Mind even transforms the term into a professional attribute: 'Candidates for this role will have a personal direct experience of mental health problems with substantial experience of integrating this experience into your day-to-day work to inform your values, communications and approach to lived experience and community leadership.'  Here, 'lived experience', however traumatic, is touted as a form of career currency to put on your CV - just as you would a degree.

Meanwhile many on the left are refusing to accept the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities' report which found that the UK is not institutionally racist. Sidiq Khan casually dismissed 264 pages of clearly worded, substantiated evidence, tweeting: 'We need to acknowledge and listen to the lived experience of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in our country, so we can take meaningful action to break down barriers and make our society more equal for everyone.' 

An indignant Diane Abbott told Sky News: 'This is people's lived experience and it is as if this commission, which was set up by the Tories and by leading Tory advisers who don't believe in institutional racism at all, is taking us back in the argument for racial justice, not taking us forward.' In other words the report must have been falsified because the evidence simply didn't compute with Diane's rigidly constructed narrative that sees all BAME individuals as victims. How dare the report violate her 'truth'.

This rush to delegitimise our shared humanity has spread to the creative world where authors are criticised for daring to imagine a life that isn’t their own and on matters of race where nobody can comment on issues affecting those of a different race because of a lack of 'lived experience'. And it was ultimately what made Oprah Winfrey's interview with Meghan Markle so one-sided. Oprah's unspoken view seemed to be that the Duchess's word was final and should not be questioned.

Having unshackled ourselves from our heritage of empiricism, we seem to be drifting away from the ancient Greek notion of thesis and antithesis where conflicting ideas were deliberately held up against each other. Now, the only required response when someone decides to share their 'truth' is to sit in silence and listen.