Lived Experience

Lynet‘s point about the difference between different applications of lived experience is strong enough to require me to clarify my general anti-anecdote position. To summarize the original bone of contention, I said just taking women’s (and minorities’) word for it whenever they say something offends them is akin to taking pro-Israeli Jewss whenever they say criticism of Israel is illegitimate. Lynet responds,

You seem to have some concern that anyone could pick a particular word or phrase, claim to be offended by it, and demand that it not be said. One point that needs to be noted is that such a demand is considerably more reasonable when the word or phrase in question is not necessary in order for some particular statement to be able to be said at all. Thus, for example, demanding that no-one criticise Israel for fear of being anti-Semitic stifles an important viewpoint, and should be disallowed. On the other hand, asking that people not refer to women as ‘cunts’ only stifles an important viewpoint if you really do think that the word ‘cunt’, with all its implications, is best way to get your viewpoint across.

I suppose in this case a better analogy of “cunt” is to “apartheid.” It’s not really necessary to invoke the word “apartheid” in reference to the situation in Israel; I manage to criticize the occupation perfectly well without having ever used it, except for one instance in which a South African UN official said so. The term itself is offensive to many people, including many who oppose the occupation, precisely because it has a strongly delegitimizing connotation. Since so much of Zionism is concerned with the very legitimacy of Israel, comparing it to such a pariah state as South Africa under apartheid touches a nerve.

In fact, I don’t use the word “apartheid” for the same reason I don’t use “cunt”: precisely because it’s so emotionally loaded. I strive for factual arguments, which is why I tend to avoid touching people’s nerves. But at the same time, I defend people who use the word “apartheid” against accusations of recklessness or anti-Semitism. Just because a group claims to be oppressed doesn’t give it the right to control anyone else’s vocabulary.

The “claims” part is crucial; although it’s possible to separate oppressed from non-oppressed groups, in practice the left tends to separate the two based primarily on political alliances. In cases of serious oppression, such as legal discrimination or economic and social inequality, there are ways to separate the two without any a priori assumption about who is oppressed and who isn’t.

And that brings me to my main point. Lived experience in such matters as gender and race is very useful as a motivating example. Betty Friedan’s research into the condition of housewives began with an observation about herself and her college class.

But just as motivating examples in mathematics aren’t proofs, so are motivating examples in social policy not evidence. The problem is that people routinely get offended over frivolities, and, in a suitably radicalizing context such as a consciousness raising group or a housegroup, turn them into very deep and utterly wrong theories about the world. Susan Brownmiller’s theory of a rape is a good example of this on a large scale.

Part of this stems from confusion between legal reasoning and scientific reasoning. The law is inherently based on anecdotes, both in its reliance on eyewitness testimony and the common law system’s emphasis on precedents. A sexual harassment lawsuit’s success depends on whether the plaintiff can produce several women independently claiming harassment by the same person or witnesses to a single act of harassment.

But that’s not a good basis for social policy. Social policy should inform the law, not the other way around. Even branches of feminist and antiracist movements that aren’t overtly policy-related are in the realm of social science, which has more statistical standards of evidence.

And that brings me back to claims that the word “cunt” is oppressive based on women’s lived experience. Lived experience is only the first step; it has to be followed with rigorous inquiry into the evidence that underlies it. For example, is there any longlasting psychological trauma associated with “cunt” (or “apartheid”) the way there is with “nigger”? Is there any evidence that in general, gender-neutral language promotes less sexism given that e.g. China is perfectly sexist even though spoken Mandarin is almost entirely non-sexist?

That, ultimately, is what matters. Anecdotes can give powerful indications a trend may hold, just like motivating examples in math can give strong evidence for a theorem that will take a hundred years to prove. But there’s a reason conjectures need to be proven to be considered full-fledged theorems.

6 Responses to Lived Experience

  1. Thorne says:

    Just because a group claims to be oppressed doesn’t give it the right to control anyone else’s vocabulary.

    I came late to this post, moving backward from the Carnival of the Godless to your goodbye to this. I recently commented on a thread entitled “What the F**k?: In defense of Women who Swear. I would agree with your above statement and yet the fact that the thread I meantion, has come to a dead stop since I posted the following:
    I can still remember the moment that I decided to reclaim the words “cunt” and “bitch”.
    “Bitch” was easy; I had and still have, no problem being identified as a bitch; I’m as bitch as I wanna be!
    “Cunt” was another story altogether. What exactly is it about that word that makes the strongest, most intelligent of we women shudder with revulsion? It is solely the fact that it has been used as a term of degradation to and for us and our place of deepest mystery by men for so long that we have attached their fear and disgust to the word. The moment I chose to stop allowing those two words to be used as terms to degrade or intimidate me, I was free to claim them as part of my very heritage as a woman.
    I’m a bitch!! I am not a cunt, but I have a cunt!! I love my cunt! (I also love it by many other names.)

    “Cunt” does indeed carry “Lived experience” for most women, whether it has ever been applied to them personally or not. You see above my answer to removing the power from the speaker. It is a much more efficient than trying to control someone else’s speech. Still, unless every oppressed person can adopt this sort of philosophy, such words will continue to be powerful. I know this was a little OT, but I felt inspired to comment. Too bad you’re quitting. I juat came upon you, and have been enjoying the read. I’m wandering over to a few of the blogs you suggest in a subsequent post. Thanks!

  2. John Xavier Knobsplott says:

    In response…

    …My shorts are on fire, yes, my cottony underpants are ablaze. I sit here…the flames grow higher and higher, yet their source is not consumed…Ow, it hurts, it burns…Ouch, Ouch. All around me is engulfed in lapping tongues of flame. From beneath my britches leaps this insatiable fire. The inferno grows, yet my shorts remain. Ouch. Ow.
    See ya,

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