Emilio Horner is a political science senior and Mustang News liberal columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the editorial coverage of Mustang News.
Any ontology is made impossible in a colonized and acculturated society – Franz Fanon.
I am white, straight, cis-gendered, middle class male. Pretty much the epitome of privilege. Our subjective experiences shape our worldview, and all too often, privileged viewpoints miss out on the nuisance of the lived experience of historically marginalized groups — especially when dominant views on race, sex and class are socialized with the discourse of a post-racial or colorblind society. This means that we ignore structural and institutional racism and its contributions to overciminalization policies, economic inequality, limited health care access, police killing and access to housing. America still remains a nation scarred from its original sin.
At the same time, we get protests like those at Yale, Princeton and even Cal Poly, where the clarity of structural racism, from a position of privilege, becomes blurred. This is especially true due to the overall lack of diversity at Cal Poly. At the end of day, understanding claims of victimhood come down to whether or not one can empathize with the lived experience of someone else. This raises the question: How do we know if we can trust someone else’s perception of an event? Furthermore, how do we as a society, make policies based on other people’s perceived lived experience?
The power of self-deception in humans is incredibly strong. An article came out in the New York Times Magazine last month discussing the strange case of an ethics professor at Rutgers University. This female professor worked with a severely disabled man who had never spoken due to cerebral palsy and was suspected to have a very low IQ. She used a technique known as “facilitated communication” to allow the disabled man to communicate.
At first, it was considered miraculous and the family was overjoyed. Eventually, oddly enough, the professor and man fall in love and start a sexual relationship, eventually telling the family. At first, the family was incredibly skeptical, then requested that the professor stop seeing their son, and eventually informed the police. The professor was then prosecuted for sexual assault because there was no evidence that the man had consented, other than the supposed communication that only the professor could have with the man. In fact, it turns out that “facilitated communication” is largely discredited as an education technique. A review of 19 studies of “facilitated communication” in the 1990s found zero validations across 183 tests. The way that it works is similar to moving a Ouija board and thinking it’s supernatural.
The point being, in the professor’s subjective lived experience she genuinely thought she was in love with someone in a consensual way over all evidence that this was not the case. Still, in the end she was convicted of sexual assault. Society sometimes supersedes the lived experience based on our collective understanding of when an experience is legitimate.
Similarly, if a friend approached you and said that he or she had depression, you would probably believe the friend and offer any support you could. If a friend told you he or she was transgender, you would say you accept their identity and understand that gender is a spectrum. But, if a friend told you, that monkeys were plotting to poison the world’s water supply, you would declare that person crazy, even though that is their subjective lived experience.
Therefore, there has to be some line where we stop listening to individual’s lived experiences and instead establish some form of societal norm for what is considered to be within the spectrum of truth.
This is what the left needs to do to ensure that identity politics don’t fully consume the political left. Especially when it’s not ridiculous to say that sometimes individuals do commit to their own pathology or victimhood because it provides a sense of identity and community — something that is super valuable when one is young, idealistic and lonely.
This is important because in the era where identity has gotten so complex and lines of victimhood have become so unclear, we need to decide which individuals morally deserve to be protected and supported.
So how do we judge the lived experience, when we are not living someone’s experience? How do we trust another’s feelings? What percentage of white supremacy or patriarchy or capitalism is responsible for why a white man does not hold the door open for a female who’s openly gay, working class and a person of color?
In the end, it comes down to confronting our own privileges due to understanding our social location, and being able to empathize and give individuals a chance to explain their position. There are a lot of times when the preponderance of evidence becomes so clear that we can assume racial motivation. This can be seen with the reason George Zimmerman decided to follow around Trayvon Martin, but there are also times when it is more complicated.
Then what one needs to do is look for institutional evidence of discrimination. The rate that blacks are in prison is insane, and proves a racial bias in the creation of the prison industrial complex. But when Yale is protesting a dissenting email of cultural appropriation, I’m not sure that’s a horrible type of oppression that is being claimed. But maybe it is.
Hopefully through engaged dialog and understanding of historically marginalized groups, we can make the world a better place. To those on the left, beware that the moral platitudes we’ve been conditioned to believe might not always be true. Trust the lived experience, but be skeptical. And to those on the right, I challenge you to challenge biasl, address the structures of racism, sexism and classism; be skeptical, but trust the lived experience.