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Empathy for Lived Experiences


October 3 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye ( Christian tesfaye (christian. tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is a researcher and Fortune's op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling. )


There are few things that complicate political discourse as much as the introduction of this phrase: “lived experience.”

Over the past three years, I have scantly been able to have a talk with anyone, in a café or a pub, for an extended period before politics makes its way into the conversation. I often enjoy these exchanges and come out the richer for them, especially when they are subversive.

But, too often, these conversations come to a screeching halt when the discussion or argument becomes too heated. When the topic goes in such circular turns and twists, and there is no clear winner, someone on one side of the debate invokes a lived experience.

I have done it, and many people have invoked it against me as well. On too many occasions, I have no idea how to respond. I become scared of coming out sounding insensitive to circumstances that affect large groups of people. It is a wall. Very few risk being called a bigot, sexist or racist, even when that was not their intention and although they were engaging in good faith.

How can a person in Ethiopia that is considered to be disproportionately advantaged argue against identity politics when it is believed that such a person lacks the lived experience of identity groups that are believed to be historically oppressed? How can any man argue for a presumption of innocence toward individuals accused of sexual harassment when it is declared that no one that does not have the lived experience of women could possibly understand what it is like to be made to feel vulnerable under certain settings?

The complexity of these questions could not possibly be understated, and this is perhaps why we have a philosophical style of thought dedicated to it. Where Descartes applied his cold and detached method of analysis of cogito, ergo, sum- aka, “I think, therefore I am” - the phenomenologist rose up to look at the world in a more subjective, first-person experience of the world.

“The ‘phenomena’ that are the focus of phenomenology were assumed to present a rich character of lived experience,” explains the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a valuable resource for laypersons in need of understanding complex philosophical concepts. “Even Heidegger, while de-emphasising consciousness, dwelt on ‘phenomena’ as what appears or shows up to us in our everyday activities … arguably, for these thinkers, every type of conscious experience has its distinctive phenomenal character, its ‘phenomenology.’”

Let us dumb this down a bit - lived experience is a phenomenon close to anecdotal evidence. This is not to say that it is less rigorous - though the Cartesians will surely disagree. But it is subjective, and effectively disrupts the popular idea that certain things can be understood by anyone that gives them enough thought. A specific set of circumstances essentially inform a certain group's attitude and worldview in a way that a person from another group will have a hard time comprehending.

This is a chilling allegation against our pretensions to come to a consensus through pure discourse. There are some things, for instance, that I, as a man, could never have enough subjective experience to speak about with authority - such as structural sexism. I am robbed of the experience and have to depend on the group that claims to have it. Fair enough.

Is this workable though? How can this be affected in public policy? Are we to lavish affirmative rights on groups merely because they claim that they have been disadvantaged, even when the evidence for this is not clear? Do we sweep off entire institutions, systems and cultures, because members of minority groups collectively swear that they have been harmed by it, even when the evidence is not conclusive?

These are questions to which we seldom give enough attention. For those with lived experience - say, casual racism or sexism in a certain institution, to which there is no physical evidence - this is because they have been through such a gross enough injustice they feel others should surely know about it.

We feel that there is a collective conspiracy not to speak up by those not impacted by it, perhaps because they are a part of the in-group. In fact, this is usually true. It takes courage to speak out against one's group and risk being ostracised. Most who know prefer to remain silent for as long as they can to protect the benefits they rip from the existing structure or system. It is understandable that people with lived experiences but lacking a scientifically rigorous proof would feel frustrated and angry at this.

It is also why the least that can be said for dealing with lived experiences is that those who speak of them should be heard. The aim of this may not be to believe those that come with claims of group experience but to give ear to them, to take their frustrations and anger as seriously as possible.

The human capacity to empathise should not be underestimated. This is why we need to tell each other’s stories. It is because the human experience is rich and cannot be explained away - not yet anyways - through the use of purely objective analysis. But the more we attempt to see beyond our narrow and limited experiences, and raise the veil that our privilege imposes on us, the more we will be able to share the feelings of those who believe they are disadvantaged.

We may not be persuaded by a story told through someone’s experiences. But we will have given heed to the discontent and frustration. And that is something.



PUBLISHED ON Oct 03,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1066]



Christian tesfaye (christian. tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is a researcher and Fortune's op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.






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