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Experience is hot these days. Hot, hot, hot. But it’s had an upgrade. It’s now “lived experience.” The modifier is as infallible and as seemingly redundant as the “furious” that precedes “row” or the “explosive” that precedes “revelations” in middle-market journalism. If you’ve been following the recent twists and turns of liberal identity politics you’ll have come across it constantly. It enters conversations from the Black Lives Matter movement to the swerf ‘n’ terf wars over sex-work and trans rights, and the campus politics of “cultural appropriation.” The formulation has spilled from social media into the mainstream press. A recent Telegraph film review credited the female lead with making “every syllable feel like it springs from lived experience”; a Guardian piece on Rachel Dolezal argued the term “transracial” had been coined to describe the “lived experience of children raised in homes that are different from their birth.”
When you hear about “lived experience” (is there another kind?) it is implicitly touted as something giving the experiencer either a special or—in the strong case—an exclusive authority to speak on a given subject. It is routinely at risk of being “silenced” or “erased” by what in the old days we called hegemonic discourse. It has become a shibboleth—a linguistic gesture signifying familiarity with a particular ideological tribe. Where Marxists used to bang on about “revolutionary consciousness,” “alienation” and “dialectic,” liberals now bang on about “lived experience” and “silencing.” The reflex and automatic use of the phrase—as a set-phrase—has started to make it sound like cant.
This is not to sneer—or not exactly. On the one hand it makes obvious moral sense to privilege those voices that can tell us what something is actually like. It’s enraging to be told what your life is like by people who aren’t living it; particularly if in a system of inequality those people…