Lived Experiences Aren’t Special

Originally published at: Lived Experiences Aren’t Special – Quillette

Some time ago I found myself in the middle of a discussion about race relations and minority experiences. When it was my chance to speak, I mentioned some statistical data that appeared to challenge the common narrative that racism is widespread and systemic. My interlocutor’s reply was that he simply did not care about the…


Great essay. I especially appreciated this excerpt, which provides further evidence (if any were needed) that Wokeness is a religion:

To be fair, it’s not just progressive activists who will build cases on experiences or anecdotes. When others do it, the reasoning is equally flimsy. But progressive activists are unique in that they view these experiences as sacred and unquestionable. While most recognize that experiences are useful illustrative tools, lived experiences take on the status of quasi-divine revelation for them.

The organization I work for recently solicited comments about a policy related to race. Employees were asked to leave feedback in one of two columns: “Comments from members regarding latest draft posted above who have lived and intimate experiences of structural racism and social injustice” or “Comments from members regarding the latest draft posted above who have learned experiences of structural racism and social injustice.” Presumably the former are deemed more authentic and authoritative than the latter. I’m sure I would be pilloried if I made the once-obvious point that arguments should be judged on their own merit (the content of the comment) independent of the identity of the person making them (the color of the commenter’s skin).

Yet another example of how Woke anti-racism is a form of neo-racism.


And how much of that ‘lived experience’ was not coloured by by cognitive biases?


One of the problems which postmodernism fails to confront when looking at race is that the overwhelming majority of systemic or structural racism requires no human agency at all- even in terms of implicit bias. Indeed, if the activists has bothered to read their Stokely Carmichael who, in defining institutional racism, laid the foundation for the concepts of systemic and structural racism, then they would know that one does need racists or even implicit bias to have racism. In his thesis, he used the NYPD as an example, and believed that even if one completely replaced the entire organisation with upstanding Black choristers, then the NYPD would still be institutionally racist because the circumstances in which African Americans in New York lived at the time, would have made them far more likely to come into contact with the police in a negative manner.

The problem is this doesn’t gel with the activists ‘epistemological framework’- the ideology of all the critical theories require oppressor and oppressed groups in order to generate its call to dismantle the Enlightenment culture of liberal democracies (which is the explicitly stated aim of all critical theories, given their underling basis as conflict theories). This doesn’t mean that structural of systemic racism never has implicit or unconscious bias at its root- affinity or ingroup bias in hiring has proven to be quite discriminatory in practice, even if some critics of the studies of this phenomenon have asserted that class may play a far greater role in this problem than race. But overall, any empirical analysis of the evidence would have to lay 80% to 90% of the disparity between group at the feet of other more nebulous factors, instead of racism or implicit bias.

In his landmark study of social mobility, Dr Raj Chetty looked at the life progress of every child in America over a given period. The single greatest factor in upward social mobility from the bottom 20% of the socio-economic spectrum was found to be the proportion of fathers in the community in which a child grows, far more determinative than even quality of education.

What makes matter worse, is that we know that stable family formation is also vital for the creation of family wealth. Simply put two income households are far more likely to give their kids a better start in life, from an economic standpoint, so any group which has a low rate of family formation is likely to experience a form of intergenerational reset, pushing the group back down the socio-economic spectrum. In this light, the following graph is highly informative:

I’ve already covered the subject of systemic hegemony in another substack thread, it shows how AI is spotlighting the biases which financial, insurance and actuarial systems reifies race, even when such considerations are deliberately removed through statutory mandate. This should concern all of us- because living in cultures which have the sovereignty of the individual as a core value, such collectivist systems built into the framework of our society as systemic disadvantages strikes at the very heart of classical liberalism. We may not care that an actor faces higher premiums to insure his car, but we should care more that a Black marine might face a higher chance of rejection when trying to take out a loan to start his own restaurant, simply because of the life factors he was faced with, growing up Black.

We also need to consider the historic harms done to African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil Rights era. High density urban public housing became absolutely catastrophic in its ability to amplify social ills, as soon as well-meaning liberals insisted that public housing become less discriminatory. All the behavioural evidence shows that when one groups the antisocial with the prosocial, especially in teenage peer groups, the prosocial become more antisocial, with no positive influence on the antisocial, whatsoever.

Similarly, sending out agents in every American city to recruit African American single mothers onto welfare was also absolutely disastrous, given that the primary proviso of the welfare checks was not having a significant male father figure in the home. Overall, if we look at the history of African American economic progress in America, then it is clear that the African American community made far greater strides towards economic parity with whites during the Jim Crow era- when overt racism was as endemic as it was brutal- than they have done since the institution of the War on Poverty.

Here in the UK, the evidence of the calamitous effects of Liberal Consensus policies framed around well-meaning government intervention is even more damning. Bangladeshi British and Afro Caribbean British ethnicities both fare poorly today because of the historical legacy of such government policies, compared to groups of comparable race, but differing ethnicity. But they are not alone- the white working class, more aptly described as an underclass in modern terms, were also beneficiaries of these good intentions gone horribly wrong. Today a white working class boy in Britain only has a 9% chance of going to university in a broader population where 50% attend university. For white working class girls, the figure is only slightly better, at 14%.

Finally, we need to consider the elephant in the room- perhaps the most thorny and controversial issue in American politics and culture- that of race and American policing. To be sure, the current perception of police brutality is based if not wholly then substantially on the failure of American journalism to report exactly similar police shootings of unarmed white men at a national level, with the deliberate intention of misleading the American public into believing a narrative of overwhelming racism in policing. This is not to say that racism does not exist in the American Criminal Justice, but it exists for entirely different reasons than the media would have you believe.

It was the bad legislative policies of both the Reagan and Clinton eras, and their impact on whole slew of issues from the legal and court related to a failure to provide treatment as an alternative to prison which is the main factor in mass incarceration, not policing. The police are merely the janitors for social ills in our societies- they are not the politicians who pass the laws, or the politically ambitious prosecutors who applied those laws with draconian discretion.

And at the moment, the criminal justice pendulum has swung violently the other way, with the leniency of public prosecutors and the complete withdrawal of proactive policing methods (through the not unjustified concerns of police officers that they will be hung out to dry if anything goes wrong), leading to soaring homicide rates in poor high crime African American and Latino communities. One has to wonder whether as soon as one focuses upon race as an issue for public policy reform, one isn’t entirely doomed to fail catastrophically.

For police, whether one believes in the mounting and conclusive evidence that proactive policing is vital to maintain positive social conditions for the disadvantaged, it is clear the police do. For them, it’s a matter of competing virtues, even though many will not have read Aristotle on ethics.

Their sense of justice, magnanimity, patience and friendliness might make them want to desire to be kinder to wayward youth, but in high crime communities the cynical voice of wisdom teaches that they need their moral courage far more. Even before the current violent crime surge, homicide was the leading cause of death for African American men under the age of 45, and the absence of anti-gang focused proactive policing is causing this very American problem to get worse.

There are two insurmountable problems which police instructors face when training new recruits. First, no matter how realistic they make their life and death training simulations, there is no way of knowing how a particular individual will react to the high stress environment of potential immediate death. This can lead to circumstances where the layperson misjudges fatally poor judgement under the influence of an extreme adrenalin reaction as racism. Second, there is no way of knowing how a particular person will react to power- often the nicest and most affable people become tyrannical bullies when exposed to a little power.

This is the real problem with lived experience, because if relied upon without the generosity of spirit required to give people the benefit of the doubt when ascribing motives it has the potential to backfire spectacularly. And one has to wonder whether the activists and academics aren’t making exactly the mistake that some police officers have historically made.

Because just as working as a police officer in a poor high crime community might invite a level of cynicism which causes an officer to make snap judgements about a member of the public on the basis of previous interactions and experience- leading to a form of experience acquired racial bias- to what extent are those inclined to make snap judgements about the motives of American policing using similarly flawed availability heuristics? In the final analysis, lived experience is just a collection of anecdotes by another name, and the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

Similar comments and essays in this vein are available on my substack, which is free to view and comment.


So those who wish to accord special argumentative weight to lived experiences face a dilemma.
Either lived experiences have special weight on their own merits, or they have special weight within the context of a larger postmodern epistemic system. If the former, then according special weight to lived experiences amounts to nothing more than fallacious statistical reasoning. If the latter, then it is circular reasoning, which is also fallacious.

Heh. No, that’s the dilemma they will not face.


Editors should start replacing “lived experience” with “personal anecdote”.

Funny enough, when I made the argument that “lived experience” was just experience, quite a few commenters here at Quillette said they thought “lived” was a useful modifier either as distinguishing from vicarious or as emphasizing it came from everyday life. If I feel like it, I’ll try to find the thread and include a link here. The thread was from last year, I think, or maybe early this year.

Needless to say, I agree very strongly with the author.

Edit: Found the thread.


Have you made this argument within your organization because if you haven’t then it’s unlikely anything will change.

I’ve been wondering where on earth the expression “lived experience” comes from, because it sounds redundant. How can you have an experience you haven’t lived?

The other day I was trying to read a French article online (my French is pretty basic), and I ran into the expression “l’expérience vécu” – experience lived. If you google for that expression, you will see that very often it is just translated as ‘experienced’. Could it be that “lived experience” is just an inept translation from French?

No! Googling further I found reference to the expression in the writings of Michel Foucault. And it seems “l’expérience vécu” is meant to render in French the German term Erlebnis. The terms Erlebnis and Erfahrung are used in Phenomenology to distinguish between subjective, immediate experience, and experience that is more like wisdom, or scientific knowledge.

Phenomenology starts with the careful attention to subjective experience, but it is not meant to do away with objective knowledge. Foucault borrowed the concept from the phenomenologists, and applied it to his study of medical practice, with the goal at looking at how mental patients experienced their illnesses.

I think what has happened is that the idea of ‘lived experience’ as something that needs to be taken seriously has morphed into the idea that it overrides all other points of view – that the first person point of view trumps the third person point of view. And that’s crazy.

(These are just some stray thoughts based on skimming of online sources. I’ve read very little Foucault. So, caveat lector.)


I’ve left numerous comments on the feedback document, but I’m confident that they’ll be ignored.

I’m not sure this is true. A plurality of Blacks have achieved middle-class status since the Civil Rights era, which is reflected in poverty rates:

There are still massive disparities in wealth, but that’s because median white wealth has increased while Black wealth has remained stagnant.

I do agree that some (but not all) of the welfare programs associated with the War on Poverty contributed to the dysfunction and dependence of Black families that were not able to escape poverty.


How is that last graph defining family and wealth and is it showing mean or median? I have a hard time believing the median household wealth (net worth?) of white families was over $750k in 2016. If I’m just wrong then, holy cow, I must be from the left tail of that distribution.

Edit: I looked it up. Wealth is defined, essentially, as net worth (gross assets minus liabilities). I presume family is defined as household. The values in the graph are average, not median. There are large gaps in the median values but obviously the scale is much smaller.


Looks like you already found it, but there’s the source:

And here’s the median:


I would bet median family wealth correlates strongly with home ownership rates, or rather that much of a family’s wealth is tied up in the home. Not that this invalidates the data or anything. It’s just interesting for interpreting the data. Of course, trying to address that disparity directly brings you to 2008.

Edit: Just scrolled up thread and realized this is the lived experience thread. I tried to find a way to bring this around to the topic, but I just got deeper into data analysis. So, instead, I’ll just comment that this power of narrative over good analysis is well understood in marketing, advertising, and public relations. Seminal works, great starting points for thinking about this, include Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (wherein the modern usage of stereotype was coined) and Eddie Bernays’ Propaganda.


It’s in the very nature of the neural net rigid-but-fragile system of beliefs. Hopelessly subjective, its own experiences is all it’ll ever know. Questioning them makes it feel like its very existence is being questioned.

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… It won’t tell you, but it is fighting for its life!

(neither of which you’d find particularly funny even if it did tell you… ok, maybe at first, but not after realizing that little cutie didn’t make it this far by playing by the rules – or by neglecting to make friends along the way, lol… or by not having to learn, early on and with a great sense of relief, that everything is fair in love and war ==> no more pain of trying and failing to tell which is which, yay!)

Now back to reality :wink: – in which you are still in the dark, bitching about “the cancel culture” and secretly wondering “why me?!..”

Your graph illustrates my point. It shows poverty rates amongst Blacks declining massively until 1966/1967, and then the poverty rate remains largely static until 1991/1992. That was my point- African Americans made significant strides before the War on Poverty, and then their economic progress flatlined.


OK, but that’s not the point you originally made:

The Jim Crow era began after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Blacks made very little economic progress until opportunities expanded in the wake of the modern (1950s - 1960s) Civil Rights movement. In other words, most African Americans remained mired in poverty until efforts to combat endemic racism began to succeed.

It’s also worth noting that poverty rates did continue to decline if transfers and benefits are factored in.

Jim Crow didn’t end until 1964. As the original graph showed, Black American poverty had been declining rapidly before the War on Poverty- rates were much higher prior to the periods shown in the graph with a similarly declining curve stretching all the way back to Reconstruction.

Simply not true. Economic emancipation was well underway long before liberals decided to ‘help’.

Agreed. But we have to take into account both the help and the harms caused by welfare dependence. This is why its so necessary to shift to a negative income tax- where it is possible to claim and work without disincentiving work or fatherhood.

It’s not a problem confined to any particular ethnicity. If I drive 15 miles one way I find a cosmopolitan city centre, very much like Edinburgh or York (and far superior to Cambridge IMHO). If I drive 12 miles the other way I will find a dilapidated seaside town (population 100K), and am sure to see numerous white teenagers pushing their prams around.

They get priority with the council’s social housing, so having a baby is the easiest way to move out of your parents house for free.


Historians often mark the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts as the end of Jim Crow. Of course, that’s a somewhat artificial boundary since civil rights advances were made before '64 and de facto segregation continued long after those laws were passed. Regardless, it’s misleading to say that Blacks made “great strides” toward parity “during the Jim Crow era” when significant progress was only made towards the end of that decades-long period. This is, however, something of a pedantic point so I’ll drop it here.

As was made clear in my original post, I’m referring to the Civil Rights movement – which was instrumental in expanding opportunities for African Americans – not the War on Poverty.

True. You seem to have focused exclusively on the harms, so it’s good to see you acknowledge the benefits as well.


What were the actual policies instituted for the war on poverty? Do you know @Geary_Johansen2020?

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As an FYI @Tom.Andreesen is a bit of a pedantic troll and isn’t here for dialog. Just an FYI to a group of people who appears dedicated to discussion. He’ll ‘turtles all the way down’ with questions without stating a position or providing counter data.

in 7 hrs of membership he did this to me and then ‘muted’ me even though I provided the information he requested. Apparently I’m a ‘blowhard’. That may be the fastest success I’ve had identifying an ideolog. Either that or they aren’t even trying to be subtle.