Lived experience

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The Devil’s Advocate

In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.

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Lived experience
Knowledge about the world one accumulates by gained first-hand by living through it. Knowledge that is joyously subjective, and not the quasi-objective, pseudo-knowledge by which we are all systematically indoctrinated through social institutions such as the education system, government and the calculating fingers of the media.

Can get confusing when you consider the lived experience of being indoctrinated through social institutions like school.

In any rate, subjective, and — where, thanks to one or more intersecting marginalisations, one’s particular lived experience has not been a happy one — a justification for prioritising your ghastly experience over those more fortunate, or at any rate less marginalised, when deciding the policies which should govern the implicated social institutions.

It’s a bit circular like that.

Relevance to the conversation

An unusual standpoint, is a valuable perspective to bear in mind when the community discusses, or designs common utilities. The Dutch — being the tallest nation on earth, should consider the lot of those possessed of shorter statures when designing bookshelves.

The standpoint of short people is unlikely, past adolescence, to change. It is a permanent fact of biology. This seems equally so of standpoints informed not by physiognomy but history. Especially historical grievance. As we remark below, one can renarrate, but not change, history. If your great grandfather was a slave, or kept them, there is nothing you can do about that now.

The question arises who is responsible for redressing that grievance, and what they can do to redress it.

Lived experience as a finite game

James Carse’s fabulous Finite and Infinite Games provides a great prism for framing these battles between the past and present. For what is a “lived experience”, a “grievance” or a “standpoint”, if not an articulation of history?

The future contains only as-yet unlived experiences. There are no grievances there. Our standpoints, the margins and their intersections are unknown.[1]

Being historical, a lived experience is permanent, and set it stone. It cannot be moved. It cannot be removed. It cannot be compensated for. It cannot be denied. It becomes a monument. A shibboleth. A sacred prophecy. But it is our imaginative construction. We choose our significant events. We build our own memorials. We choose to live beneath their shadows. But our present is a function of every point in the past, not just the ones it's suits us to settle on.

This is the empathetic stance. To adopt a historical narrative: to step into its shoes, to take sides, to exalt it and perpetuate its grievance.

But, look: standpoints iterate. As the present moves through space-time, we lay down the tracks of future, each new decision we make contributes to our lived experience. We update our standpoints — and if we refuse to, to optimise grievance, we should not. The decisions of the past for all further away in time and significance. It is an inverse square.

The infinite game counsels us to look at where we are, see what we’ve got and make the best of it. It focuses on the decisions of the now and the possibilities of the future. It regards the past as informational and instructive, not constraining. If I once hit my thumb with a hammer, I know to be careful next time I have a hammer. It does not make me forever a victim of hammer abuse.

See also


  1. Unless you accept the data formalist’s stance that the universe is a clockwork, causal determinacy is absolute, and therefore the future is a linear extrapolating of the past. In which case, so is complaining about it. Nothing can be done, and no-one is to be blamed: we are “as flies to wanton boys”.