opinion | The limits of “lived experience”

Certainly people are able to empathize with people whose ethnicity or country of origin differs from their own. Certainly storytellers have the ability to faithfully imagine the experiences of ‘the other’. If we followed the solipsistic credo of always “centering” identity when greenlighting a project, we would lose much of journalism, history, and fiction.

Culture is a conversation, not a monologue.

An outsider’s opinion, whether it comes from a journalist, historian, writer or director, can offer an equally valid perspective of one’s own. There is almost never just one side to a story. Or just two. Think of the great art that would be lost if we faithfully carried out this rigid identitarian mandate. If a man cannot write about a woman, Tolstoy cannot conjure up Anna Karenina.

Privileging only those voices involved in a story has its own risks. Although you gain something from “lived experience”, you also lose something. You may find it harder to maintain critical distance, which can be just as useful as experiential closeness. You may become blind to or unconsciously weaken ideas that contradict your own. Maybe you have an agenda. For example, a person telling the story of their own family might glorify a delinquent father and not mention a delinquent brother-in-law.

Furthermore, the authenticity of the voice is only one criterion by which art can be judged. A creator can represent the identities of some characters, but unless a story’s cast is remarkably homogenous, that person cannot authentically represent them all. Furthermore, for example, the authenticity of the voice in a novel does not guarantee the quality of the prose, storytelling, pacing, dialogue, or other literary merit. Good writing, a strong performance, and a great story are all feats of the imagination.

Let’s not underestimate this power. In an essay adapted for the book review last year, Henry Louis Gates Jr. warned, “Whenever we treat one identity as something to be distinguished from those of another identity, we are selling the human imagination short.” People can successfully project themselves into the lives of others. That’s what art is supposed to do – push boundaries, evoke empathy with other people, bridge the gaps between author and reader, human and human.

Thought through, the belief that “lived experience” trumps all other considerations would lead to a world where we would write stories only about people like ourselves, stories illustrated by people who look like us, that are reviewed and reviewed are read only by people like us. If we all wrote only from our personal experience, our films, performances and literature would be reduced to memoirs and transcriptions.

What an impoverished culture that would be.

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