The image above is a painting of G.W.F. Hegel, a philosopher who lived from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. His name is often associated with a field of philosophy known as phenomenology. Phenomenology is the philosophy of first-person experience. It takes as its starting point the raw data of experience itself, otherwise known as phenomena. How can a certain phenomenon be described in philosophical terms? It was questions such as these that Hegel sought to address. His magnum opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit, was very influential in Europe and was key to kicking off this subfield in the history of philosophy. His work heavily influenced the work of Karl Marx, and from there the rest was history.
I often say that philosophy has a way of "trickling down" to culture. If you want to discover what lies behind popular philosophies today, look to the past 100-or-so years in philosophy. You'll see the seeds of views prevalent today. As I will show in this post, this element of critical theory is no different. For this post, I will address the fifth element of critical theory from Neil Shenvi's article on the topic:
"Lived experience" is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression.
In the last post on this topic, I listed each element in a shortened form for the sake of simplicity. Here is that list thus far:
Metaphysical: oppressor and oppressed
Postmodern: hegemonic power
Political: solidarity through oppression
Moral: freeing oppressed groups
The fifth element can be described as epistemological. This may come as a surprise because of my reference to phenomenology above, but I call this element epistemological because it concerns experience as it relates to knowledge. In other words, some people are better situated than others as knowers concerning oppression. The implication is that we ought to listen to that person concerning oppression, since he or she is, by necessity, better able to tell you about oppression than one who is not situated in such a way. But what is lived experience, and why do critical theorists think that it is more important than objective evidence with regard to oppression? These questions are central for understanding this element of critical theory.
What is lived experience?
If you look up "lived experience" in a general Google search, you will find that lived experience is talked about within several academic fields. Lived experience is discussed in psychology, for instance, particularly with regard to mental health. The most common use of the term seems to be in scientific methodology in the social sciences, where the experiences of those whom the research addresses is taken to be relevant in the findings of the research. Some methodologies, for instance, attempt to construct their findings off of experience directly, without adopting and testing hypotheses. This is interesting, but it is not the focus of this post for one main reason. While discussing whether whatever "lived experience" is is relevant to scientific methodology may be interesting and worthwhile, that discussion seems to make certain assumptions about lived experience that I want to address.
In fact, another banner under which lived experience is mentioned is phenomenology. This makes sense because, as I explained above, phenomenology is the philosophy of first-person experience. But phenomenologists have discussed experience without the added moniker "lived" for many years. What makes "lived experience" any different from "experience?" In fact, experience, by definition, is lived, since one is alive when one has experiences. So the addition of "lived" to the term seems redundant. This is something that still confuses me, as someone who saw the term repeatedly used, without definition, in college.
Perhaps it will help to ask what lived experience is an experience of. It is natural to assume that all experience, excepting cases of hallucination, is experience of something. Perhaps "lived experience" is intended to denote a specific group of experiences. I think that this gets closer to the right answer, as can be seen with an example from an article on lived experience on the Feminism Geek Wiki. In this example, the article describes lived experience as "the first-hand accounts and impressions of living as a member of a minority or oppressed group." This description links lived experience with a particular group: oppressed people, whatever their social identities. In other words, this article connects lived experience with the metaphysical element of critical theory, which divides the world into two types of people: oppressor and oppressed. So oppressed people are the "holders" of lived experience; they have it, and oppressors do not, precisely because of this difference in social status.
The example given in the article makes it clear what lived experience is of. The article points to a survey that, according to the article, shows that there is a difference between "women's lived experience and men's impressions." Here is a quote of the survey from the article:
"In our survey almost all female participants have observed or experienced discriminatory behaviour against themselves or other women in the general F/LOSS community, but only 1/5 of all men reported to have perceived discriminatory behaviour against women. Also within their projects more than half of the women observed or experienced discriminative behaviour against women, but only about one out of ten men had the same perception."
The quote above points to the evidence in need of explanation, but the explanation assumed in the article is very interesting. The difference between men and women here is assumed to be between women's lived experience and men's impressions. The case, epistemically, is not taken to be equal with regard to women and men. Men have their impression of what's going on, but women really know what's going on. Why? Because the women experienced it, whereas the men have failed to notice it. The article goes on to suggest several explanations for this disparity from the men's perspective:
He is not present while the incident is taking place, especially if someone is taking care to avoid behaving badly in the presence of other witnesses.
He has not been trained/has not retained training to identify discrimination.
He accepts it as the way the field works, not as discrimination.
He notices it as isolated incidents caused by innocent activities being misinterpreted or a few bad apples, not as a systemic problem.
He believes that only people with ill intent can possibly be guilty of discrimination.
He thinks the incidents are not serious and women should lighten up.
Notice that nowhere in the article is it suggested or considered whether the women may have a false impression of what constitutes discrimination or may have misunderstood some of their unpleasant experiences as experiences of discrimination. These explanations, whether true or not, are never considered in the article or, apparently, in the survey. Why is that? If one's methodology is properly scientific, then why aren't all possible explanations considered? The answer is that a prior assumption rules out these explanations. One's presuppositions can rule out what one considers to be a plausible explanation.
This example from a popular-level article explaining the concept of lived experience shows what lived experience is experience of. Lived experience is experience of what it is like to be an oppressed person in a social situation. What I mean by "social situation" includes situations such as what it's like to be in a male-dominated gaming community and what it's like to live as a black person in the United States. Experiences of more mundane things such as looking up at the sky or seeing a squirrel are not included. They are experiences concerning things that involve being with other people.
So that's what is often meant by the term "lived experience." What does it mean to say that lived experience is more important than objective evidence with regard to oppression? That is the next question that I will address.
Why is lived experience more important than objective evidence with respect to oppression?
Notice one important aspect of this question: that the claim of critical theorists is that lived experience is more important with respect only to oppression. As stated here, the claim is somewhat modest. It does not say that lived experience is more important than objective evidence in any area that we may study. A critical theorist, at least at face value, might be open to objective evidence in areas such as physics or any of the other hard science. This claim mainly affects research in the social sciences such as psychology, as I've already pointed out above.
Where this becomes especially important is in the field of sociology. Think about the survey cited above from the Feminism Geek Wiki. This survey showed that there was a wide disparity between men and women with respect to their impressions of discrimination. That is objective evidence, in the sense that statistics were gathered regarding those impressions by using a survey, but the way that the evidence is interpreted is that the disparity exists regarding women's lived experience and men's mere impressions. This suggests that lived experience is more important than objective evidence in the sense that the evidence is interpreted through the lens of a concept of lived experience. If those who are oppressed are considered the "holders" of knowledge concerning their oppression, then their perspective takes a kind of precedence, providing the interpretive framework for the evidence.
But underlying this notion of lived experience is a separate concept that comes from feminist epistemology called standpoint theory. Standpoint theory has its origin in Hegel, Marx, and Lukacs and ultimately stems from the idea that, if life consists of a conflict between oppressor and oppressed (what Hegel called the master/slave dynamic; also, the metaphysical element of critical theory), then information concerning oppression and injustice ought to come from the oppressed. The oppressed is motivated to make clear that he is oppressed and to oppose it, whereas the oppressor is motivated to maintain his state of domination over the oppressed. Hegel understood this dynamic in abstract terms, but its implications are profound, since it implies that the slave must form his self-conception over and against this conflict with the master. Marx and Engels (Marx's right-hand man) saw this dynamic in terms of economics, and Lukacs extended this to discuss specifically the standpoint of the proletariat or ruling class. With the expansion of Marxist thought into other social statuses and group identities, the road was opened for standpoints from all kinds of perspectives, including women's perspective.
So, as you can see, it is impossible to separate standpoint theory, which undergirds the concept of lived experience, from the Marxist ideology that preceded it. But what is feminist standpoint theory itself? Consider this passage from an article on the topic from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (emphasis is mine):
"[Feminist standpoint theorists'] principal claim regarding feminist standpoint theories is that certain socio-political positions occupied by women (and by extension other groups who lack social and economic privilege) can become sites of epistemic privilege and thus productive starting points for enquiry into questions about not only those who are socially and politically marginalized, but also those who, by dint of social and political privilege, occupy the positions of oppressors."
In short, feminist standpoint theory includes three claims, which are explicated in the article cited above:
Knowledge is socially situated.
Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized.
Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.
Let's take each of these claims in turn so that they can be better explained.
First, knowledge is socially situated. This claim is difficult to understand if one doesn't understand how feminist standpoint theory goes against the grain of traditional epistemology. Prior to standpoint theory, epistemologist had typically considered the process of epistemic inquiry (or gaining knowledge) by abstracting it from one's social status. This is not to say that these epistemologists thought that everyone was equally capable of gaining knowledge. For instance, many epistemologists have thought men to be more rationally capable than women, or white people more rationally capable than black people. But these differences were construed biologically, not socially. Setting the claim of biological difference to the side, traditional epistemological theories would see no essential difference between men and women with respect to attaining knowledge.
Against this backdrop, it is notable that standpoint theorists claim that "all attempts to know are socially situated." Again, according to the IEP article (emphasis is mine):
"The social situation of an epistemic agent—her gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and physical capacities—plays a role in forming what we know and limiting what we are able to know."
In other words, on feminist standpoint theory, even the process of gaining knowledge is inextricably tied to social status along certain group identities. Your status, either as oppressor or oppressed, has an effect not only on what you know but also what you're capable of knowing.
Second, marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. Remember that, in discussing the concept of lived experience, I stated that lived experience specifically relates to experience in a particular social situation. If all knowledge is socially situated, then how does one gain knowledge related to a social situation? Here, feminist standpoint theorists would take issue with how the question is framed. There is no "one" to refer to, since this term makes it seem as if what is known by a subject in that situation can be abstracted from the details of that subject's characteristics. Instead, we should ask the question in this way: how does a white man gain knowledge related to a social situation? Or: how does a black woman gain knowledge related to a social situation? Notice that the implicit assumption in framing the question in this way is that a white man and a black woman will have different ways of gaining knowledge in this situation and that these differing ways of gaining knowledge are dependent on their different characteristics.
This is the descriptive aspect of feminist standpoint theory, but there is a normative aspect. In other words, feminist standpoint theory goes beyond merely describing how knowledge is socially situated to stating that we should take this into consideration when we think about epistemology. Again, from the IEP article (emphasis is mine):
"Feminist standpoint theories’ normative weight is felt via their commitment to the claim, developed by extension of the Marxist view of the epistemic status of the standpoint of the proletariat, that some social locations, specifically marginalized locations, are epistemically superior in that they afford hitherto unrecognized epistemic privilege, thereby correcting falsehoods and revealing previously suppressed truths."
In other words, social locations are not equal. If one is from an oppressor group, one's way of gaining knowledge will necessarily be distorted by one's social status, particularly in that one will be motivated to construe knowledge and truth in such a way as to maintain one's dominance in the social hierarchy. If one is from an oppressor group, then one's social status is such that one is better able to understand one's oppression (hence, lived experience) and the oppressor. The oppressor cannot even be relied on to give an accurate understanding of himself.
In my post on freeing oppressed groups, I explained what it means for someone to be an ally. An ally is someone from the oppressed group who devotes him- or herself to the liberation of the oppressed from outside that group. I decided to follow my own advice in the article and search "how to be an ally" on Google. The first link in the search result is an article on the topic from Syracuse University called "8 Ways To Be a (Better) Ally." The second piece of advice in that article is entitled "Listen!" The author writes:
"If your friends who are a part of marginalized communities decide to engage with you on the subject of discrimination, listen to them and offer support where appropriate. As an ally, your job is to listen and learn."
Your job (or obligation) is to listen and learn. This comes directly from feminist standpoint theory. If you are white, then your friends who are POC (people of color) know more about their oppression than you do. They know more about you than you do. So, as an ally, your moral obligation is to stop talking, stop being critical of their perspective, and to simply listen. That's a lot of authority that you're giving someone else to change what you think. Better hope they're a good and reliable source for truth.
Third, research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized. This clearly follows from the other two claims made above. This feminist standpoint theory applied to research. Journals like Hypatia, which is the most prominent academic journal for feminist research in the world today, exemplify this by emphasizing research by women from a feminist perspective. On their own presuppositions about epistemology, it is women who are better situated to discuss issues such as femininity, masculinity, and patriarchy than men. These assumptions extend to other areas of research such as queer theory, race studies, gender studies, etc. I won't focus on this claim more than to point out that it follows from the other two.
Let's return to the question at the top of this section. Why is lived experience more important than objective evidence with respect to oppression? Hopefully, it is easy to see how feminist standpoint theory relates to this question. Feminist standpoint theory, by assuming that all knowledge is socially situated and that the oppressed are thereby better able to gain knowledge regarding their oppression, provides the underlying theory for answering this question. On critical theory, if you want to understand better what it is like to be a member of an oppressed group in your society, then all you have to do is ask a person of that group. At best, the oppressor can give you nothing more than distorted half-truths built upon their need to keep their power. How does all of this hold up with the Christian perspective?
What the Bible Has to Say
In my view, one of the most deceptive aspects of critical theory (as we've seen throughout this series) is that it includes some aspects of truth. There are some claims that Christians can affirm amidst all the false claims. As I've pointed out, however, the problem with critical theory ultimately comes down to a faulty foundation, and this epistemological element is no different.
One thing that makes this element so appealing to people is that it seems so intuitive at first glance. Take, for instance, an illustration that comes from Terri Elliott (a feminist standpoint theorist), which is quoted in the IEP article:
"Person A approaches a building and enters it unproblematically. As she approaches she sees something perfectly familiar which, if asked, she might call 'The Entrance'. Person X approaches the same building and sees a great stack of stairs and the glaring lack of a ramp for her wheelchair."
What Person A saw as a completely innocuous experience presents a greater challenge and difficulty for Person X because of her disability. Now, you may say, the difference between Person A and Person X isn't their social status but a biological difference. Indeed, this is true; something is biologically wrong with Person X's body. But the key social difference is that society (or whoever designed the building) recognizes and accommodates Person A's ability to scale the stairs without accommodating for Person X's inability to scale the stairs (likely because of the fact that able-bodied people are more common than disabled people). And this is something to which Person A would be blind, were it not for the testimony of Person X.
This illustration seems to be very reasonable. It is often the case, especially on university campuses, that disabled students will influence the university to make changes to its buildings in order to accommodate their disabilities. And, had there been no disabled people at the university, this would not have been a problem. If you aren't disabled in any way, then you don't know from experience what it is like to navigate a world with that disability. You need a disabled person to tell you that (as well as some common sense).
All of this is perfectly reasonable to me. Am I thereby affirming feminist standpoint theory and the epistemological element of critical theory? I don't think so, for this reason. Elliott's illustration only extends to knowledge that is specifically experiential. Experiential knowledge is "what it's like" knowledge. It is knowledge entirely dependent on one's experience of something. For instance, being from Georgia, I have gone to Six Flags Over Georgia. Many people in Texas have been to Six Flags Over Texas but not to the park in Georgia. My favorite rollercoaster at Six Flags Over Georgia is the "Superman." The biggest rollercoaster at Six Flags Over Texas is the "Titan." Let's say that I have a friend who's been on the "Titan." I can watch videos and listen to his description, but I won't know what it's like to ride the Titan without getting on it myself. Likewise, he can listen to my description, but he has to ride the Superman in order to know what it's like to ride it. So, experiential knowledge emerges from experiencing the thing about which one knows in a direct way. One can gain knowledge about that thing through secondary sources, but knowledge about something is not the same as having experiential knowledge of it.
How does this relate to Elliott's illustration? It relates in the sense that I, as an able-bodied person, cannot know what it is like to continuously have to navigate a world in which it is assumed that one is able-bodied. I can imagine that that is disheartening and frustrating. For the sake of accommodation, I can support building and modifying buildings with ramps and other things that help those who are disabled navigate those spaces.
Elliott's illustration, however, at most suggests that the "social located-ness" of knowledge extends only to experiential knowledge. Yet the feminist standpoint theorist wants to say that the relevance of social location extends to all of knowledge. This even applies to what's called "epistemic practices," which are specific socially-accepted ways of attaining knowledge. Traditional epistemology has affirmed that knowledge is gained through a process of objectivity, trying to assess claims according to evidence in a dispassionate way. The idea is that allowing one's experience or emotions to affect one's attempt to gain knowledge compromises that process. For feminist standpoint theorists, this description of the way to attain knowledge is nothing more than the oppressor's means of attaining and preserving a form of knowledge that supports the oppressive social hierarchy.
So the problem with Elliott's illustration is that, while intuitive in itself, it doesn't support the claim that she ultimately wants to put forward: that all knowledge is socially situated. Most people would agree that one's social status (say, as a disabled person) often affects one's experiential knowledge, but that is a much weaker claim than what feminist standpoint theorists want to support. This is a common tactic of critical theorists. They will defend a notion that most people can agree with and then use it to push forward a much more radical claim. We shouldn't be duped by this attempt to use intuitively true claims like a Trojan horse.
What's hidden within the Trojan horse? Remember that feminist standpoint theory, and by extension the epistemological element of critical theory, claims that the perspective of the oppressed is epistemically superior to the perspective of the oppressor. Therefore, with respect to addressing oppression, we ought to simply listen to what the oppressor has to say. The underlying idea is that the oppressed are, simply in virtue of social status and group identity, reliable in relaying certain truths. If you take some time to read articles on the internet about these topics (especially critical race theory), you will see examples of this kind of reasoning everywhere.
Let's take an example from a Christian source. I've always loved listening to Breakaway Ministries, which is a campus ministry from Texas A&M. The sermons in their archive are really good. I was very disappointed last year to see that, in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing, they released a video titled "A Conversation About Race." (Since this video released on July 15, 2020, they have released another video with the same title on March 30, 2021.) At the beginning of the video, the executive director of the ministry, Timothy Ateek, who is white, presents the two guests, both of whom are his friends and are black, and invites them to talk about their experiences related to race. He makes obligatory mention of the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and mentions that these deaths have brought to the forefront the need for a conversation like the one they were having. (Notice the assumption that the deaths mentioned are racially motivated, which is virtually never defended.)
Timothy Ateek mentions from the beginning that he is there as a "learner," not as a teacher, and that his role in the conversation is to sit down, shut up, ask questions, and listen. This is the head of a Christian ministry that teaches and counsels thousands of students at a major university. What Timothy Ateek is communicating in his commitment not to teach about race in his pastoral role in this ministry is that it is an obligation of all white people to do the same, to approach their black friends and have similar conversations without sharing their input, particularly in a way that is critical of their black friend's viewpoint. This video involves almost every element of critical theory in one way or another, but what struck me the most was an incredible willingness of Timothy Ateek to abdicate all of his role as a knower, as an inquirer after truth (not to mention his God-given responsibility as a teacher and pastor). At no point in the video, that I saw, did he question anything being said by the guests. He played the role of the ally: ask questions, listen, and otherwise shut up.
But does Scripture tell us to approach the truth in this way? Part of the answer to this question comes from biblical anthropology, or what the Bible has to say about human nature. Critical theory typically denies that there is a shared human nature. All of what a person is is socially constructed. This makes sense if there is no God, since there is no God who first thinks of what He wants to create before creating it. If God exists, then God had something in mind when creating us, so we have a nature that doesn't change and that isn't based on society. And Scripture says exactly that. Genesis 1:26-28 says (NASB):
"Then God said, 'Let Us make mankind in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.' So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
There is an interesting debate among theologians as to whether the "image of God" is a notion concerning our capacities or our vocation. Adherents to the former claim that to be created in the image of God means that we were created to reflect God's rational capacities, though not to the same degree that He is rational and knowledgeable. This may include other capacities such as creativity and a capacity for recognizing beauty. Adherents to the latter claim that to be created in the image of God is related to the unique role that humans are to play in creation. This stewardship role, mentioned in the passage explicitly, is at the heart of what it means to be created in God's image. Without getting into too much detail, I see this as a false dichotomy. I think that it's very likely that the vocation to which we're called in this passage requires that we reflect in our nature some of God's capacities to a lesser extent. It is in expressing those capacities in taking dominion over the earth that we reflect God into the world.
So all human beings, no matter their social status, share in certain capacities for gaining knowledge of the truth. This is part of human nature. In other words, I do not define myself as a knower. Neither does society. God does. And by creating me with the capacity to know, I now have the responsibility to go about the process of gaining knowledge with appropriate care and virtue. This capacity, as well as the responsibility that emerges from it, is shared by all human beings, no matter what social standing they end up taking.
One may respond at this point that, be that as it may, one's social status or location affects one's ability to know, given what one knows within that social location. Again, this is obviously true if we're talking about experience. I know plenty about growing up in the Deep South or in a rural area that others around me don't know, since they grew up in a city like Fort Worth that isn't located in the Deep South. My dad paints cars, which granted me unique experiences growing up. I grew up with two younger brothers, which granted me experiences that those who don't have siblings wouldn't have had. And, as a man, I am well-acquainted with the loose sense of "how men think" and have to learn from women how they think through things. I am not well-acquainted with the frustration of finding well-fitting jeans that have functional pockets, since women go through that kind of thing. As a Christian, I am intimately acquainted with how Christians interpret and understand life, suffering, and other things they experience. Certainly, one's social location has a deep impact on one's experience, but that's merely because experience is so person-dependent in the first place. To argue that, beyond experience, social location grants one superior access to truth simply goes beyond this obvious truth.
In that same video produced by Breakaway Ministries, at about 14:00, Timothy Ateek asks, "Personally, what do you want to be hearing from your white friends?" This question comes after he has already set the scene by telling you that his role as a white person is to listen uncritically and by recapping the events that motivated this conversation. The question is pregnant with assumptions straight out of critical theory. First, it assumes the metaphysical element by setting up the discussion in such a way as to present the two black guests as members of an oppressed class, which they share with George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Second, it assumes the political element by assuming that, in light of the suffering of these two aforementioned black men, the guests (who neither know nor have much in common otherwise with Floyd and Arbery) are suffering and need help through this "trauma." Third, it assumes the moral element by sliding in a moral claim as to what their white friends (read: allies) ought to do to help them right now.
Where is Scripture? It, too, is placed aside for the sake of the epistemic and moral authority of the oppressed community. In all fairness, there is a mention of Ephesians 2:11-22, the great and awesome passage extolling the unity of Jews and Gentiles under one God and King, but that is absolutely not what is reflected in this video. Unity is brothers and sisters in Christ, treating each other without partiality, putting their eyes on one Bible and one God, seeking His one truth together, willing to criticize each other because we all bear this responsibility, in love, to correct one another when necessary and when that correction can be defended from Scripture. We bear the same responsibility before God as knowers. To grant to others, because of their group identity, epistemic superiority simply in virtue of that group identity commits a kind of epistemic partiality. It would be like treating the poor with partiality in legal affairs simply because they are poor, something that Scripture firmly condemns (see Leviticus 19:15).
Thus far, I've extended this element only to the topic of race, since that issue is in the face of evangelicals today. What happens if we extend this to the topic of homosexuality? Then the LGBTQ community claims that the belief that homosexual behavior is wrong is oppressive and evil, in spite of a God who is loving and just and calls it evil. So when we allow a supposedly oppressed group have epistemic authority over us, we end up believing falsehoods. Biblical anthropology refutes this element of critical theory by telling us that our Creator gave us, no matter our social status, both the capacity and the responsibility to seek truth. So, as we've seen with every other element of critical theory, the epistemological element conflicts with Scripture and true biblical unity.
That's it for this post! This is one of the longer and more technical posts in this series, but my hope is that, by seriously studying it, you will gain a greater understanding of this important topic that, as you can see, has unfortunately infiltrated God's Church.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series! In the next post, I will address the claim that oppressors hide their oppression under the guise of objectivity. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!