Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 24 May 2013

experience and authority

how have we as a culture and society gone so far off the rails with regard to the authority of experience? i keep noticing all sorts of ways that (intentionally or un-) there is massive denigration of the value of experiential understanding.

to give a pretty mundane example of what i mean, there have been several hurricanes that have reached into the new england area over the past few years. irene came through in august of 2011 and someone i know who lives out in the western part of the state was asking questions about how worried to be. i replied with my take on the situation (if you’re near a river or in a low-lying area that floods easily, you may have trouble. if you’ve had downed trees locally with the wet summer, then that may continue to cause problems. otherwise, don’t sweat it.), and the response i got felt like an attack. the validity of my assessment was called into question and the poster wanted to know what news source i was getting this from. i said that i didn’t have a particular meteorologist to cite, that this was my assessment based on a lifetime of experience with hurricanes and that the pattern of behavior indicates that there’s not much to fret about from an inland northeast perspective aside from the aforementioned issues. i was then told that without some sort of more authoritative source, my input was useless.

it’s true that i don’t have a science background. what i do have is a long history of living in the path of major storms and personal experience of everything from the teeniest of tropical depressions to category 5 devastation. and although i’m pretty far north of most serious storm activity now, my family and friends are not, so i continue to keep a close eye on NOAA every year. i know what general storm trajectories look like. i know what different categories mean. and i know enough to know that the numerical data doesn’t tell you as much about what to expect as a solid understanding of local conditions does (Katrina is the best instance of a not-so-powerful storm causing massive damage based on factors beyond the actual force of the storm itself).

i’m still baffled (and, i admit, wounded in the pride department) that someone i know solicited information and advice and flat out rejected what i had to contribute. it’s prodded me over the past couple of years to wonder about how we devalue experience as a source of authority.

i see it most damagingly in women’s issues. it’s a way to silence people whose stories we collectively don’t want to acknowledge. maybe if we give experience the same authority we give to statistics (which can be manipulated pretty easily and can be misleading as all hell based on a multiplicity of factors, as a simple exploration of the subject will readily reveal), then we need to admit that things are not so rosy and change should happen. a statistic like 1 in 3 native american women will be the victim of sexual violence horrifies me. do we as a nation hide behind the impersonal nature of those numbers and lose sight of the people who are suffering as a result? if we privileged the voices of those who have experienced such crimes, would we do more, be more compassionate? would there have been even more outcry about congress dragging its feet with the violence against women act – specifically in regards to provisions to protect native, lgbt, and immigrant populations – if instead of being confronted with numbers, we were confronted with faces and stories?

on a more serious personal note, i recently had an experience that was very scary and could have ended in some serious territory. i was fortunate and ended up safe. but in the handful of times that i’ve recounted my experience to close and trusted people in my life, i find myself hesitating to talk about it and apologizing for the fact that i can’t factually verify anything. there’s no hard evidence. only my own testimony and the observations that a couple of other people who were present can add. my experience doesn’t seem valid enough as a platform. i’ve imbibed this standard as much as anyone else, and i’m confronting head on ways in which this makes it difficult for me to assess my own life. how much worse for someone who isn’t as lucky as i was?

some languages – Hopi is somewhat famous for this – make distinctions within a verb that describe the speaker’s relationship to what is being related. in other words, if it is an eyewitness experience, the verb includes that information. there’s a value placed on experience right there in the language, it’s important enough to state right up front all the time. what if we were constantly doing this in english? would we think about the world differently if we had to differentiate between a “fact” that we experienced vs a “fact” that someone else told us about vs a “fact” that we read about? would we change our minds about what a “fact” even is? could the division between objective and subjective be an arbitrary one?

we have a sense culturally that we know what a fact is. but do we? is feeling, in fact, fact? what could it mean for our legal system, for journalism, for education, for health care, for conflict resolution, to take apart our current idea of what makes a fact? i can’t help but thinking that for all the cult of the individual that is, in certain ways, very real in the US, we don’t privilege the individual at all in some aspects. as someone who cares about living in a community, i want to recognize how i’m not living up to my own ideals. maybe one of the ways to do better is to validate the authority of the personal wherever possible.


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