It is fashionable to argue that no one may argue for or against a proposition unless one has had experience of its contents. Men are to make no arguments concerning abortion; cisgendered types ought not speculate on transgender experience; white people should stop bringing their inherently supremacist discourse into questions of race, and so on.
This attitude is only convincing as an attitude, an intellectual air that one gives off like a gas. Formulate it into a general rule and it dissipates. “Thou shalt only argue on the basis of direct experience” makes for a lame commandment. I have never had my heart ripped out in a ritual sacrifice, nor the pleasure of ripping out anyone else’s, nevertheless, I don’t feel like a bigot when I condemn human sacrifice as evil, nor would I bow to the “direct experience” of a willing victim or a high priest of human sacrifice, should we ever debate the matter online. In fact, the theory sacrifices itself. The theory that “no one should have any say if they haven’t had the experience” isn’t usually, if ever, formulated as being itself derived from direct experience.
Theory against theorizing is really a theory against fraternizing. It locks each man into the high-security prison of his own experience, and keeps him safe from all those horrible, antiquated experiences of debate, correction, remonstration and the like. It takes up the strange idea that each man is a kind of humanity unto himself, a unique and unrepeatable box of experience from which no conclusions can be drawn and nothing, really, can be said.
Like most fetishes, the fetishization of experience impoverishes it. For men are obviously those kind of animals who can co-experience in all sorts of ways — by understanding their neighbor, by the fellow-feeling which takes another’s sufferings as their own, by the solidarity which holds each responsible for all. We have the tools to bridge the gap between man and man. The absurd guilt that haunts the scrupulous observers of identity politics is a denial of this obvious ability. The long explanations of one’s own privilege; the self-abasing admittance of bias and prejudice; the assurance that one does not presume to understand the suffering of the marginalized from his comfortable position, etc., etc. All of this is nothing more than the denial of one’s own capacities to understand, feel-with, and sympathize with another’s experience — to practice solidarity.
Drowning in self-abasement, one begins to long for the brashness of some Catholic saint, some rich guy like Saint Francis, who didn’t sit around apologizing for being unable to experience the social marginalization of the leper or for being privileged beyond the experience of poverty. He just took off his clothes and started begging. He makes our limp inability to do anything nice for anyone else, lest we abuse our privilege, seem like an excuse for social inaction. This is the flip-side of this privilege and identity language that the political Left doesn’t want to admit — an absolute despair in the possibility of solidarity. This suits the rulers of this earth. Solidarity between people who claim to experience each other’s pain and share each other’s hopes is a recipe for political efficacy; constant bickering over the inability for anyone to represent any one else is a recipe for political inefficacy. The idea that experience is sacred ground that experience-less theory can only trample over — this keeps black people and white people, rich people and poor people, from achieving any kind of concrete action. The politics of privilege produces an extraordinarily governable people.
The world that results from the ban on experienceless theory is predictable. We all feel extremely political without doing anything, because politics has been reduced to a prolonged bitching over who belongs to which group. Leaders cease to appeal to the goods we share through theories any one can understand and begin to operate on the basis of power, showing the cards of their experience as justification for their theories. Wisdom and knowledge lose whatever chance they had at democracy. A beggar cannot correct a king — he has no experience of royalty. Universities and intellectual institutes begin to seek out wise-men, not for their wisdom, but insofar as they fulfill a resume of experience that enables them to speak.
This shows the cynical side of this slavering after experience. People who ban experienceless theories are really banning theories they don’t like. No one tells the man who supports abortion that he should not speak on what he cannot possibly experience. The smackdown is only given to those who argue, without experience, that killing children is wrong. The principle is cynically applied because it is not a principle at all, just a fence for safeguarding oneself against the watchdogs of criticism. This is why the method is almost exclusively reserved to protect those tender adjectives that modify our central noun — gender, class, orientation, race, culture, and so forth. No one says, “you have no right to criticize the monopolists, you have no experience of orchestrating and maintaining a monopoly” only “you have no right to criticize black music, you have no experience of black culture.”
And so it goes. Unfortunately, many of those who are justly miffed at the recent replacement of knowledge for power and theory for card-carrying identities have swung into base rudeness, arguing that any sensitivity towards our different experiences and the privileges they entail is a sign of weakness. This is foolish. No one gets woke to the fact that they are being manipulated through their identities by being called a “snowflake.” The answer, I think, is not to trample through our neighbors’ identities, causing scandal. The answer is to practice a radical solidarity that denies the claim that the only experience is self-experience, that there can be no understanding, no communion between black and white; rich and poor; gay and straight. Yes, women can speak for men. Yes, men can understand women. Yes, white people can stand up for black people without accidentally deploying an inherently racist discourse. Yes, black people can stand up for white people without any direct experience of their lives.
This will cause some pain to those who have busied themselves describing the world as a series of fortresses in which individual tribes are locked. They will have to re-learn the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable, of finding common goods between groups that don’t share a culture or a set of privileges. The Church makes this easier because it argues that there is common human nature and a human identity that transcends our differences — our identity as sons and daughters of God. If we have this great privilege and destiny in common, we can understand each other despite the diversity within our earthly experience. Without the Church, it will be difficult.