I’m white, middle-class, straight, male and, as far as I’m aware, free from significant mental illness. Well thus far, in the latter case, although statistics show there’s a real chance that might change. But as for the others, I’m pretty much stuck with them.
The careful reader might have noted that, albeit subtly and almost subliminally, many of my posts – the above characteristics notwithstanding – deal with matters of race, sexuality, poverty and the like. There is a substantial body of opinion that I thus have the most confounded cheek. By what right do I have the temerity to comment on matters outwith my personal experience and history? How can I possibly know what I’m talking about? Those for whom such questions seem to make perfect sense are probably already discounting my posts on sexuality and race, and feeling tricked now that they discover I’m neither gay nor black. But is there any validity in this notion that we are somehow disenfranchised from speaking about that which we haven’t personally experienced?
As I’m sure you’d expect from me, I don’t think this can be answered with a yes or a no. I know, that’s just so typical of a white, middle-class liberal pontificator – they can never give a straight answer. And that would be straight in a metaphorical sense: obviously, as we’ve already established, all my answers are straight answers in a sexual orientation sense. But, and since we’re talking about sexual orientation at the moment we might as well stick with it for now, it depends on what you mean by “personal experience”. It’s rightly a source of ridicule when people try to deny their homophobia or racism by going on about how their best friend is gay or black. On the other hand, it’s not true that straight people have no experience of gay issues. We live in one society. The fact that, in this instance, I have many contacts – professional, personal, virtual – with gay people and that I live in the same social space as they do means that it’s perfectly possible for me to observe, think about, wrestle with, or argue about the richness, and the problems, of living in a society with a plurality of sexual orientation. In so doing I’m not pretending to be gay, or to see these issues from the same place that a gay person might do.
In the same way, racism creates issues for us all. When I comment on racism in this blog, I’m not purporting to to speak on black people’s behalf. I’m speaking on my own behalf, as a white man in a society where racism impinges on me, too. In this latter case, it does make a difference that I’m married to a black woman, and have a mixed race son, because these facts of my life introduce me to perspectives, and create dilemmas, that wouldn’t otherwise be part of that life. But these facts do not in some way give a legitimacy to speak on race that I wouldn’t have simply as a white man. Knowledge takes many forms, and experience is only one of them – and indeed it is not in itself a sufficient one. Experience alone does not confer understanding. It confers, well, experience, and that’s not the same thing.
The obsession we seem to have with the primacy of experience can lead us into very dangerous places. For example, it’s often implied that the relations of victims of violence or murder have some special insight into crime and punishment. If the grieving mother of a murder victim calls for the hanging, drawing and quartering of the culprit, the rest of us are supposed to give that nonsense credence just because of its provenance. Personally, I’d argue the opposite. It’s precisely because those grieving people have such an intimate and close experience of crime that they are the last people that we should turn to for dispassionate and rational debate about sentencing. Experience constrains as much as it enlightens. It might be worth noting, in passing, that there are some exceptions to this “experience as legitimating” doctrine. I don’t recall many of those strident atheists who like to use buses to advertise their prejudices being asked to provide evidence that they’ve been religious in the past in order to prove that their point of view is authentic. Of course, many in that camp are disillusioned previous believers, but we don’t demand that experience before permitting them to express their opinions.
So the answer to this post’s rhetorical question is a resounding, “No!” I’ll continue to comment on issues that I consider important without regard to whether or not I have personally experienced them. Except. There’s always an exception. I will not pretend that I’m in a position to know what, for example, it’s like to see things as a gay person, or a black person, or a woman, sees them. So no, you won’t find me saying things like, “gay relationships are not the same as marriage”. How the fuck would I know?