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The Left’s Privileging of Experience

by Gil Sanders
The Left’s Privileging of Experience

Have you ever heard someone say, “You can’t tell a woman what to do with her pregnancy because you aren’t a woman yourself”? Replace woman with LGBTQ or person of color and the result is the same: you are not allowed to question someone’s experience. Why is this? What is it about experience that gives it the privilege of being true? Experience is treated like a safe space in the 4th dimension that shields it from any kind of questioning that is perceived to be threatening. Part of the reason is that morality is relativized to experience, but then if that’s the case, it’s easy to refute this. My experience says I can question other people’s experiences because I have seen how their experiences can be wrong (e.g, eye witness’ can have failed memory). No one can tell me what I should do if what I should do is based on my experience. Even if you produce a non-relative moral maxim that says “experiences can never be questioned”, you still have to say that there are experiences that can be questioned like my experience that I just mentioned because my experience rejects the maxim. So again, it is self-refuting. You can be obnoxious by adding the clause, “experiences can never be questioned except the experiences that question other experiences.” But if you do that then you are allowing your experience of morality to question my experience, thereby refuting yourself again. No one can consistently say that I have a moral obligation not to question other people’s experiences but over and over again this is exactly what we see the Left doing. 

My Facebook Debate

Let me give you a real life example. A person on Facebook celebrated a year of Asian American representation in the film industry. That’s fine, I don’t mind you supporting your own culture. To me that’s the equivalent of someone supporting their college’s basketball team. Nothing wrong with that. But, as is often the case, the Left goes to extremes. So I asked this person, “I’m not opposed to more Asian movies, but what counts as “representation”? How much representation is enough? Asians make up about 5% of the American population. Are you not going to be satisfied until there are just as many Asians as whites in the film industry? Or will you be satisfied if only 5% of American movies have Asian representation?” This person’s response was dismissive. He said that I was insulting, that I marginalized their experience with my questioning, and that he has no interest in responding to my questions until I understood their experience. He compared my questions to asking a rape victim why they chose to get raped, or like asking if they were sure that they got raped. To his credit at least, he acknowledged that I had no intention of being insulting but insisted that I was not humble or empathic and therefore had no semblance of understanding. 

I responded by pointing out that if asking a question is insulting, then he is essentially claiming that his views are right and can’t be questioned. Suppose he is right and I have absolutely no clue what their experience is like. In order to understand, I have to ask questions right? But according to him, if I ask questions, it shows that I don’t understand and therefore shouldn’t receive any answers. It’s a catch-22. I need to understand before I can ask, but if I understand, then I shouldn’t need to ask. Do you see what he’s doing here? He’s essentially saying if you understand, you would see that he’s right but if you don’t agree that he’s right, then you prove that you don’t understand. He’s right no matter what. And this is what makes the Left’s privileging of experiences so ridiculous. They shield their views from any kind of intellectual challenge and pretend to have the higher moral ground if you do question them. See, I don’t doubt all of the experiences, I primarily doubt the conclusions that are derived from these experiences. If a person had an hallucinatory experience and insisted that it was real, I won’t accept his claim. I don’t deny he had an experience of that object, I just deny his conclusion that the object existed outside of his mind. I can understand why they take offense, however. People conflate their conclusion with their experience and their experience with their personhood. This causes them to be sensitive and interpret questions as personal attacks. If they feel insulted, the problem is not with their interpretation of the events, the problem is with the other person.

Being Hypersensitive

This hyper-sensitivity allows people to be offended by things even when you do not intend to offend them. We can all accept that I offended this person on FB, but was I guilty for it?  Most Leftists like my FB friend will say yes because ignorance of the law does not excuse you. You don’t get to define what’s offensive. The victim does because their experience is the law. Your intentions are not relevant to whether you’re guilty of breaking it. If a black man finds the word “hello” offensive, that’s his right, especially if in the past it has been used to put him down. He gets to judge you; you don’t get to judge him for what he finds offensive. This is so absurd and hypocritical that I fear these people are beyond reasoning with. What if my experience takes offense at you for projecting judgements about me because of your past? If you get offended at me for saying something, and I get offended at you for being offended, whose offense is more privileged? It’s your law against my law. This kind of thinking creates a world that is constantly offended by everyone and everything. It creates an endless abyss of hatred and chaos. It’s true that if you accidentally hit someone and they feel pain, the pain is still real. In the same manner, if you accidentally offend someone, the offense is still real. But that doesn’t mean they should be offended. Quite the opposite is true. Being hyper-sensitive is a vice; a product of a false or unreasonable mindset.

Being Sensitive

However, we should be careful here not to go the opposite extreme and become insensitive. It is not proper to say the “n” word to a black person. I mean this is just obvious. Nor is it proper to tell a rape victim, or at least a potential one, that she is a liar. Don’t make careless accusations. There are legitimate reasons to get offended, but asking questions that challenge people to think deeper should not be one of them. My FB friend compared my questions to asking a rape victim why they choose to get raped. This is obviously a ridiculous comparison. What I asked is more like asking a rapist, “How would you like to seek justice against your rapist?” If their answer was that they want the rapist and his innocent twin brother killed, is it bad to reject this? Of course not. If you believe their conclusion is not true or morally good, you are free to (graciously) object to it even if they take offense. You don’t need to be raped or be pregnant in order to see that their conclusion is wrong. In fact, you can sufficiently empathize with them and still disagree. As a wise philosopher once said, truth doesn’t have a color, penis, or a vagina. But this is an oxymoron for Leftists. To truly empathize, you have to agree on the basis of their experience having a vagina, penis, or color – which of course is simply ridiculous. 

How then do we determine what offenses are legitimate? Well, I can’t provide you with a clear cut answer because it’s like asking what the best time for every person to wake up is. That all depends on your life’s circumstances. I can perhaps give you some very broad guidelines but I can only do this very briefly here. Suppose someone made a crude joke that put you down but didn’t intend for it to offend. If you gently express your pain, it would be insensitive (and thus immoral) to continue doing it. You need to stop. However, some jokes are perhaps too ridiculous to get offended by. Suppose I told someone, “Let’s fart our way to the moon!” and they get offended then well, that reflects a problem with them, not me. Nothing about that joke even remotely puts them down. I can understand someone being offended if I made fun of the way they dressed because the content is demeaning even if the intent is not. Some friends would get offended, others won’t get offended at all. How they respond depends in large part on their personality and life history, as well as their choices. I say it is far better (and safer) to joke at your expense than the expense of others. Anyways, as you can see, I think this a rather complicated issue. Leftists are partly right about needing to be sensitive, but again, they always go to extremes to the point of cuddling and privileging people’s feelings beyond questioning.

I hope that I have revealed a more moderate position, the kind that is in line with Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. We shouldn’t be hyper sensitive, but neither should we be insensitive. It’s a fine line that’s hard to define, but there are lines and sometimes it just takes time to find. 


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Lerrrr May 14, 2019 - 3:35 am

I think this is an even more insidious issue than the post implies, when it comes to the left. Don’t get me wrong, I get the experience thing. That is, I understand that there are elements of a woman’s experience (for example) which as a man I will never truly understand. I can grasp it, intellectually, but there is an experiential quality which will simply be forever unavailable to me. Consequently, I also get that there if a debate is taking place which relates specifically to that experiential quality, I am best off keeping quiet for that reason. BUT….my biggest gripe with this thinking is just how arbitrarily it is applied. I have had many facebook debates of the exact type you described. The pattern I notice among them, and among media coverage of divisive topics generally today is: everybody has valid experience except heterosexual, white men. I know that’s a very controversial thing to say, but it honestly seems like today it is completely acceptable for somebody else to comment on MY experiences of society and the world as a straight white man, but if I do the same to a person of any other race, gender, sexual orientation etc……then the “privileged experience” argument is brought in to disqualify me from further comment.
But then the arbitrary nature of this goes even further, and this is a point that Jordan Peterson has made repeatedly: which aspects of your shared experiences are sacred? Your FB friend, for example, is arguing for the significance of his shared Asian experience. Why not break it down further? What about the experiences of Asian females? Asian females who are non binary? Asian females who are non binary and are tall? Asian females who are non binary, tall, and have below average IQ? The point is clear: if you actually wish to normalize across differences in this way, and to do so consistently, the smallest unit of experience you arrive at is……the individual! Which is the basis of most of western society and Judeo-Christian religion anyway.
I called it insidious at the beginning of this comment, and I chose that word because it seems to me that if someone is claiming to advocate a principle but applies it only in a very select few cases, that suggests to me that the real motivation is not in fact the principle but something else that is unstated. The Left doesn’t just privilege experience, it selectively privileges experience in a way that subtly dictates to people which group identities are acceptable to identify with and HOW it’s acceptable to identify with those groups (these are usually people who believe strongly in conflict theory and so divide up these group identities into oppressor/oppressed pairings).

Gil Sanders May 21, 2019 - 6:48 am

Lerrrr! Wow, I’m always so excited when you make a comment. It’s an honor that you still even read this little blog. You always have thoughtful things to say, and I must say, I wish now that you had written this post instead of me. You’re always invited to make some guest posts if you ever want to 🙂 I ABSOLUTELY agree with everything you said there. I can’t believe I missed that.

Lerrrr May 22, 2019 - 2:10 am

I love to check in every now and then, and always look forward to your writing – this was an excellent post! I’ve been thinking I might write something soon; I’ve been on a bit of a Kierkegaard binge lately so maybe something on despair and it’s remedy – are you best reached through the contact section here?
Crazy when I think back to your days as macguy all those years ago – so many engaging and thought provoking discussions!

Gil Sanders May 26, 2019 - 5:46 am

PLEASE DO! I’d love to read a post by you bro, it’s been so long. I remember that every now and then you’d post in the past. And yeah, contact us through the contact page here and I’ll get back to you 🙂 I’m so amazed at how we’ve still remained in contact. That was like what, 10+ years ago now? I miss those days, I really do. Forums aren’t like what they were back then. Now it’s all FB. I don’t debate as much because it’s gotten so toxic. Not like the kind of discussions we had. I’m blessed to know someone like you.


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