‘Speaking as a…’: the tyranny of ‘lived experience’

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


In an era of identity politics, ‘lived experience’ is often invoked – and has huge moral value. It is regularly cited as more authentic or truthful than empirical data – and can be used to trump analysis. Its subjective relativism is seen as a death knell to claims of universal knowledge. This approach is also influencing law. Hate crime is now described as ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’.

Citing lived experience can add personal credibility to a viewpoint – it’s clear to most people that experience is important. Having people who know what something feels like, with first-hand knowledge of a situation, can help provide a more accurate and truthful response.

But a prioritisation of lived experience can also mean some arguments become incontestable – presenting a serious challenge to democratic debate. People can be silenced for having a view on critical race theory because they have no ‘lived experience’ of racism. Men are told to ‘shut up’ and listen when women discuss sexual harassment. Even asking for empirical evidence in arguments over identity can be interpreted as questioning lived experience, and seen as an ethical transgression and a personal slight.

Ironically, some lived experiences are more equal than others. For example, it is demanded that institutions and individuals prioritise trans people’s ‘lived experience’ when claiming others’ attitudes are transphobic. Yet when a University of Melbourne associate professor of philosophy, Holly Lawford-Smith, set up a website asking women to share their personal experiences of encountering biological males in women-only spaces, she was denounced as a partisan hate figure on her own campus. When ordinary people articulate their experience of, for example, their community’s concerns about migration or their antagonism to ULEZ, their ‘lived experience’ is used as evidence of misinformed ignorance – irrational and unreliable as opposed to data and academic research.

Behind the idea of lived experience is the notion that identity groups share similar experiences. This can turn nasty – a range of senior Conservative politicians from ethnic minority backgrounds have been treated as ‘superficially black’, ‘coconut’ and worse, with their personal histories deemed inauthentic because their experiences have not led them to adopting particular political views.

Can our own individual experiences tell us something about collective identity? Or do we risk pigeon-holing each other by assuming that one experience is representative of a whole? Shouldn’t we listen to each other’s personal accounts, in order to understand each other? Or has a reliance on lived experience above all else driven us further apart?

Ben Cobley
author, The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity; public speaker; former Labour Party activist

James Esses
barrister; social commentator; co-founder, Thoughtful Therapists

Esther Krakue
columnist and broadcaster

Kunle Olulode
director, Voice4Change England

Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
director, Don’t Divide Us; author, What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth