Does Personal Experience Count?

When a Twitter storm brews, exchanges can get very heated, and I have noticed a frequently recurring phenomenon that troubles me: one participant in the debate accuses another of not having the experience to qualify them to comment.

Such an accusation must be based on relativism, either implicit or explicit. If there is such a thing as truth and reality, then it doesn’t matter which person speaks that truth or perceives that reality. If, on the other hand, there is no truth, only personal opinion, then we have no grounds on which to hold a public debate. We must all retreat into our private worlds where we know ‘what works for me’.

Everyone is qualified to comment, if their comments are based on reason and reality. If they are illogical or there is no proof for them, they should be refuted on that basis. But an argument can never be refuted simply on the grounds that the one who proposes it lacks the requisite experience.

If we take the position that personal experience is decisive, rather than logic or evidence, no one who is not a politician themselves could criticise a government’s policy. We end up with every profession insisting that they are a kind of Gnostic religion, in which only the initiates may be permitted to intervene. This is a dangerous situation, likely to lead to arrogance and complacency.

Another, even more pernicious tendency, is the appeal to personal feelings. It can feel uncomfortable when someone offers an argument that conflicts with ours. But in order to have a rational debate, we must put our feelings to one side. Heightened emotion, like drunkenness, reduces our capacity to reason. We must make every effort not to succumb to it. This is really a prerequisite for being able to discuss anything reasonably.

The appeal to personal offense is one of the top methods for stifling rational debate in our politically correct culture. It is never a valid argument to say to our interlocutor: ‘You’ve offended me’. Instead, we must overcome our emotions and consider whether their points have any merit, regardless of how they make us feel. When I read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths, it made me very uncomfortable to be told that reading was not a natural activity that could just be picked up. But I had to admit she was right.

Let’s consider something very offensive for a moment: paedophilia. I apologise for the extreme example, but there are so few things that are still universally condemned as evil nowadays, that my options are limited. The only person who has personal experience of being a paedophile is a paedophile. Does that mean he is the only person who can make a rational comment about it? Or does his emotional attachment to his particular ‘lifestyle’ render him particularly ill-qualified to comment? And would we worry about offending him by pointing out that his actions were wrong?

Here is a rare case in which almost everyone still admits that there is an objective truth, that truth being that paedophilia is wrong. As soon as we admit this, it is obvious that personal experience and personal feelings are irrelevant. What matters is the truth.

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2 thoughts on “Does Personal Experience Count?

  1. I think that this problem is a symptom of something very wide-ranging, and very deep in Western culture, in that concepts of expertise, and barriers to accessing public discourse, are being broken down/opened up, and that therefore a new balance is in formation – but it will probably take a very long time. It has always seemed to me that there are parallels with the opening up of literacy/access to books/pamphlets that happened because of printing and the (not unconnected) Reformation/Counter-Reformation debates. Old scholarly assumptions, and the rules about/barriers to the public sphere were blown apart then, too.

    My own feeling is that all should be able to comment, but that if they do, they should be (gently) introduced to the fact that joining the debate means they are, in some sense, accepting a critical appraisal of their views – positive, negative, or in between. But that since many will be new to such an environment, the emphasis should be on *gently*, and the onus should be on the more confident and experienced debaters to try their best to exemplify a fair and humane mode of discussion.

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