Opinion | The Limits of ‘Lived Experience’

Surely human beings are capable of empathizing with those whose ethnicity or country of origin differ from their own. Surely storytellers have the ability to faithfully imagine the experiences of “the other.” If we followed the solipsistic credo of always “centering” identity when greenlighting a project, we’d lose out on much of journalism, history and fiction.

Culture is a conversation, not a monologue.

The outsider’s take, whether it comes from a journalist, historian, writer or director, can offer its own equally valid perspective. There is almost never just one side to a story. Or even just two. Think about the great art that would be lost if we loyally carried out this rigid identitarian mandate. If a man can’t write about a woman, then Tolstoy doesn’t get to conjure Anna Karenina.

Privileging only those voices with a stake in a story carries its own risks. Though you gain something through “lived experience,” you lose something as well. You may find it harder to maintain a critical distance, which can be just as useful as experiential proximity. You may become blinded to ideas that contradict your own or subconsciously de-emphasize them. You may have an agenda. A person who tells the story of her own family might, for example, glorify a flawed father and neglect to mention a delinquent brother-in-law.

Moreover, authenticity of voice is only one criterion by which to judge art. A creator may represent the identity of some characters, but unless a story’s cast is remarkably homogeneous, that person can’t authentically represent all of them. Furthermore, authenticity of voice in a novel, for example, doesn’t guarantee quality of prose, storytelling, pacing, dialogue or other literary merits. Good writing, a strong performance and a great story all are feats of the imagination.

Let’s not underestimate that power. In an essay adapted for the Book Review last year, Henry Louis Gates Jr. warned, “whenever we treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination.” People can successfully project themselves into the lives of others. That is what art is meant to do — cross boundaries, engender empathy with other people, bridge the differences between author and reader, one human and another.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the belief that “lived experience” trumps all other considerations would lead to a world in which we would create stories only about people like ourselves, in stories to be illustrated by people who looked like ourselves, to be reviewed and read only by people who resembled ourselves. If we all wrote only from our personal experience, our films, performances and literature would be reduced to memoir and transcription.

What an impoverished culture that would be.

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