The Limits of ‘Lived Experience’

Did Dana Schutz, a white artist, have the right to paint Emmett Till? Was it fair that a white historian, David Blight, won a Pulitzer for his biography of Frederick Douglass? Should Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner be the ones to update “West Side Story,” a musical conceived by four Jewish men but fundamentally about Puerto Rican lives?

Let’s make it personal: Am I, as a new columnist for The Times, allowed to weigh in on anything other than a narrow sliver of Gen X white woman concerns?

Not according to many of those who wish to regulate our culture — docents of academia, school curriculum dictators, aspiring Gen Z storytellers and, increasingly, establishment gatekeepers in Hollywood, book publishing and the arts. It’s the ultimate litmus test: Only those whose “lived experience” matches the story are qualified to tell the tale.

So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.

Here’s the argument: The dominant culture (white, male, Western, straight) has been dictating the terms for decades, effectively silencing or “erasing” the authentic identities and voices of the people whose stories are being told. The time has come to “center” these other voices.

In practice and across the arts, this means that only those people who have directly experienced discrimination or oppression, for example, or who in some way embody that experience should be allowed to portray characters, create stories or drive programming about it. They’re the ones who can truly interpret those tales accurately. The goal is greater share of the narrative and greater stake in any profits.

It’s essentially a turf war. Only Latino authors can write novels about Latinos. Only Holocaust survivors can convey the truth of the Holocaust. Only disabled people can portray disabled people. Everyone else is out.

This is one point of view, and as with most points of view, some of it is valid. Clearly those who have lived through something — whether it’s a tsunami or a lifetime of racial discrimination — have a story to tell. Their perspective is distinct and it’s valuable.

But it is, crucially, only one perspective. And to suggest that only those whose identities match those of the people in a story — whether it’s the race of a showrunner or the sex of the author of a book under review — is a miserly take on the human 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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