Nobody wants to know what “experts” think anymore, because, really, what do experts know? It was experts who told the world that toxic bundles of unredeemable debt were worthy of Triple-A credit-ratings. Experts who advised governments to pursue “herd immunity” from Covid-19. Experts who reassured us that there was absolutely no way that Russia was going to invade Ukraine.
Lived Experience, on the other hand, is riveting, compelling, heart-breaking, and unequivocally “real”.
It’s been on display in the world’s witness-boxes for centuries. The raw grief, the cold fury, that hunger for justice that is quite impossible to fake. Prosecutors can’t get enough of it. Defence lawyers fear it. Juries lap it up like ice-cream.
How are twelve people chosen at random supposed to know that there are people out there who can fake anything? Not all great actors are on the stage or in the movies.
We can’t even trust our own eyes. Find ten eye-witnesses to the same event, and on the witness stand every one of them will recall it differently.
Thank God for forensic science! Thank God for television series like CSI! Thank God for DNA evidence! For a while there, expertise was on a roll. For a while there, men and women who had been immured on the basis of police corruption, judicial incompetence, and perjured testimony were walking free after ten, twenty, thirty years behind bars.
They were the lucky ones, if that description isn’t obscenely ironic, because, in the USA, innocent men and women were sent to their deaths on the strength of relived experiences that never happened.
Which just left the victims – and the public.
When expert witnesses rob the grieving family (and the vicariously grieving public) of their prey, where is the “closure”, the relief, the satisfaction that the guilty ones will be punished? In one corner of the public mind lies the cold, hard evidence which swayed the jury. But what is cold hard evidence in the face of the naked emotional anguish of the victims of crime? What is reasonable doubt in the face of pleading eyes, tear-stained cheeks, and twisted mouths. What chance does forensic science have in the face of the victims’ lived experience?
The lesson was not lost upon those who, for a whole host of reasons, were looking for a way to drive expert knowledge out of the arguments they were advancing. Science, statistics, history, all of these disciplines (and many others) have an irritating way of taking the winds of passion out of the sails of all sorts of political vessels.
This was especially so in the case of those political causes that looked at science and expert opinion and saw only the Praetorian Guards of oppressive systems that employed Reason not as the liberator of the poor and oppressed, but as their jailer. How many experts had preached the holy wisdom of Patriarchy? The clear superiority of Western Culture? The social virtues of Eugenics? At the time, they insisted that these manifest evils were pure and simple truths. At the time, most people believed them.
What better weapon to wield against these regiments of official lies than the self-evident truths drawn from the victims’ personal experiences? The dignified testimony of the Black sharecropper victimised by the Ku Klux Klan. The courageous testimony of the rape victim. The long-suppressed testimonies of the victims of institutional violence. Truth that lived in human eyes. Truth that was carried on the human voices of those who had endured it.
There was truth in what they said. Systems of oppression have always claimed a monopoly on Truth. The powerful have always used knowledge as a weapon. Experts have silenced far too many critics with right – and science – on their side. Such is the lived experience of all those who fight for justice.
But justice is not served by unchallenged individual testimony. Pain and anguish can warp human judgement no less than greed and cruelty. Lived experience conveys part of the truth, but it is not the whole truth.
Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz where this article was sourced.