Your experience is important. But so is every one else’s.

[Takes deep breath.]

Like many of you, my heart feels heavy tonight and writing a post seems mostly pointless. What could I possibly have to say, to contribute? Currently, I am at home, unable to attend a meeting on my campus about standing in solidarity with Mizzou. I’m anxiously watching my FB feed looking for updates about action and feeling helpless.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about epistemology and ethos. How do we know what we know and whose knowledge is credible?

In my experience most people think of themselves as credible sources of the things they know. That is, most people I’ve meet think that they are authorities on their own experience and would like to be treated as such. I know that I certainly take umbrage when someone tries to tell me that I don’t know or understand my own experiences. In my years as a teacher I’ve learned that one of the fastest ways to lose a student is by telling her that she doesn’t know her own experience. She’s not going to listen to anything I have to say after that. Instead, I can ask her to consider that her experience has layers of meaning she hasn’t analyzed yet on top of what she already knows. I can ask her to think of what her experience would look like to someone in a different position from hers. In these ways she may come to see her own experience differently. She may even come to realize that she didn’t know as much about her experience as she thought she did. (Side note: One of the best teaching evaluations I ever received was from a student who suggested I rename my class “Mind fuck 101.”) All productive meaning making, learning, and teaching comes from allowing people to be experts in their own lives.

That said, while most people want to be treated as the experts in their own lives there is a surprisingly large amount of people who are not willing to grant that same courtesy to others. Indeed, I have often found that those who are most voluble when demanding their due are often the most grudging in giving credibility, especially to others whose experiences or knowledge are contradictory.

We see this all.the.time. We see it in men mainsplaining why we’re in the post-feminism era and in white people explaining why we are post-racial now. We see this in Men’s Rights Activists telling us that feminism has ruined their lives.

I am absolutely the most credible source on my experience. However, that doesn’t make me a credible source on literally anything else like another person’s experience or general trends. Just because none of my friends are sexist doesn’t mean patriarchy is over and to say otherwise, particularly to a person who has experienced sexist oppression, is to minimize her expertise and credibility.

To all of those people who keep demanding that their experience be recognized, well, fine. The world officially recognizes your experience. Contingent on the provision that you recognize, as equal authorities, the experience of everyone else, especially when it contradicts your version of reality. To do anything else is to automatically position yourself as superior to others, to invalidate their reality, and to oppress them. And, no, nobody gives a flying fuck about your good intentions.

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