Last semester I approached a professor with a philosophical concern. We had just discussed the Black Consciousness Movement and nonracialism in class; I wanted to learn more about the professor’s thinking compared to my own. I started the conversation by explaining my views on the issue. I told him that I believed race was important, that it has historically determined my life, as a white South African, and the lives of fellow black South Africans. In a utopian world, which we should strive toward, a sense of justice is the common denominator while race should fall by the wayside. His crude response, spoken in a contemptuous tone, underlies why identity politics will never convince many people: “Of course you would think that, you’re white.” I could have mentioned how other black thinkers, even the fiery Frantz Fanon, thought along similar lines, but it would have been useless. I was an abstraction to him. No details of my life, my views or my reasons behind those views could make me any different in his eyes than those who have completely opposite beliefs.
The gist of his argument was that experiences of the world are largely determined by race. And that only those who have had unique experiences can truly understand them. This is undoubtedly true. I do not have to fear being shot by a policeman. White people and black people inhabit fundamentally different worlds.
This view, however, is unjustifiably skeptical of differences between individuals, opting for rigid group identities. It is hostile to the uninformed and vicious to the disagreeing. It is contrary to the very notion of debating, talking and reasoning — only the experienced group has legitimate space for discussion. There is no ground for communication. Think of it not as the atomization of society, but the molecularization. We live as groups of zooming particles in a vast desperate void. Forever doomed to whizz past one another, never able to understand.
But I think that advocates of lived experiences need to be intellectually honest and go to its logical atomized conclusion. Every individual inhabits a different world. A natural law of existence is the separateness of consciousness. In much the same way that I will never truly know how my brother experiences the world, since we do not have identical minds, I doubt that any black person experiences the world in the exact same way. In fact, there is a curious hole in identity politics when a minority individual comes out as conservative.
An individual is infinitely complex and different. Upbringing, social circles, random moments of chance encounters or realizations all result in some inner essence that sees the world with its own bespoke lenses.
If lived experiences, and nothing else, were the basis for understanding, we would be talking to the mirrored abyss in a solipsistic hell. So there is something else here at play. Surely it must be the ability to abstract from our own epistemic standpoint? Without claiming to talk for anyone else’s lived experience, I can empathize — and as far as any individuals in this world can get to know each other, to a certain extent I can understand you. I know feelings of pain and suffering. I know feelings of happiness and love. Is not the witnessing of one act of hatred enough to know that all hatred is wrong?
What are empathetic creatures more than anything else. There should be a Golden Rule of dialogue on campus: Anyone who comes into a conversation with a good motivation — a real desire to learn — should be treated with respect, regardless of their opinions. End the shaming of identity politics. We should listen to each other’s lived experiences. If you believe in the good faith of dialogue, how could you ever shame someone for not having your view? Yes, some people hold views that are racist or have implications that are racist. But usually they don’t even see their opinions in those terms. While they should know better in a Platonic world, only honest, fair discussion can bring about clarity on a campus where students want to learn. Find out why someone holds a belief, show them how it contradicts the way they think of themselves as moral. Dialogue reveals each other’s fundamental premises — what core beliefs drive each person. These are similar more often than you think.
I freely concede that I may be wrong. And that all my arguments I have put forward may, over the course of time, be blasted to bits one by one. If I am to be blamed at all, blame me for my methodology. I shouldn’t be blamed for my motivation. Opinion is malleable: We shouldn’t shame others unjustly. I have refrained from publishing this article in the past. I held myself back several times. This should tell you everything about the status of campus discourse today.
Adam Krok is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.