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On Lived Experience
The desert of the one.
I have the cyclical aphorism in mind. Anyone familiar with the theory of Saecular Turnings may have seen a version of this.
Wise men create prosperous times.
Prosperous times make men foolish.
Foolish men create dangerous times.
Dangerous times make men wise.
Consider the idea of ‘lived experience’. What are we to do with this concept? On the one hand, a society that does not respond to the actual lives of its people is negligent. This negligence piles up and causes dislocations in society. Those dislocations cause those for whom society favors to doubt any arguments to the contrary. Only an accurate testimony of ‘lived experience’ can substantiate those anti-social arguments. On the other hand, those for whom society has favored have done so because of lessons they learned. Heeding those lessons has rewarded them by being in synch with society. Why shouldn’t those same lessons help those who stand against the status quo? It seems to be a snake that eats its tail, an intractable problem that has no solution. It is definitely this way when the parties involved deal with the situation as one that can be rectified by politics. That’s because our politics are populist and we cry out for a magical leader who will use great powers wisely.
Democratic politics cannot re-engineer society problem by problem. There will always be dislocations, especially as new ideas and new people enter society and old ideas are forgotten and the old people die away. How long have we wrestled with the sexual revolution? When have we been of one mind on immigration? Consider what COVID has done with our ideas about civil liberty itself. All of us have some experiences we have lived through that give us the testimony that tells a tale of truth. Maybe these tales are heeded, maybe not. One thing is for certain, the cycle continues. Once upon a time patriotic conformity and social integration were social ideals. Now Americans want their own channels, their own heroes and their own idiosyncrasies respected without the slightest microaggression. People are literally making political demands like #DoNotComply as if it were a solution.
Orange Is The New Black
Part of the problem here is that we have created the kinds of communications technology that allows every opinion, notion and conspiracy theory to be shared in the same realms as serious research, findings of fact and policy. We have not sorted these channels out well. The bracing consequence is how quickly well-funded news organizations can find exactly which ‘lived experience’ they wish to broadcast. Moreover our predisposition to accept an unending stream of sociological soundbites feeds our political hungers. This is influential far beyond the ordinary realm of culture. It is dramatic theater, and we remain stupefied by it. It’s all over TV.
Television had been around for decades at the turn of the 21st century, but it didn’t hit its stride as a medium for storytelling until antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White came along with their complex, serialized storylines. This ushered in the so-called “Golden Age” of television, sometimes called “Peak TV,” and audiences were treated to some of the greatest TV series ever produced during this time.
Antiheroes are just the tip of the iceberg because our society is looking to enable and empower every perceivably marginal type to become the new archetypes, whether or not these characters are realistic, virtuous or representative of the average American. Indeed, orange can become the new black whether you are speaking of women’s prison garb or presidential hair. We have been sold the notion that the right kind of individual experience deserves power. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Fighting The Last War
One of the best conversations I’ve recently heard was the interview by Tyler Cowen (whom with Alex Tarrabok make for great reading) of Stan McChrystal on the management of risk. Risk management is an uncommon subject in these dark days precisely because we as a society have given in to the temptations of re-engineering our polity around every downside. We have become brittle and fecklessly succumb to every conceivable scheme to deliver us from suffering. We simply do not believe that we can survive any catastrophe and we are unwilling to deal with either the actual discomfort of loss or the possibility that loss itself is inevitable. Beyond what we should know about catastrophization (h/t Jonathan Haight), here is the crux of where lived experience falls flat. Lived experience fails because one doesn’t understand what one hasn’t risked and others have. When you have zero tolerance for risk, yours is probably the worst example of all. That lived experience can never become a ‘teachable moment’, except as a counter-example of what to do, or as propaganda to infantilize.
MCCHRYSTAL: ..The person I’ve seen most impressive with that is Dr. Henry Kissinger. I’ve been in the room with him a couple of times — sort of a fly on the wall — and someone will bring up an issue, and he will suddenly soar up to 30,000 feet, and he will describe it in a way that no one in the room has been doing at that point. I think there’s a discipline of thought to do that, and it’s not very common.
COWEN: Do you think reading a great deal of history is useful for thinking about risk, or only modestly useful?
MCCHRYSTAL: I think it’s not only useful; it’s essential. If you don’t know history, you constrain your mind almost into personal experience only.
COWEN: How useful are war games in thinking about risk? I mean the board games, the box games. I don’t mean war-gaming as you do in the military. Just plain old war games, like Avalon Hill in the old days.
MCCHRYSTAL: Anything that forces you to problem-solve is very good about thinking about risk because you’ve got an opponent who is trying to cause you problems, to create threats and put you at risk. Of course, you’re trying to do the same. Chess is, of course, another version of this, so I think that they’re really good at building that muscle memory in your mind.
When we consider those areas in society we are grumbling for politics to change, we do so because we decide not to manage the risk, or practice problem solving. This is self-victimization, or as someone brilliantly said on Twitter, it is “casting spells against yourself for your own failure.” So I remind us:
The Political Abstention Principle
A simple moral principle: when a future change is framed as a problem which we might hope our political system to solve, then the only acceptable reason to talk about the consequences of failing to solve that problem is to scare folks into trying harder to solve it. If you instead assume that politics will fail to solve the problem, and analyze the consequences of that in more detail, not to scare people but to work out how to live in that scenario, you are seen as expressing disloyalty to the system and hostility toward those who will suffer from that failure.
Assuming political failure might have saved Jews in Germany from trusting that a clown like Hitler could never take over the government. After all, he lost to Hindenberg in March of 1932. Less than a year later, Hindenberg appointed him Chancellor. Politics can go very wrong and governments can turn over in a matter of days, but not when the people are anchored in a thorough amount of social awareness in the context of real history. If we are willing to entirely dismiss our own grandparents’ way of life and values, then our culture fails us, and the meaning of life becomes leveraged by the politics of the moment. The charismatic who can appeal to cherry picked examples of lived experience to the exclusion of what has worked in society is a revolutionary. Revolutions destroy society by forcing everyone to have the lived experience of war. War is the best tool ever invented to destroy history.
We The People
We should remember that we are not saved by anyone but our collective selves in a Jungian sense.
The personal unconscious is home to all the people, things and places we have encountered in our own lives. All our personal experiences exist at this level. There is our personal mother and father, our friends and the things and places we have encountered in our lives.
The collective unconscious is far deeper than the personal. This layer contains the accumulated historical, collective experiences of humanity. It is not a mystical hive mind, however, but the psychology of the instincts of humanity. It is a common rather than a communal mind.
To work for the common good, we must use our natural commonality. We therefore should be wary when our society is degraded, when it is divided by artificial categories. It means some faction has loosed a Leviathan behind our backs, or even right under our self-absorbed noses. These are the dislocations that separate us humans one from the other. We need to keep in touch. It’s not all about you. You are not a lone prisoner in a cell writing Mein Kampf.
These days we pretend that generations are more important than the continuity of family lines. And those who were, relatively speaking, born yesterday find the turnover of political leadership on a 4 or 8 year basis is all the time required to turn around the foolishness of the prior regime. This is a cycle of madness, and to be frank, I cannot see how spending a trillion here or there at the brink is going to make the differences we need. These are desperate proposals that require us to forget history and endure the presentism of lived experience. We have become vulnerable to questions of the now because we have been tricked into believing we are only a part of our very own lived experience and the experience of others has nothing to do with ourselves.
I worte earlier about the three levels of epistemic wisdom. Third order epistemics are those skills that keep us rationally aligned with those things take place behind our backs, before our time, in languages and environments on the other side of the planet. To lose track of the third order epistemics is to strand yourself in a bubble. The risk is literally you against the world.