More on lived experience

Last month I did a piece comparing the insistence of critical race theory, and intersectionality in general, on accepting “lived experience” as definitive, with the liquidation of the kulaks in Soviet Russia. In both cases, I argued, lived experience could easily be conditioned by careful propaganda.

I came across an example of this in the last few days. Apparently Michelle Obama has been describing how, when she was First Lady, she would shake off her security people and go into public places such as shops incognito. She claims that, because she is black, she was ignored, pushed aside, and in other ways treated as if she was invisible. Ergo America is full of systemic racism.

Commentators have pointed out that what she complains about is, in fact, the common lot of most of us from time to time. Who hasn’t had trouble getting the attention of a bar-tender in the pub? Who hasn’t had someone push in front of them in a queue (I had an aunt who specialized in doing it, much to the embarrassment of my mother). But I want to point to the significance of the fact that Michelle Obama is describing events that occurred at the very time when she was, in her day job, the most powerful woman in the world, and not episodes from her previous life of relative obscurity.

Thomas Sowell – another black man – said, “When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination.” And I can vouche for that fact from experience, including the truth that one often doesn’t notice the preferential treatment, but only the “discriminating” equal treatment.

When our twins were born, I had been working as a doctor in the same hospital, on a GP training rotation, for 17 months. In fact, I had spent the first year of that time in the small block containing the maternity unit and the special care baby unit, where I had done six months each of obstetrics and paediatrics. I was now working on the medical wards, but I kept up my comradeship with the teams because the quickest route from my on-call room was through the building.

As you can understand, the delivery of the twins of “one of their own” was a very special experience for us, though my wife developing chickenpox a few days later was rather less special. I was actually on call for the medical ward on the day of delivery, but naturally enough I came back to visit mother and babies on subsequent evenings and weekends – the first occasions I had been in the building in my “civilian” capacity.

To my surprise, on my first evening visit I kept getting doors slammed in my face everywhere I went, which seemed odd. But I soon realised that what was unusual was that people weren’t holding the self-closing doors open for me. Somehow I had unconsciously got used, over the months, to people holding them to let me through. And the reason they did that, I soon concluded, was because I was usually wearing a white coat with a stethoscope sticking out of the pocket, and that people were performing a little courtesy in virtue of my office. But during my off-duty visits the clues weren’t there, and the courtesy didn’t apply.

Now, naturally I found the contrast amusing, as well as a somewhat flattering recognition of the respect in which my profession was held. And most of all I remember it still because it was a salutary reminder of how easily we get used to special privilege. Not that that privilege was in the least reprehensible: the act was entirely voluntary, and (once I was aware of it) I accepted the kindness gratefully. Now I’m retired I have a great deal of respect for the dedication and hard work of medics – it’s just clapping for the bureaucratic NHS that I abhor.

But suppose that, instead of being a white junior doctor in 1980 I had been a black junior doctor in 2020, in the era of critical race theory, “implicit bias” and “microaggression.” Would it not be easy to conclude, like Michelle Obama, that doors closing in my face were marks of widespread racism? And was not that racism hypocritically suppressed when I was wearing my white coat in the same way that (presumably) all the white supremacists around the White House perfidiously feigned respect when Mrs Obama was not in the disguise of an ordinary black woman?

Once, as that black house officer, I had gained the suspicion that my skin colour led to my only being tolerated rather than respected, it is easy to see how I would notice the apparent microaggressions even more, and conclude them to be increasing. I would quite possibly respond in a resentful way to things that were, in fact, not only not consciously racist, but actually not racist at all.

If I called the perpetrators out, their denials of racism would (according to critical race theory – check it out) be confirmatory proof-positive of their racism. But I would also soon gain a reputation as a prickly and sullen character – and in a close and highly-stressed community like a junior doctors mess, that is not a comfortable place to be. And that, naturally enough, would increase my impression of racial prejudice even more. It’s happening today in a lot of workplaces, especially in those practising diversity training, and in churches too.

Fortunately, though, such theories were not around in 1980, though I worked happily with doctors from West Africa, India, the Middle East and indeed most parts of the globe. Some of them had to cope with the stupidity of the NHS, for example the Saudi guy who, after a day of fasting during Ramadan, was only given the choice of ham salad or a bacon sandwich in the canteen.

But I’m pretty sure that all of them, like me, found that doors mysteriously opened before them wherever they went.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to More on lived experience

  1. Ben says:

    “their denials of racism would (according to critical race theory – check it out) be confirmatory proof-positive of their racism”

    Echoes of conspiracy theorists, and paranoia, here: in both cases, the more you present counter-evidence, or protest your innocence, the more it proves you’re lying.


    The fact that science limited itself to the study of ‘objective reality’, and that scientism has elevated itself as the *only* reality, leaves subjectivity completely adrift from rationality. We (in the West) are living in a world where feelings reign supreme and ‘rationality’ is only ever called in for sophistic support, at best.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Good observation, Ben: yesterday’s mistakes lead to today’s excesses. In the “bad old days” reason was a broad and integrated concept, including logic, imagination, emotional awareness and empathy, piety, etc, all bound together with “virtue.”

      Divorcing the scientific faculties from the rest seems to have paved the way for rejecting them altogether.

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