Subject: "Are you so anti-essentialist that lived experience counts for nothing?"
From: TheCallan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Sun 12 Apr 1998 - 15:49:22 BST
I have been thinking about a question I was recently asked on this list:
>Are you so anti-essentialist that lived experience counts for nothing?
It's an interesting question, because it ties together essentialism -- the
notion that there is something essential different between us that lies in our
birth, our nature -- and lived experience, or nurture.
The assumption seems to be that somehow, it is our lived experience that
embodies our essential differences. I'm not sure that is true.
I don't believe that humans are fundamenally different from one another. We
share 98% of our DNA in common with chimps, share much, much more in common
than that which separates us, be it skin color, eithnicity, language, birth
sex, gendering, whatever. It's easy to divide up humans on physical
characteristics, and you can get some normative differences -- females tend to
be smaller than males, dark skinned people may be taller than light skinned
and so on. Yet, in every case, you can show some females who are bigger than
most males, some dark skinned people who are shorter than light skinned and so
I do believe, however, that each human has a unique essence, some sort of
calling, mix, variation, signature that means they are an indvidual with their
own mix of humanity. I hesitate to say that this means that they are
essentialy different, because people will assume that means the same as saying
that they are fundamentally different, which I don't believe to be true. We
do each come into this world coded with some unique acorn or daemon, as James
Hillman writes in "The Soul's Code," and the effects of that calling are
shaped though our lived experience, our social interaction.
The question for me is simple though: can we determine the essence of a person
though fundamental identity tests? Can a test that someone has been raised
Roman Catholic, was born female, is light-skinned, is from an upper class
family, whatever, determine the essence of someone, determine what is in their
I don't think it can. I can think of many people who shared many lived
experiences -- growing up in the same family, having the same sex, being born
on the same day, whatever -- who are essentially different people making very
different choices, with very different priorities. To use identity tests to
determine the essence of these people by grouping them according to what
appear to be fundamental differences is to miss the very real differences in
essence that they bring to their lives.
I believe that lived experience does count for a great deal in our lives, but
the revealing part of that experience is not the shared challenges we went
though, but rather the choices we made in facing them. It is not the external
environmental factors that show us were we have shared essence, but rather the
internal choices that reveal the essence we bring to our lives. People who
have consistenly made the choice to open a femme heart for example, in the
face of challenges, be those challenges an abusive family, gendering as a boy,
social pressure to be an andro lesbian, or whatever, have more in common than
people who responded to the same lived experience in another way.
In short, I believe that the essence of a person is in the content of their
character, the shape of their heart, and that content is revealed by the
choices they make towards others. Essence is not simply revealed though lived
experience, no matter how politically useful that notion may be, binding
people into community by building shared language built on shared experience.
No matter how much cults use imposed shared experience to erase the essential
differences between people, those differences still exist.
Of course, this is the fundamental tool of the culture, to have us learn to
deny our hearts and our essence by replacing those connections with forced
shared experiences. This is the basic premise of any socialization, the
notion that shared experience can erase essential differences, can turn people
into almost interchangable members of a culture.
To me, lived experience itself is inherently anti-essentialist, an attempt to
replace our essence with some sort of constructed shared concept, be that a
dream of reward or a fear of separation. To assume that lived experience and
essentialism are so fundamentally the same that saying our history does not
represent us somehow means that we are denying the essential difference of the
heart seems to be an inverse idea,
Don't get me wrong. I am generally in favor of socialization, believeing that
shared language and goals, which can only come put of shared experience and
metaphors are what help people come together and work together in community.
I just also believe that we must, in this socialization, also honor and
respect the diverse essences of people, the unique songs they bring to the
culture, the individual gifts that are not obvious from their socialization,
whatver that was.
Both lived experience and essence count in my book. I just try hard not to
get them mixed up with each other.
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