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Can our lived experiences be illegitimate?

12:00 AM May 16, 2024 IST | Shafakat Hassan
can our lived experiences be illegitimate

French philosopher Henry Bergson differentiated between the idea of time as clock time and durée réelle (real duration) i.e. experienced time. While one can be measured analytically with devices and was common to all and sundry, durée réelle was unique to an individual’s lived experience. This bisection is not confined to time.


A sensitive reading of anything mediated by human consciousness makes us realize that we can partake in someone else’s lived experience, at best, only in part. When the brilliant Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously remarked, in his Philosophical Investigations, that even if a lion knew how to speak we cannot understand him, he was alluding to this very fact that the language one speaks is deeply embedded in experience, and hence can be shared only by those with a similar experience.


Poststructuralists who showed that language is not as robust and straight as a commonsensical view might conceive, went even a notch further. Depicting the decentralized and fluid nature of language, they showcased that not only was our language dependent on our experience, but stark enough, even our experience was dependent on our language. Language did not just give us an apparatus to understand the world ‘out there’, it practically shaped our comprehension of the world.


I might have taken a slight detour, but this prelude was necessary for what I wish to convey. As social animals, we live as part of elaborate structures, into which (as Martin Heidegger would have it) we are ‘thrown’. We do not choose them. We just inherit them. These structures shape our cultures, values, experiences, and most of all, the language through which we perceive ourselves and others.


Having been born into these structures we often take these as self-evident. It is only when the ‘other’ confronts us, as a complete being, that we are forced to stop and think twice. Jean-Paul Sartre in his play No Exit hit the nail on its head when he penned, Hell is other people. While confronting this ‘other’ we realize that what anchors our values, existence, and experience may be as subjective, and as prone to question, as anyone else’s. It is the ‘other’ that changes our ‘objective world’ into a subjective one.  Hence the question – how to deal with the ‘other’, is essential to our ‘being’.


Our society is embedded within structures of multiple kinds. These structures involve hierarchies, skewed power relations, and (as Michael Foucault would call it) ‘discipline and punish’. What it does the most is to hide us from the ‘other’. It mediates our understanding of the ‘other’ only through the given templates of received wisdom. It wishes us to see the world through these socio-moral templates. It makes us argue for our legitimacy through these templates and demands the others to follow suit.


Such congealed structures essentially privilege these socio-moral templates over the lived experience of an individual. At every point, it demands an answer - Is your reality legitimate? It allows us not to sit in silence and listen. Rather, it wants us to keep the ‘other’ perpetually on its toes - always before a jury, defending objectively, what it felt subjectively. In love, or hate, it makes us cower behind the thick walls of socio-moral structures. It makes us surreptitiously peep from the side, fling stones at the ‘other’ and then lean back.


These socio-moral structures confine us such that we barely stop to caution and think – Am I flinging stones at the ‘other’, or at the ‘legitimacy’ of someone else’s lived reality? And, where does that land me with my own lived reality? It makes us deny the ‘other’, and in the process, deny ourselves.  In the heat of the movement, we fail to realize that no one possesses a moral monopoly over legitimate feelings. If I can overpower certain modules of feelings today, it is only by a prevalent ‘truth regime’. Tomorrow, the shoe will be on the other foot, and I would also have to beg mercy for my reality.

Mene Majnun pe ladakpan me Asad

Sang uthaya tha ki sar yaad aaya

In my childishness, I had raised stones at Majnun

And then I remembered my own head! (Ghalib)

How one feels is something deeply personal and subjective. Even through expression, only a part of it may be conveyed. Sometimes, wrongly. To deny it; to negate it; to forcefully counter it – is to deny the very essence of our being. This lived experience is beyond the confines of social codes, prevalent moral norms, and even language. And, it needs to be seen as much. It cannot, and should not, be restricted within the iron-clad walls of socio-moral strictures. It need not be bundled, then crumpled, and then weighed on a scale for legitimacy.

It is what it is – lived experience. To deny it is to deny yourself. Even, to deny it in others is to deny yourself. To acknowledge it, appreciate it, and even celebrate it – is to assert the very essence of every individual consciousness. To engage with it in yourself, and in others, is to grow in yourself and through others, and also as a collective. It is to face the world, not with clenched fists, but with open arms. And, by this opening up to yourself you open up to others, and by opening up to others you also open up to yourself.

This dialectic of openness is the mightiest gift that providence can grant, and that we can snatch from it. The possibilities it generates are magnanimous, and what makes life meaningful. In infinite colors, it allows us to paint the canvass of existence. Through this openness we not only liberate others from being judged, but ourselves as well, from being the judge. We understand fully that we are not in the business of judging, but understanding.

We humbly, and boldly, recognize that the structures that we inherit limit not only the ‘other’, but the very essence of human endeavor – to be, to live, to explore, and to create. To allow individual subjectivity and lived experience, space beyond socio-moral structures, hence, is to allow life to breathe. The very act is revolutionary! Through this openness, we acknowledge that the socio-moral presumptions, through which we confront the ‘other’, and ourselves, maybe radically arbitrary. As a result, we appreciate our lived experience, and that of others, beyond the bounds of socio-moral templates. His mirage may be as real as my oasis, to surmise the Persian poet Urfi Shirazi,

Don’t Pride in your wisdom

It was rather the fault of your thirst

That your heart was not fully deceived

And you found it to be a mirage (Urfi)

Shafakat Hassan Mirza is currently a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali.