No two individuals are identical. No two individual human experiences are identical. So when we recognise characteristics familiar to our own, or someone who shares similar experiences to our own, we find a kind of comfort. Sometimes we experience delight in the discovery of finding someone who has experienced something we have, particularly if it is unusual, uncommon or especially formative to who we believe we are. But lived experience is not the only means to understanding. We can also be comforted and delighted by meeting someone who has knowledge of something distinct we have experienced. If that person has an area of expertise, though not lived experience, the sharing of their interest and our lived experience can begin to bridge the gap between the variances of our understanding. Such meetings often connect people together; families, friends, colleagues—our social networks often rely on some framework of shared experience or knowledge.
In truth, of course, ‘shared experience’ presents an impossible standard. Though some shared experiences bear greater relevance to each other than others, we miss the distinct details and complexity of how we individually receive the world if we think human experiences can ever truly be shared. However, they can be similar. But what happens if our knowledge, our lived experience, the points with which we navigate the world, are totally different? Even then, it is still possible to bridge the gap between our inherently individual experiences through conversation, patience and the will to understanding. Paul Goltz and Harry Reid fought against one another on D-Day. Over 75 years later, they met one another at the anniversary of the Normandy landings and shook hands, saying how glad they were to meet. Harry said to Paul: “We are partners together in the rebuilding of the world.” They were partners not so much because they shared a lived experience, but that their shared experience made them realize the importance of empathy. Their different and separate experiences of the horror of war made them realise the centrality of empathy; only empathy could rebuild the continent and create peace. Lived experience alone can never be sufficiently shared for people to understand one another without empathy.
This meeting was a remarkable feat of human understanding and forgiveness, made possible with time, patience, conversation, reading, listening and the will to reconciliation. These encounters also provide us with comfort and delight, and even more intensely, as Paul and Harry’s meeting demonstrates. Even if this remarkable example of human understanding doesn’t convince you, and you believe there exists an example of when our individual experiences cannot reach an understanding, we have to try—or else condemn one another to ignorance and division.
Two weeks ago, CULA’s Spirited Discussions—an opportunity to invent and vote on motions to debate—put to its members the motion, ‘This house believes only women and non-binary people should be allowed to vote on women and non-binary positions’. There are several problems with this belief and the kind of thinking with which it operates. What is to say women have a greater sympathy and understanding (if indeed you do believe gender governs our capacity to sympathize and understand) for non-binary people, than men? That aside, this motion assumes lived experience, ‘shared’ lived experience, is the only means by which we are able to understand.
But in fact, even without lived experience or expertise, we have developed a means to bridge the gap between on our inherently individual experiences by dint of being human. That is due to our natural capacity for sympathy (and empathy). David Hume perceived sympathy to be the most remarkable natural human faculty because it enables us “to receive by communication” someone else’s “inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own.” One way to promote our capacity to sympathize, and thereby to begin to understand others, who are necessarily different from ourselves, is to allow all people to vote on officers to represent women or non-binary people. If not, we shut off conversation, we assume lived experience is the only qualification of understanding and judgement, and we imply that judgement is governed by gender. In effect, we diminish our ability to sympathize with others; we inhibit ourselves from exercising the fullness of our emotional intelligence and understanding.
Reconciling our differences, especially if they are contentious, is not always easy. Martha Nussbaum expresses this beautifully in her discussion about treating complex moral decisions with complex thinking. She writes “harmony […] is not simplicity but the tension of distinct and separate beauties”. Nussbaum does not deny the tension of difficult situations. She asserts that tension should be embraced; it is the sign of a healthy society. If we are going to live together, if we are going to live in a society together, we will have to learn to listen and to attempt to understand one another. E. M. Forster, a good Cambridge liberal, asked us that we ‘only connect’. Could there be a more urgent instruction, at any time, but especially now?