One of my main duties as a graduate student is to teach an introductory course in geography to undergraduates. In that course, I emphasize a simple yet counter-intuitive idea: visiting a place or having an experience does not automatically impart the truth of that place or that experience. I was reminded of this lesson today in a New York Times opinion article called “After War, a Failure of Imagination“, written by Iraq war veteran Phil Klay. In his article he makes the claim that the perception that veterans’ war-time experiences are “unfathomable” to non-veterans is a myth that results in two harms. First, it treats soldiers as indisputable experts on war, which, in addition to being factually untrue, also forecloses the democratic imperative for debate which military service is supposed to preserve. Second, this myth is inconsistently applied only to soldiers, yet not to, say, victims of child abuse, who Klay says often have stories at least as traumatic as war. Yet, it is comparably more socially acceptable to recognize and empathize with abuse victims’ stories. In other words, the point of sharing stories of abuse — unlike veteran’s war experiences — is not to make the victim an expert on abuse, but to open up a dialogue that creates change.
I found this article compelling given my own military experience and teaching experience at a Deaf school. After spending four years in Puerto Rico, three years of military service overlapped with three years of working at a Deaf school, I returned to the U.S. only slightly more clued in to the social and political context of Puerto Rico than when I first arrived. The experience had not, in itself, made me an expert on either military service nor the deeply political history of the world’s oldest colony. It was only after reading several social and economic histories of Puerto Rico, becoming better versed in the global political economy of U.S. military power, and speaking with people who faced various forms of discrimination, that my first-hand experiences started to make sense. The experience in itself did not impart a conceptual framework to me of how to interpret this experience. Quite the opposite: without a critical recognition of race, class and gender (of myself and those around me), my experience appeared to me as an objective universalizeable experience of a military, rather than a military that creates various benefits and disabilities for various groups of people. In other words, my experience was not authentic or authoritative just because it was my own.
This debate over the authority of experience is a contemporary manifestation over debates between the empiricism of David Hume and the (well, very particular versions of) idealism found in such thinkers as Kant and Hegel, which, to his credit, Klay recognizes in his article. I think this debate continues to work its way out in social life in a number of important ways, and therefore I think it’s fruitful to think about the variety of ways we could use this more abstract idea to frame and analyze other real-world examples in order to create change.