You Can't Transcend The Bounds Of Lived Experience

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

This is an article by Brian Standard who is trained in medicine but provides an interesting fusion of positivism and constructionism with his embrace of metaphysics. Check out more of our writing here.

From the age of 6 until 18 I lived with my single mom and biological sister mostly in a series of small apartments. I grew up in an environment where the systemic injustice and inequalities that women face tangibly affected my life. We didn’t have extra money; further, mom was always tired.

Momma toiled under the weight of what I now recognize as a patriarchal capitalist system. This same systemic inequality is currently a topic of academic debate and reflection in my current field of work, medicine. I know that I’m not the only man who can see this. Those of us who don’t see this are blind either out of willful ignorance or are playing blind out of some pathological and oppressive sense of self-preservation; preservation against the imminent threat of a level playing field where players get picked on their merits alone.

I am a firm believer that as each of us make up almost perfectly 50% of our species, and that as we interact and grow as a society, we should be judging one another on substance. I recognize the advantage I have in the workplace. I understand the need for feminism. I support the feminist cause. Plenty of men see these inequities, support the movements to overturn them and hope we live long enough to see the day they are abolished.

But bro, you are NOT a feminist.

So now that we have a thesis, which I’m confident plenty of you can agree with, I know that in this tornadic social justice climate I just pissed a bunch of you off. But hear me out. Feminism just is not a movement involving men in any direct manner. We have no claim, no stake in the movement, so far as it involves the progress it strives to achieve.

But it doesn’t stop there. Certainly, we can claim skin in the game by proxy. The women in our lives are very much ingrained into the fabric of our day to day. The upward mobility of our partners directly affects our social and financial situations. And that’s not even taking into account the stake we hold in the well-being of the ladies who face the same kind of friction that drags us into our lows, or in its absence, makes it that much easier for us to be thrust ever closer to our highs.

Humans are a fundamentally social species. The camaraderie that we exhibit within our own social groups is an example of how the process of natural selection reifies certain traits rather than other traits for species survival. For example, Edward Wilson in the book In Search Of Nature writes that altruism and social cooperation have led “to some of the most complex forms of communication in the animal kingdom.” He goes on to write that Homo habilis “carried food and distributed it to others,” which many anthropologists argue led to “long-term reciprocal agreements, and thus ultimately a uniquely rich social existence.” We may only see remnants of these traits in modernity but social cooperation is ultimately coded in our genes.

I understand the importance of cooperation so I am in no way attempting to discount or discredit the interest that a multitude of us have in achieving social progress. But the desire for or work towards that progress doesn’t make a man a feminist. This desire can develop a man capable of rationalizing feminism, capable of supporting feminism, capable of appreciating feminism and understanding (in a way that is akin to an academic endeavor) the impetus, goals and concept of feminism. Some men might argue that a man capable of superb empathy who through imagining what our family, friends, colleagues and lovers that are women experience is able to put himself in her shoes. I wholesale reject that contention. Our metaphysical existence as men prevents us from being able to put ourselves in the shoes of other.

I posit that the degree of empathy a man must possess in order to lay claim to the term “feminist” does not exist in the reality of the cisgender male experience. Of course, the metaphysics of gender are beyond that of a binary and people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid and a multitude of other identities can lay claim to the term feminist alongside cisgender women. I’m nowhere near the first person to raise this point about the limits of empathy. In fact, this exact question was examined in the existentialist/surrealist novel by Franz Kafka, Die Verwandlung, more commonly known in america as The Metamorphosis.

As a freshman in college I was required to complete a course in literature and society, which is where I was introduced to the noted novel. I still vividly remember the first eight words of the professor on the first day of class because they presented to me infinite implications in all of my subsequent interactions: “What is it like to be a bat?” (a titular question referencing an essay by Thomas Nagel that addresses consciousness and the mind-body problem). Well, I have no idea what it’s like to be a bat. Neither did the person asking the question. But ever the go getter, I raised my hand in a lecture of 150 people and attempted to answer:

“If I were a bat, I would hang upside down for much of the day and I’d fly around at night. I’d use echolocation to find the mosquitoes and flies that would nourish me. Surely that’s what it’s like to be a bat.”

I was quickly corrected. That is not what it’s like to be a bat. That is what I imagine it would be like to be a bat. I provided only a superficial examination of the life of a bat. I don’t have the slightest idea of what the experience of using echolocation is like or what it’s like to fly or what it’s like to subsist on mosquitoes and flies. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to be any other person despite my empathy. The reason for this is obvious, my perception of reality is wholly a product of the experiences that have shaped my understanding of reality.

Now, going back to the novel I mentioned. In it, Kafka provides a limited third-person narrator to describe the life and thoughts and feelings of a large roach-like creature. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, who becomes this creature, awoke one day and was no longer a human. The narrator reveals his thoughts in, his disappointment at his inability to communicate and his despair at his loss of connection to his parents who fed him daily scraps. This hollow existence persisted until one day Gregor died.

Kafka hadn’t the slightest clue what life as an insect would be like. His perception, like yours and mine, is confined to within the bounds of his human experience. That’s just part of the human condition. To transcend the bounds of lived experience would require dominion over the metaphysical. I’m sorry man, you don’t have that ability.

And THAT is why you are not a feminist.

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