The Politics of Experience

Aside from what you have said, I think that communication and empowering others is a key component to a better life and a better world. Creating an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to be them self and to speak their mind.Tortugo23

Tortugo23, you’re my first comment. I want to thank you for your thoughts and I hope you’ll find this post relevant!

“The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.” — R.D. Laing

I just finished reading R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience. I found it to be beautifully written, radically relevant, full of fascinating insights, and one of the most important books I have read. I think it’s insights can help us envision a culture where we feel empowered and safe to be ourselves. The solution the book presents is a focus on the primacy of experience — the validity of all our experiences — and how often are our experiences validated? What’s more how often do we know what we are genuinely experiencing? So often we worry about what we should be thinking and feeling and perceiving, perhaps based on what other people are thinking and feeling and perceiving, but we’re estranged from our actual experiences. Laing says we are alienated from our own experiences because we perpatuate acts of violence towards our own experiences and the experience of others, and further, “the usual name that much of this destruction goes under is love.” We need to first attempt to understand how we act to invalidate and even destroy each other’s experiences, even in the name of love, and then, hopefully, we can begin to heal ourselves and create genuinely loving relationships where we do not invalidate, but honour, each other’s deepest experiences.

I think we can all understand on some level the ways in which we not only invalidate, but destroy, each other’s experience, and thus find ourselves leading alienated lives. We’ve all felt at some point that our truest experiences and clearest perceptions of the world were rejected or made to seem as though they were illusions or just didn’t matter, and we’ve dealt with these rejections in a variety of ways. My first memory of such invalidation traumatised me. I was about three or four years old. The doorbell rang and my mother asked who was at the door. I refused to tell her. It was deeply embarassing to me, for some reason, to say people’s names. Language in general had the ability to embarrass me — perhaps because I perceived its power — in ways that I couldn’t understand. The experience of embarassment was very real to me. I assumed my mother would respect my choice not to say the name of the person who was at the door. Unfortunately, she couldn’t understand why I would refuse to say the name. She thought I was just being obstinate, she feared she was a terrible mother because her son wouldn’t even tell her who was at the door, she just couldn’t understand what was going on inside of me. We both had valid experiences. She inadvertantly destroyed mine. She chased me around for what felt like hours, trying to get me to say this woman’s name. I felt physically threatened — she chased me around a chair, and I don’t remember if she hurt me, but I know I was incredibly afraid of that — and I felt profoundly misunderstood. I had a very real experience. What I needed was nurturing, but what I got was violence, in the name of love. (Just a few months ago, I finally had a chance to cry about that; and it’s amazing how much I could cry about something that happened to me 20 years ago.)

Laing suggests a number of common ways in which we commonly act destructively upon experience: “Jack can act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on ‘bringing it up.’ He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: ‘It’s all in your imagination.’ Further still, he can invalidate the content: ‘It never happened that way.’ Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and maker her feel guilty for doing so in the bargain.” These sorts of things happen all the time; and we do it to ourselves, too. Not only do we destroy our experiences, but as Laing puts it, we overlay it with a veil of mystification, “a false consciousness inured… to its own falsity. Exploitation must not be seen as such. It must be seen as benevolence. Persecution preferably shouldn’t need to be invalidated as the figment of a paranoid imagination; it should be experienced as kindness…” (57)

Often our violence towards each other’s experiences is unintentional, but it does happen, even in the name of love. I recently purchased a book by Marshall Rosenberg, called Non-Violent Communication. It was definitely influenced by the work of R.D. Laing. The very title of the book and process suggest that most of our communication is, in fact, violent. Non-Violent Communication is a process of communicating with each other (and yes, even with ourselves) in a way that promotes empathy, helps people listen and express themselves more receptively, and helps people get their needs met — all while acknowledging that both (or all) experiences are valid. It directly addresses those common communication patterns that Laing writes about: for example, invalidating experience, invalidating content, shifting modality. It is a simple but powerful process, and before I started reading it, I didn’t realise the extent to which my way of communicating was invalidating the experiences of others. In fact, more often, I was afraid to state my needs, because I didn’t know how to do it in a way that would be heard. We so often aren’t heard, and our needs aren’t met, because we don’t communicate with people in a way that increases empathy; and empathy requires validation of experience. We may not even notice when our experiences are invalidated because it’s such a common occurrence. (The insidious so-called ‘universal’ pronoun “he,” for example, which Laing himself uses…) It’s something I’d like to write more about in the future, and if you’re looking for a way to begin putting Laing’s theories into practice, I think Non-Violent Communication would be a wonderful start.

Laing writes: “Personal action can either open out possibilities of enriched experience or it can shut off possibilities. Personal action is either predominately validating, confirming, encouraging, supportive, enhancing, or it is invalidating, denying, discouraging, undermining and constricting. It can be creative or destructive. In a world where the normal condition is one of alienation, most personal action must be destructive both of one’s own experience and of that of the other.” So, in an alienated world, how can we learn to honour each other’s experiences? How can we begin to heal? I would suggest awareness is a start. “Behaviour is a function of experience,” says Laing. We can no longer think in terms of behaviour alone without considering experience: “The relation between experience and behaviour is the stone that builders will reject at their peril. Without it the whole structure of our theory and practice must collapse.” Of course, as Laing admits, we can’t know another’s experience; but I can experience you as experiencing, and you can experience me as experiencing. I also experience you experiencing me, ad infinitum. We can, as Laing says, interexperience. (This reminds me of Husserl’s phenomenological concept of intersubjectivity.)

As a consequence of our alienation, we split experience into inner/outer, objective/subjective, but says Laing, experience is experience, neither inner nor outer. “Perception, imagination, fantasy, dreams, memory are simply different modalities of experience. None are more inner or outer than the other.” Both Laing and I agree that the so-called inner world of dreams, fantasy, imagination is hugely neglected in our society. (He says we should value inner explorers of consciousness as highly as we value those who explore the world outside of us.) I’ve come to see many of our culture’s problems in relation to the fact that we place such a high value on the external (e.g. behaviour) and so little on the internal (e.g. feelings, dreams, inner experiences, etc.) When I was four years old, and didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) say the name of the woman at the door, my mother saw my behaviour, but not in the context of my experience. You could call my behaviour obstinate only outside of the context of my inner experience.

“I shall state as axiomatic that behaviour is a function of experience, and experience and behaviour are always in relation to someone or something out of oneself.”

The focus on the external, and the dissociation of behaviour from experience, is particularly prevailant in schools. There is little acknowledgement in the conventional one-size-fits-all school of what is going on “inside” a person. Schools value whether students turn in their assignments on time, whether they answer questions “correctly” or to the satisfaction of the teacher. They value obedience and docility. It matters little, if at all, what a student is actually experiencing. Are they finding the material completely uninteresting and irrelevant, and thus, experiencing boredom? Would they rather be outside playing? Do they have a different way of thinking about things that can’t be fit into a procrustean bed? Do they have issues with the teacher? Do they have emotional issues that are more of a priority for them than doing the tasks they’re assigned? Have they developed insecurities about their intelligence and ability because of past experiences in school? All of these are incredibly valid experiences — much more valid than the presumption that students should sit down and do what they’re told no matter what — and yet schools completely fail to acknowledge them. Were we to honour the experience of each individual, we might find them ingenius. (How smart *is* it, really, to sit down and do what you’re told all the time when you’d much rather be outside playing?) Unfortunately schools destroy our experience. As far as they’re concerned our experience is irrelevant. If you spend six months on a school project, which thrilled you to the extent that you got excited about it every day, ready to learn more, but lost the project just before you were to submit it, your experience is meaningless. It’s as though it never happened. Your experience is meaningless. Your project in the teacher’s hands is what matters. Your external behaviour and obedience are what matters, and according to that, we quickly label you as ADD or learning disabled or slacker or college bound…

In fact, Laing says: “In order to rationalize our industrial-military complex, we have to destroy our capacity to see clearly any more what is in front of, and to imagine what is beyond, our noses. Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste to our own sanity. We begin with the children. It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid pbrainwashing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks. Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high IQs if possible.”

I have been exploring the connections between schooling, trauma, and mental abuse. I want to explore the violation we might feel (whether or not we’re able to express it) when we’re told to repeatedly memorise things we perceive no need for; are forced to spend years of our lives devoted to this kind of inculcation; and then are led to believe that our worth and future success are contingent on it. Basically, I want to formulate a case that school is traumatic more often than we realise, and the effects of that trauma more pervasive. Laing has certainly helped my thinking in this regard with his ideas about violation of experience. I’d be very interested if anyone has any ideas on how to pursue this issue further.

I have more to say about issues that came up while reading The Politics of Experience, but I’ll save that till a little later.


~ by dewiniaeth on February 1, 2007.

4 Responses to “The Politics of Experience”

  1. The structures of schooling continue to damage students far beyond childhood. Postgraduate academia invalidates any experience that doesn’t follow the rules. Not published in a scholarly journal? Then, according to the education-military-industrial-fine-arts complex, you haven’t said squat.

  2. Good posting – hope you will resume..
    I would agree that being subjected to contemporary institutionalised education can be at best unhelpful (are we really being taught to think for ourselves?) and at worst deeply traumatic. Some educational philosophy has made distinctions between instrumental-technical knowledge (characterised by the ‘hard’ scinces) and critical/emancipatory knowledges, which have the potential to liberate the thinking of those being educated, and to help them think critically.

  3. Schooling can certainly be traumatic…but any other education model will also be traumatic. I followed 2 seminars with Marshall Rosenberg few year ago… and when you master non-violent communication it can also be traumatic. But all schooling systems around the Planet are adjusting themselves to their social environment and, don’t forget, are the fruits our ourselves. So I suggest that it’s the consequence of our acts not the reverse.

    Jean-Claude MORAND

  4. I like how you paralleled Laing’s concept of normalcy to your experiences. He ‘s right–that we don’t always say what we are really thinking because we are worried about what people will say. I used to do that as a child and I thought I stopped but…I guess it never goes away does it.

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