You Wouldn't Understand

TL;DR Err on the side of believing someone who has experienced something you haven't, even if you initially disagree with it.

Knowing vs. Understanding

An audience member trying to ride a

The "Smarter Every Day" YouTube Channel released a remarkable video, The Backwards Bicycle. It features a bicycle with a gear that reverses the action of the handlebars. If you turn the handlebars left, the front wheel turns right. He then shows that no one, not even himself, can ride it, even if they know how to ride a regular bicycle.

He concludes the video with "knowledge does not equal understanding." He knows how to ride a regular bicycle, and knows how the mechanism on the backwards bicycle works, but he can't ride the strange machine without eight months of practice.

I'll Teach You How to Ride a Bicycle

Thought experiment: Pretend you don't know how to ride a regular bicycle, and I have to teach you. We're locked in a room with a bicycle until you learn. The catch is you aren't allowed to actually get on the bicycle. You can touch it, examine all the parts, even dismantle and reassemble it. I, presumably a master of bicycling, tell you everything about balance and peddling, gravity and the musculoskeletal system. After one year of being locked in the room, you're ready, and you hop on the bicycle.

Of course, you'll fall right off. You know everything there is to know about bicycling, but you don't have the experience to stay on the bicycle.

If you know everything about bicycles but haven't experienced riding one, how comfortable would you be teaching someone else how to ride?

You Wouldn't Understand

A coworker told me a story.

He is Muslim, brown skinned, and (surprise) "randomly" selected at airports for extra screening. He recalled a particularly bad experience: He was detained, questioned about personal matters, threatened, and invasively searched. He was flying to see his family.

He was finally released, and missed his flight. He was shaking uncontrollably, angry beyond words. Concluding, he said: "I'm telling you this now, how angry I was, but you wouldn't understand."

I was taken aback. I can empathize with others and understand their anger. How could I not understand? His story made me angry too, and I initially thought I knew the experience as well as if I were him.

The more I reflect on his story, the more I realize he's right. I can't understand his feelings. I know his story and the travesty of human rights violations, but did his story leave me shaking uncontrollably? No. As a white person who has never been randomly selected, I fundamentally cannot experience what he went through.

Listening, Believing

What do you understand? What have you experienced?

  • Would I give advice to the CEO of a billion dollar company because I know how Facebook works?

  • Would I tell a person of color their experiences with racism are invalid because I can empathize with others?

  • Would I tell a woman that her claims of a sexist exchange are overreacting because I took a women's studies class?

  • Would I tell a transgender person how to feel about a dangerous company culture because I work there?

No.

Should these people listen to me and engage me if I argue against their experiences, because I think I know what they're going through?

No.

Should I believe their experiences? Even if my initial reaction is that they're wrong? Even if I fundamentally can't experience what they have?

Yes.

I'll err on the side of listening and believing. I don't understand. I haven't ridden that bicycle.

Closing Thoughts on Social Movements

Early in my activism journey I made a biased and incorrect assumption. I assumed that because someone was a member of one marginalized group, they'd empathize with other groups, and I assumed they'd support their own group's equality movement. There are counter examples to all of these. There are people of color who don't support gay rights. There are women who don't support transgender people, and so on. There are racist people of color, women who aren't feminists, and so on.

When racist or sexist communities find these counterexample individuals, the communities herald the individuals as a gold standard. They claim movements are invalid because they have a member of that group on their side. Do counterexample individuals invalidate social movements? Of course not.

I'm a feminist, but if I find a woman speaking out against feminism, I would much rather listen to her than someone who has no experience being a woman. I would much rather hear a debate between non-feminist and feminist women than between two men on the subject.

Experience is key to so much in our lives. It gives meaning to advice and knowledge. Which bicycle have you ridden?

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