A colleague who lost his teenage son due to a traffic accident 3 years ago, told us about the ‘black halo’ which remains above his head, and which only others who have lost a child are able to see. I do not doubt for a second that this is the case – that people who have not lost a child are, perhaps a very few exceptions aside, not able to truly understand what it means to lose a child, and how it changes the person you are. It reminds me of a friend who lost her father about a year after I lost mine. She had been very supportive when my father was terminally ill and died, but told me after her father died that she had no idea how hard it was until she experienced it herself. Good intentions are simply not enough to understand certain experiences.
I think it’s not just with experiences, but also with varieties of ‘differences’ and with social practices, being ill, and other features of human life. It is not just the death of someone near and dear that we have a hard time to understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves; or what it means to have autism, or to live with and/or care for someone who has autism (in my experience, most people don’t understand, despite what they believe themselves about their understanding); or what it is to be constantly subjected to racism. I am confident that I have no clue what it means to grow up in abject poverty, or to live through a civil war, or to be the victim of domestic abuse.
My worry is that this category of experiences, differences, practices, and other features of human life that we cannot understand without first-person experience, is much larger than we generally tend to assume. And that as a consequence, we believe that we know much more than we actually do know. And, as a further consequence, that we too often are wrong in our judgements of aspects of the lives of people significantly different than ourselves.
Somehow it strikes me as wise, and possibly even as a precondition for social justice, if we would rehabilitate epistemic humility at the core of our educational and social practices.