In my book Contrasting Identities, I argued that there is a kind of knowledge that can only be attained through direct experience. That knowledge is sometimes called ‘acquainted knowledge’. In Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment ‘Mary’s Room’, Mary has spent all her life seeing everything in black and white. However, she is an expert in the science of colour, therefore knows all there is to know about colour and colour vision. One day, Mary sees the colour red for the first time.
There are different arguments about what can be concluded about this thought experiment. However, one conclusion I think is relatively uncontroversial is that Mary knew everything about the colour red, but discovered what it is like to see the colour red when she experienced it for the first time. Knowing what it is like to experience something is the acquainted knowledge that was mentioned previously.
An example I like to use comes from my favourite hobby: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Although I have trained in MMA for many years (although confess not as often I as ought to nowadays) I have never fought in a MMA fight/competition. I would say with a degree of confidence that I know a lot about fighting in a MMA competition. I know the rules; I have trained in practice fights; I have used the techniques involved in competitions. However, despite all this knowledge I have no idea what it is like to fight in a MMA competition. Therefore, I lack the acquainted knowledge of fighting in a MMA competition.
I like this example because it not only shows the distinction between knowing about something and actually experiencing it, but that it matters. I have supported many of my teammates when they have competed. However, any advice or criticism I may give is always given with the acknowledgement that I do not know what it is like to be in that situation. For example, it is easy to attempt risky techniques whilst practicing a MMA fight with friends, but trying the same thing against someone determined to knock you out is not as easy.
The importance of acquainted knowledge regarding MMA has been made by Bas Rutten in an interview with Joe Rogan, where he says:
“Every guy who tells me that he’s unbelievable but has never fought is full of shit. Guaranteed. It is not possible. He will not know if he can do it under pressure, he will not!”
This is why I believe there will always be a limit to how much empathy we can have towards other people’s circumstances. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes. But that’s the problem: They’re not our shoes. In my book I gave the example of the bereaved mother who’s lost a child. Someone who had not lost a child ultimately doesn’t know what she would be going through. And any claim that they do would be met with anger by the bereaved mother.
Understanding empathy in this way does not require a defeatist attitude where any kind of empathy is impossible. Empathy exists on a spectrum. The closer two individuals experiences are, the better knowledge each individual has on what it is like for the other person to have that experience. Returning to the MMA fight example, people who have fought in MMA competitions will have their own individual experiences, but will have a better understanding of what that is like than I do.
Understaning empathy and its limits can be helpful when considering current arguments concerning police and Black Lives Matter (BLM). I have experienced on social media an apparent dichotomy that you either support BLM or support police. I have noticed posts arguing that critics of police brutality should ‘try to do what cops do everyday’. Some BLM supporters will dismiss this as ‘bootlicking’. On the other side, any expression of support of BLM often results in charges of being anti-cop.
Although saying we shouldn’t criticise police brutality on the basis of how hard it is to be a police officer is not a good argument, it is something we need to acknowledge for any hope of reconciliation between police and victims of racism.
Many of us are not police officers. We may have some knowledge about their job. However, we would not know what it is like to get a call to respond to a hostile situation where there is a chance you may need to use a firearm to defend yourself. It is easy to imagine applying flawless procedure to the letter when we haven’t been in such situations.
The same can be said regarding BLM. Being white, I don’t know what it is like to be an African American in the US (or more closer to home an Indigenous Australian). I don’t know what it’s like to have a security guard follow me around every time I shop due to my skin colour. This was ingeniously pointed out on an episode of South Park. Stan’s father said the ‘N word’ on TV. Stan throughout the episode keeps apologising to his black friend Token about what happened, saying “I’m sorry…I get it” which would make Token even more angry. At the end of the episode Stan says to Token “I get it now….I don’t get it. I don’t know what it is like for a black person to hear a white person say the N word”. Token smiles and replies “Now you finally get it”.
This is by far not the end of the matter. In fact, at best this is a starting point. But it is a necessary one. If we can have BLM supporters acknowledge that they don’t know what it is like to live the life of a police officer, and police officers (and their supporters) also acknowledge they don’t know what it is like to live the life of a person of colour victimised by racism, then a mutual understanding can be a good foundation for further discussions.
It should be made clear that I am not advocating for a strict version of what is sometimes called ‘standpoint epistemology’, where criticism can only be made towards groups by their own members. Many of my friends who have fought in MMA would still welcome advice/feedback from me even though I never fought, but would rightly be annoyed if I arrogantly admonished them for every mistake or bad decision claiming that I would have done it better.
Being either pro-police or pro-BLM is a false dichotomy. We can, and should, be supportive of both. We can simultaneously acknowledge the systemic issues facing African Americans and Indigenous Australians, whilst also acknowledging the difficulties facing police officers in their daily lives. More importantly, we should acknowledge if we don’t live the lives of either group, then we should take this into account when laying criticisms.
For those interested, my book Contrasting Identities is available on Amazon in the link below: