The other day found me in a familiar situation. I was reading a conversation online somewhere, on Facebook or maybe a blog, about whether women's voices are devalued at the local level of church experience. The topic itself doesn't matter so much, because any controversial topic can be the occasion for what happened next. A fierce argument gathered speed in the comments, following approximately this rhetorical pattern: "Nuh-uh!" "Uh-huh!" "NUH-UH!" "YUH-HUH!" People passionately argued both sides of the question, relying on personal experience to ground their positions. "In my ward council, women's views are always solicited!" "Well, in my Sacrament Meeting, women are never quoted!" "Oh yeah? My bishop always . . ." And round and round it whirled.
This kind of argument always puzzles me, because it seems completely undecidable. I have my own view on the question, a view grounded, like everybody else's, in my thirty-eight years of personal experience in the church. (For the record, I've always felt that my voice is invited and respected in local Mormon circles.) Yet good friends of mine, with their own decades of first-hand experience in the same church, keenly advocate the opposite view. I trust their judgment and their honesty, I know they love the church and aren't trying to slander it, so what gives? Can it be that I have simply been lucky enough to land in the five most enlightened wards in North America, or that they have had the misfortune of landing in the worst? That seems unlikely, but how else to explain the seeming disparity of our experience?
As I read through that conversation the other day, I had a genuine light-bulb moment. I suddenly got it: I had mixed up chicken and egg. I had been assuming that one's personal experience shapes one's views on controversial questions, but in fact the opposite is true: one's views on controversial questions shape one's personal experience. That is, our assumptions about who we are, about our status in relation to those around us, about the situational rules that govern human interaction—and not only what those variables are but what they should be—determine our real-time interpretation of lived experience. Whether we perceive ward council to be a site of oppression or participation for women, for example, has more to do with the interpretive lens we bring to the situation than to the actual words exchanged—because "actual words exchanged" does not become "meaningful communication" until some interpretive multiplier is in place.
This observation is related to the common (and entirely true) aphorism that "anecdote is not the singular of data," but it goes further: it's not just a selection problem, as if my experience reflected one unrepresentative situation and my friend's experience were similarly outlying. Even if we could collect every existing anecdote about the nature of ward council, we would still only have a collection of assumptions behind the gendered interpretation of ward council, not a window into an objective truth about ward council itself.
If this train of thought leads me to the comforting conclusion that my friends, while well-meaning and sincere, have simply misinterpreted what is actually going on, then I haven't actually understood it. My own experience of ward council carries no more authority than theirs; it offers no more or less evidence on any given question than anybody else's. In the end, my personal experience, like theirs, is a much better register of my underlying assumptions than it is a guide to the objective nature of the institutions and situations from which I cobble together the story of my life.
I am certainly neither the first nor the brightest person to have lit this particular idea bulb; indeed, it's a fairly banal observation about the timeless human problem of reality and perception. The notion can be carried to radically destabilizing logical ends: if experience is not self-grounding, then the nature of reality is always in question and thus the possibility of meaningful human communication is in jeopardy, for which I can certainly offer no solution.
But common sense seems to suggest that humans find a practical way through the philosophical thicket to achieve meaningful conversation somehow, all evidence from Facebook-threads-run-amok to the contrary. After all, at some level our first-order experience must contribute to our foundational assumptions in some way, which then circle back around to filter and interpret experience as it comes in, fresh and piping hot. Chicken and egg, assumption and experience, perception and reality all get scrambled together in a mutually-constitutive chicken omelette.
The only takeaway, then, may be that when we find ourselves rhetorically jousting with evidence from experience, it's probably worth taking the step back to acknowledge that our real differences are about ideology and assumption, not about the legitimacy or representativeness of our perceptions. Where do we go from there? After all, it does matter to me, a great deal, whether or not my church devalues women's voices, and we still don't have an answer. I don't know, but let's talk more about it over omelettes.