First Hand

“I have witnessed first-hand” has unfortunately become a terrible political cliche recently, much overused in the leadership campaigns we have seen in the past couple of years. Its a rhetorical device the speaker uses to imply that he knows the mind of whatever group of people he is talking to, or about, and therefore they are important to him.

Its an odd turn of phrase, because most acts of governing deal in things that cannot be witnessed first hand. The skill is not to sympathise with some terrible event that you have seen personally (that’s easy), but to use your imagination to put yourself inside the head of someone you have not met. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in crass popularism, with policy being formed and resources allocated to whichever story of difficulty happens to reach the politician first.

I actually get very annoyed with people who dismiss an argument with “you don’t know what its like.” Being in the majority (politically speaking) of pretty much every group you care to think of, I’m an easy target and the ad hominem rolls off the tongue. It is an annoying verbal trick, because its actually not true. When we use the word like, we are talking about similies. Arguably, the whole point of language is to use similies to try and convey what is going on in our own heads, by likening the feelings we experience to something more universal. So I while I don’t know what it is to be black, or disabled, or gay, or a woman (say), I can at least know what its like… because people can describe it to me. Within a society that has a shared language and experiences, this should be fairly easy. It is a little more difficult when you cross societal or language barriers, but there are always people who bridge the divide, who can articulate what it is like to be them. So not being of a particular group should not necessarily be a barrier to engaging with that group.

What this is not, however, is an argument for maintaining the status quo in our representative bodies, where women and ethnic minorities are woefully under-represented. When seeking to understand how someone different from you actually thinks, the key task is to listen, which politicians don’t. Further, they tend to have their own agendas. In such situations, only diversity in our representation can lead to a diversity of views.


On a not-quite-related point, the International Herald Tribune has an interesting article on the new uses of the word ‘like’.

1 thought on “First Hand”

  1. Very interesting post, Rob. I think when some people say “you don’t know what it’s like“, this is their feeling in spite of their best efforts to explain. As you say, the other person needs to listen and not be making assumptions, which often with complacent or arrogant majority members can sadly be the case.

    And I think it therefore can be a legitimate means to dismiss an argument, if that argument is based on an inaccurate (or absent) view of what “it” is like. It is also very frustrating when other people presume to know what something is like when in fact they are only applying their prejudices and arrogance.

    And I also think it’s worth noting the apparent difficulty that a certain gender allegedly has with empathy (cf Simon Baron-Cohen for eg), which I would say is a fairly crucial aspect in knowing what something is like. Without the ability to metaphorically put oneself in another’s shoes, all the language in the world won’t help. For males at least (on average) there appear to be barriers towards empathising with certain groups of people (but not others).

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