It’s If You’ve Been There, Man

Liberal Conspiracy carries an interesting piece by the writer and humanitarian aid worker Conor Foley:

The publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs last week prompted a flurry of debate on face-book (is it just me or has face-book become the new blogging?) and even the creation of a special page in his honour.

I got drawn into a couple of comments threads of a couple of people’s pages, one of which was eventually deleted by its owner after Nick Cohen and I started abusing one another (to be fair to him, I started it).

Before we went down into the gutter, though, I had an exchange with another blogger, who posts at one of the Liberal Conspiracy’s sister sites, and who quite pointedly asked me why I drew so heavily on my personal experiences when writing. At one level this is quite an odd question.

I was the other blogger. It seemed to me then that everything I had read of Conor’s, from CiF articles to Facebook comments, made reference to his experiences as an aid worker and argued directly from those experiences.

I said to him and will say again that Conor is a better and braver man than I am. He has travelled to places I have never been and taken risks that I would never contemplate. This is not throat clearing. I mean it. It strikes me, though, that the argument from direct experience has the following general problems:

1) It is frequently used as an appeal to authority and to silence opponents (‘I’ve been there, so shut up’; ‘I’ve worked all my life and therefore the government should do x, y and z, even if x, y and z would end in disaster’)

2) It is also used to invalidate the views of people who haven’t had certain experiences, particularly in debates over war and intervention – ‘If you like war so much, why don’t you enlist?’ No matter that this question often comes from people with no soldiering experience themselves, or who wouldn’t listen to a pro-war soldier anyway. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, the argument has the ugly corollary that only military professionals should be allowed to debate military matters.

Finally, despite Conor’s intelligence and essential good nature, he sometimes forgets to acknowledge that other people can have similar experiences, can go where he’s been, can make similar sacrifices, but come through with different perceptions of the world and alternative answers to the big questions.

One Response to “It’s If You’ve Been There, Man”

  1. conor Says:

    Thanks Max, as you can see your comment kept me thinking.

    I agree that I am guilty of sometimes using it as a put-down (mainly when I get a particularly snide comment from someone in response to an article). I try not to do it, but it did spill into a particularly nasty exchange I had with some of the above and below the line people at Harry’s Place.

    But I think the issues that I have with Linda Polman are of a different order. As the review says she:

    ‘finds humanitarians living in luxury (or at least relative luxury) amidst utter impoverishment; humanitarians who “cared for child soldiers and war orphans by day and relaxed by night in the arms of child prostitutes”; humanitarian organisations that spend their money on expensive Land Rovers instead of on building orphanages. She finds inappropriate – indeed, grossly insulting – aid: starving Somalis who are given laxatives, Kenyan children who are given dog food, tsunami victims who are given Viagra. In the Congo, in Sudan – indeed, everywhere – she finds humanitarian groups paying off warlords, terrorists, mercenaries and child soldiers in order to gain access to their beleaguered populations. She reports on how some of the world’s most pathologically murderous groups – the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban, Somali warlords – have been nurtured by NGOs in refugee camps.’

    Yet in her chapter on Afghanistan I came across straight-forward lies and inventions. In that case I think it is appropriate to say ‘I was there and that is not true’ because it reveals her to be an untrustworthy witness.

    The other point, which I make at the Liberal Conspiracy site, is that the characterization of humanitarians as knee-jerk leftists, anti-Americans, etc. (which Nick Cohen, et al so frequently propagate) is both wrong and outdated. Most people I know grew out of such notions in the 1990s. But then along came George Bush and Iraq and so the dilemma was how to respond to that.

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