I walked last Saturday morning along the path of the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. At one point I turned sharply to chat to a cheery blackbird, and I felt a twinge. I have arthritis in my right hip, and, chances are, at some stage I will need the joint replaced.
While the discomfort lasted only a moment, it put me in mind of Priti Patel. No, no, not some S & M fantasy in which she is standing over me with a whip or something sharp – that’s an image that someone more Tory than me can work on. No, I mean the business of our life experiences and the part our witness plays in a debate.
Take my hip. I can tell you pretty exactly what it feels like when it plays up, but that doesn't make me an authority on osteoarthritis in hips. If I researched, I could in time become a well-informed patient, but no more than that.
The Home Secretary last week, cornered by criticism of the government’s response to questions of race, brought up her experience of having been verbally racially abused. She said that, because she had been called ‘Paki’, she had nothing to learn from her Labour critics. ‘Would not take lessons from’ was her phrase, I believe.
Priti Patel is unquestionably a first-hand witness to one of the many strands of racism we see about us. But does that make her the country’s supreme authority, moral or otherwise, on Black Lives Matter or ‘I Can’t Breathe’? In particular, do her unpleasant playground memories allow her to disqualify other MPs’ advocacy on behalf of their constituents?
It’s an old debating trick. You cite your tough times to elicit sympathy or put an opponent on the back foot – as in, ‘I know what it’s like to have a bad hip’. Fair enough, but you go too far if you insist that your hip is Everyhip, the typical hip, the hip on which hip policy can be modelled, the hip that outranks other hips, the hip above criticism.
Come on, you say, first-hand experience, surely that counts for something?
Well, yes, but how?
Read Primo Levi.
Levi survived Auschwitz. Later, he wrote about what happened to him and what he saw of other prisoners and their captors. He did not, however, claim to be an authority on the Holocaust. He puzzled over the way people behaved. He questioned himself. As a scientist – an industrial chemist – he felt an obligation to set down what he had observed as dispassionately and objectively as he did when he tested paints and varnishes in his lab. His words – his witness – inform and challenge us even now. It directs our attention, but not our conclusions. Levi did not seek to have the last word or stop us exploring. He did not tell us to shut up.
Contrast Ms Patel.
Does she believe, deep down, that her experience encompasses the problem, that it gives her superior insight? I doubt it – or rather, I hope not. But high office and the patronage of the Prime Minister seem to have made her haughty and prickly. In a pinch, she has displayed neither the wit nor generosity to accommodate other people's views. I wish she would, though I doubt she will.
I wonder what will she make of things when she is no longer in office? Perhaps she will find time to read Primo Levi.