Friday, February 01, 2019

The Rhetorical Strategies of Sensible Liberals.

1: Why don't politicians ever answer the question?

"Why don't you pay your staff better wages?" is a perfectly good question for a journalist to ask a businessman.

You could ask it deferentially, as it would have been asked in the days when the sun never set on Lord Reith and adverts weren't allowed. "Of course, some people might think that you don't pay your staff well enough. What would you like to say to them?" Or you could frame it as an accusation, in the modern manner of a Paxman and Humphries: "Come on! Isn't it the truth that you don't pay your staff nearly enough to live on!" But it's still a fair question.

The trouble with fair questions is that they usually have fair answers. The businessman under interrogation would have half a dozen to chose from. 

"I pay neither more nor less than is standard in this industry." 

"People come to my shops because my prices are so cheap. If I increased wages I'd have to increase prices, and then I'd go out of business and everyone would be out of a job." 

"The people you say I pay low wages to are kids who have just left school or immigrants who have just arrived in town and are still finding their feet. They quickly move on to much better jobs, often within my company." 

"I get twenty applications for every one job I advertise, so I can't be as bad as all that."

And doubtless a good interviewer could think of five good follow-up questions to any one of those responses. ("If paying your staff enough to live on would put you out of business, isn't there something very wrong with the whole system?")

There was a time, long, long ago, when this was what political broadcasting was like. Fair question; fair answer; fair follow-up question. Debate, we used to call it. Argument. A series of connected statements intended to establish a proposition. No-one's mind ever got changed, but everyone came away with a slightly better understanding of the other fellow's point of view. 

It was excruciatingly boring.

About a third of Monty Python's original output involved satirizing this kind of TV interview: the never-ending tedium of smug, middle aged males asking each other respectful questions:

"Good evening minister, may I put the first question to you? In your plan A Better Britain For Us  you claimed that you would build eighty eight thousand million billion houses in the Greater London area alone. In fact you've built only three in the last fifteen years. Are you a bit disappointed with that result." 

"No, no, not really.."

So everyone remembers exactly where they were on the day Jeremy Paxman asked Michael Howard if he had threatened to overrule the head of the prison service. It was a perfectly fair question. Michael Howard refused to answer it. So the arch-integrator asked him again. And again. And again.  

From that day onward, political interviews were no longer about arguments. Political interviews were now a spectator sport. The skillful journalist is a gladiator who goes into the arena with a quiver of questions to which no politician under any circumstances could possibly give a direct answer. And he asks them. And he asks them again. And again. And again. The more times he asks the question, the more decisively he is deemed to have won the interview.

2: Why don't politicians ever answer the question?

Here is Guardian columnist Owen Jones interviewing Tim Martin, who owns 936 pubs. (Really; nine hundred and thirty six. I looked it up.)


All my prejudices tell me that I should take the side of an articulate, well educated liberal journalist against a blokish, populist barkeep. I agree with all of Jones' points. Rich people should pay poor people enough to live on; bar-staff should be allowed to unionize; Brexit is an effing stupid idea.

But Jones' tactics mean that I end up sympathizing with Martin. I suppose this is what a football fan must feel like when his team are so unsporting that he finds himself cheering for the other side. It's like watching a barrister ask leading questions, bamboozle the jury, and twist the witness's words. You end up hoping the guy in the dock gets away with murder, just so you can say "Har-har, not so clever now, are you?"

"Do you consider yourself to be part of the elite?" would have been a not uninteresting question, and I imagine that Martin could have provided us with a not uninteresting answer. "When I talk about the elites, I am talking about an intelligentsia of intellectuals—in the media, the civil service and higher education—who maintain a liberal line on social and economic issues. This has nothing to do with wealth or privilege. To say that I am part of the very elites I criticize because I am rich is at best a non-sequitur and at worst a play on words...." To which Jones could have replied: "But the idea of a liberal elite is a conspiracy theory, and a pretty anti-Semitic conspiracy theory at that..."

But Jones doesn't ask questions: he makes assertions; assertions calculated to rile his opponent. And he doesn't pause for an answer--he just goes straight into the next assertion. He isn't the journalist trying to find stuff out. He is the accuser, telling the bad man to his face what he have all longed to say to him...

"You are part of the elite, you are a very wealthy man and you pay your own staff poverty wages."

Everything depends on that loaded phrase "poverty wages". Jones is presumably correct that some Wetherspoons bar staff are paid only £8.05 an hour. This is 67p more than the legal minimum wage, but 95p less than what the Living Wage Foundation calculates that you actually need to live on. "Why do you pay your staff 11% less than the living wage?" might have been a question. "You pay your own staff poverty wages!" is an emotive roar. The only possible response is "Oh no I don't!" and the only possible counter-response is "Oh yes you do!" 

And this is pretty much what happens. Martin calls Jones "silly", "rude" and "childish"; he insinuates that he is drunk. Jones repeats the question, and repeats it again, and repeats it again, until he is pretty much just saying "Poverty wages! Poverty wages!" over and over. Martin walks away from the interview.

What kind of answer did  Jones expect?  Did he think that Martin was going to burst into tears and send a giant turkey round to his scrivener's house in time for supper? 

The footage of Martin getting cross, insulting Jones, and walking out of the interview has been pasted all over the Internet. But it isn't clear what anyone thinks has been proved. That rich businessmen do not perceive themselves as exploiting their own staff? That if you ask people leading questions in emotionally loaded language, they won't answer them? That if you repeat the same question over and over, people tend to walk away?

3: Why don't politicians ever answer the question?

Here is a clip of James O'Brien debating with a Seventh Day Adventist clergyman, who has phoned in to his radio show to say that he agrees with Tim Farron about homosexuality being a sin.



"What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" might, at first glance, appear to be a fair question for a non-religious talk-show host to ask a god-bothering homophobe. The fair answer would be "Nothing directly, but he did say that marriage is between one man and one woman for life." To which the fair counter-response would be "So why do Christians interpret the 'man and woman' part so inflexibly, while being so willing to make exceptions regarding the 'for life' part?" 

In fact, "What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" barely qualifies as a question at all. O'Brien knows the answer, and the audience knows that he knows. He thinks that when he asks "What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" his victim will naively answer "Nothing whatsoever", allowing him to reply "Ha-ha! Gotcha! Then you have absolutely no grounds for saying that homosexuality is sinful! Bet you didn't see that coming!" Which is why he is put out when the clergymen refuses to give the expected answer. It forces him to deviate from his planned line of attack.

It's a naughty way of arguing. O'Brien doesn't really think that homophobia based on direct quotations from the Gospels would be valid, but that homophobia based on quotations from the Epistles is somehow less so, and neither does anyone else. Perhaps, hidden behind the question is an un-examined bifurcation between "spirituality" (nice) and "organized religion" (nasty); between "faith" (good) and "the church" (bad). Perhaps O'Brien thinks, or thinks that we think, that all the nice bits in Christianity come from Jesus and the nasty bits all come from Paul.  

The remarkable thing about the interview is not that O'Brien asks the same question twenty seven times. What is remarkable about that this interview is that O'Brien asks the caller the same question twenty-seven times after he had already answered it.

Here he is, answering the question.


Tell me the things which Jesus said about homosexuality. 

I'm trying to do that. 

Just tell me the things which Jesus said. Tell me the things which Jesus said... 

I'm trying to get a word in. What I am trying to say about the Bible is that it is God-inspired; and there are many people who contributed to the Bible and Paul is relevant, because he wrote most of the New Testament. So trying to excise Paul's teaching is like trying to excise the whole Bible. You can't do that. Paul made it clear...

Here he is, answering it again:

So you're not going to tell me what Jesus said? 

Well, if you'd let me get a word out...In first Corinthians, a god-inspired book... 

And here he is, answering it yet again:

So lets do it one more time my brother, what did Jesus say about homosexuality?

And I've answered the question

Remind me what he said? What were the words?


Let me make a point. Let me answer the question...

WHAT DID JESUS SAY ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY?

When Paul wrote the letters, in the New Testament, GOD WAS SPEAKING THROUGH HIM.... There other people than Jesus who wrote passage and scriptures in the Bible which were God inspired so it was God who spoke through Paul when he wrote that.

The caller may not be that good at handling O'Brien's badgering, but the substance of his answer is perfectly clear. If I had been briefed to defend his position in a debating society, I would have said: "Yes: I agree with the implication of your question. Jesus himself said nothing directly about homosexuality. However, my client believes that the whole Bible is the literal word of God and the Bible does say that homosexuality is sinful, for example, in some of the teachings of St Paul."

There are a number of interesting ways of going forward from that point. Had I been arguing on O'Brien's side, I might have said "If Tim Farron believes, as you do, that the infallible word of God teaches that homosexuality is a grievous sin, how could be possibly have stayed on as the leader of a party that campaigns for the rights of gay and lesbian people?" Or perhaps a more general question: "How can we use the Bible to make the law in a modern secular democracy where not everyone is a Christian--and where not all Christians take the Bible as literally as you do?" Instead, O'Brien attempts to go back to first principals and makes assertions about the Biblical canon: he claims that some parts of the Bible ought not to be in the Bible.

Borish Jonson was prepared to make fun of Muslim women in a national paper; and he was prepared to ask if the Koran (or "Scripture" as he quaintly called it) really mandated all Muslim women to wear burkhas; but even he wasn't stupid enough to say "Well, may be Koran isn't really the word of God, or maybe that bit doesn't count, have you thought of that?" (Salman Rushdie famously got himself into a spot of bother when he suggested that there were some verses in the Koran that didn't count.) Yet O'Brien is quite happy to say that the book of Corinthians is "just a letter written by someone who never met Jesus". Did he imagine that the caller would respond "Gad Sir, I believe you are right! The Bible is not the Word of God at all! I shall go home and re-examine my life!"

This embarrassing exchange has, as they, say "gone viral". "James O'Brien destroys a homophobic caller with one simple question", apparently.  I don't think James O'Brien does any such thing. I think James O'Brien makes himself look bad the homophobic caller look good.

4: No, I must press you, why don't politicians ever answer the question?

It's quite an achievement to make me feel sorry for a homophobic fundamentalist who thinks that Sunday falls on a Saturday. But to make me feel sorry for a right-wing Tory MP takes a kind of genius. 

Here is the same radio host talking to Brexit enthusiast and 1950s cartoon character Jacob Ress-Mogg:


O'Brien uses very much the same technique on Rees-Mogg as he did on his Christian caller. Take an arguably sensible question. Express it in loaded terms which the interviewee could not possibly be expected to answer. Repeat the loaded question over and over. Continue until the opponent leaves. Claim victory; post on YouTube. Rinse and repeat. 

Rees-Mogg thinks that Brexit will be economically good for Britain; O'Brien correctly says that every businessman and economist thinks it will be bad. So the substantive question is "Why do you think all those economic experts are mistaken?" Rees-Mogg's substantial answer is "I believe that these economic experts are mistaken because they have frequently been mistaken in the past".

But O'Brien frames the question as "What do you know which these experts do not know?"; and each time Rees-Mogg gives a substantive answer he dismisses it as a red herring and repeats the question. It's as if he is playing a game and setting the rules and the victory conditions off the top of his head. Rees-Mogg must come up with a piece of factual information available to himself but not to the experts. If Rees-Mogg cannot produce such a piece of factual information, O'Brien will declare himself the winner of this game of political Calvinball. But the premise of the question ("you can only be skeptical about expert opinion on the basis of factual knowledge") is entirely bogus. Rees-Mogg's response ("you can be skeptical about expert opinion if that opinion has been proved wrong in the past") is perfectly valid.

Once again, the Internet has given O'Brien the victor's laurel for comprehensively "shutting down" Lord Snooty. And once again I feel that the person on the right side has comprehensively and embarrassingly lost the argument.

5: Why don't politicians ever answer the question? Yes or no? It's a simple enough question?

Finally, here is a Channel 4 News reporter asking Jeremy Corbyn whether he believes that Britain will be economically better off outside the E.U. than it would have been if it had remained inside it. 

Clip of Jeremy Corbyn Interview

Again, "Do you believe that Britain will be better off outside the E.U?" looks at first glance like a fair question. But it is clearly a trap. Corbyn knows it is a trap; and the interviewer knows that he knows. They stumble through all the standard steps of the "why-won't-you-just-answer-the-question/why-do-you-keep-interrupting-me" dance. The point of dramatic tension is not "Will Corbyn fall into the trap?" but "How elegantly will he evade it?"

If Jeremy says "Yes, I do think Britain will be better off outside the E.U" then follow up question will be "Then why on earth did you campaign for Remain?" and tomorrow's headlines will read "Even remonaner Corbyn admits it--we'll be better off once we leave the E.U". But if he says "No, I think we would have been better off staying inside the EU" the follow up will be "Then how can you possibly contemplate leaving?", and the headlines will be "Traitor Corbyn claims Brexit will make us worse off."

Once again, the substantive content of Corbyn's answer is by no means un-sensible. "There is no point in asking me what I think would have happened if we had stayed in the E.U, because the decision to leave has already been made. What matters now is ensuring that we are as well off on the outside as we can possibly be." To which we would expect the follow-up question "Why should the voters believe that you would run the post-Brexit economy better than Theresa May?" 

But instead of challenging him on that substantive point, Channel 4 contracts full-blown Paxman-disease. It needs to hear the exact words "Yes, we would have been better off remaining in Europe", and only those exact words will satisfy it. It is happy to spend an entire interview relentlessly chasing the answer it is quite definitely not going to get.

I don't think Corbyn handles the pursuit particularly elegantly; but his judgement call is sound. Better for people to take the piss out of you for not answering the question than to offer the Tory press free ammunition.

6: Just tell me why politicians don't ever answer the question? I'll sing the words if you like...
It is great fun to say that the Prime Minister is a robot; and it is certainly true that she spent most of the last election replying "I will provide a strong and stable government" regardless of the question she had actually been asked. But it is unfortunately true that as long as journalists see themselves as scalp collectors; and as long as they ask the unanswerable in order to trap their victim, then robotically ignoring the question will remain the best policy



I enjoyed the video where the crazy conspiracy man tells Buzz Aldrin that he lied about having walked on the moon, and Buzz Aldrin simply turns around and punches in the gob. Idiots like that I cannot help thinking sometimes need to be punched in the mouth. If punching people is what politics is going to consist of from now on, I hope it is mainly the idiots who get punched. But I don't think that in the long term punching people is the best possible way of doing things.


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6 comments:

  1. Your third video is not like your first two.

    I'm actually a big James O'Brien fan most of the time, but there certainly are occasions (and these are two of them) where he completely loses the plot. When he stoops to mocking Rees-Mogg's use of the pronoun "one", you can see how out of control he is. His best work is done when he lets people speak an then picks up on the contradictions in what they've said — as in that marvellellous clip where he gently led a No-Deal Brexiter to the point where he was claiming that, given the right training, man could jump out of an aeroplane without a parachute and survive. These clips entirely lack that elegance, and as you rightly say do not show O'Brien in a good light at all.

    However.

    In the Corbyn clip, that's not what's happening at all. The interviewer is consistently polite an respectful, and at no point interrupts. All he does is ask for the answer to his one question. And Corbyn simply does not answer it. At all. In fact, the interviewer here is exemplary; and Corbyn is, sadly, laughable. (I remind you that I write this as one who registered as a Labour supported in order to vote for him to be leader. I am predisposed to like Corbyn.)

    I don't think it's unreasonable that a politician, when politely asked a straightforward question, should answer that question.

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  2. "Andrew would you like a double whiskey before driving home?"
    "I'd love a cup of tea."
    "Would you like a whiskey?"
    "I said, I'd love a cup of tea."
    "WOULD YOU LIKE A DOUBLE WHISKEY? CAN'T YOU ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION."

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  3. "Andrew would you like a double whiskey before driving home?"
    "No thank you, but I'd love a cup of tea."
    "Certainly! Here you are."

    "Jeremy, do you honestly believe that Britain will be better off outside the EU?"
    "As it happens, no I don't. But our policy is to honour the referendum result, which we think came about in part because some people feel that it's worth the economic loss. In any case, our goal is to shape the form of Brexit so that, unlike the Tory version, jobs are protected."
    "Thank you very much."

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  4. Clearly. But my point is that the "No thank you, I do not want whisky" is implicit in the "I would rather have tea." And the "I personally think we would have been better off if we had stayed" part is implicit in the "All that matters now is having the best economy possible after we leave" part. The questioner isn't seeking information: he knows that Corbyn supported remain in the referendum. I agree that Corbyn handles the question badly; my point is that, in an age when interviews are a form of gladiatorial combat, "not answering the question" can be the best strategy.

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  5. Didn't people used to be able to say, 'I'm not going to answer questions about hypothetical situations' and then the onus was on the questioner to explain either how their question wasn't hypothetical, or how it may be hypothetical but it's likely enough to be worth answering?

    If we still lived in that world Corbyn could just have said that he's not going to answer a question about the entirely hypothetical situation where Britain voted to remain in the EU.

    Actually to be honest Corbyn's best response would have been 'That's a counter-factual, and neither I nor you can possibly know what would be going to have been the case if history had turned out differently; there are far too many variables to be able to make those kinds of statements. those are matters for science fiction novelists, not politicians: we can only deal with the here and now.'

    If you really want a clip of Corbyn coming off terribly you should go for the one where he's asked five times to condemn the IRA and five times refuses to do so before hanging up.

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  6. I believe in Britain news and current affairs shows were once not subject to rating scrutiny, as they were considered part of stations’ public service remit. But when everything became ‘marketised’ in the Nineties this protection fell and they were inevitably pushed into competition with other channels and other shows. And so the emphasis became entertainment over information, on generating verbal jousting and ‘event TV’. And that seems symptomatic of a broader trend.

    And, while I try not to be one of those middle-aged people who randomly blames stuff on that new-fangled interweb, YouTube does seem an exacerbating factor. It’s where event TV goes to spawn. Time was, if you wanted to see a debate on, say, ‘Newsnight’ you needed to watch ‘Newsnight’. And that debate might last, say, fifteen minutes. And go back and forth in that time.

    Nowadays you can just consult a three-minute excerpt on YouTube called something helpfully descriptive like ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg OWNS libtard’. And one thing to notice is if you watch those clips the titles often bear no relation to what occurs in them. Because you don’t even need to watch the three-minute clip. The label says all.

    I suspect, however, there’s a more general cause with the two things above merely symptoms. And that’s the collapse of the social consensus and fracturing of society from Thatcherism on. In Ye Olde Days, your identity came largely from your social location, now you need to stitch it together for yourself. Outwardly dissimilar things, such as conspiracy theories, the rise of the far right and the fashion for post-modernism, enhance this.

    So we get stuck with endlessly reiterating the all-too-familiar argument “no, saying climate change isn’t happening and the moon landings were faked by the Frankfurt School isn’t ‘just your option’, it’s just plain wrong, mate.” It’s like meaning itself has been privatised. So we get a Leave vs. Remain ‘debate’ largely phrased in terms of “out-of-touch metropolitan elite” versus “stupid know-nothing chavs”, which seemed to contain very little light amid the fury.

    I have no ideas for how to get out of this, save to say I don’t buy the “they go low we go high” thing, and anyway didn’t like the deferential system which preceded it either. Maybe that was just the nationalisation of meaning.

    I hope I’ve answered your question.

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