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Avoiding the question

How politicians - and you - avoid direct answers to questions

The Times of November 3 2016 noted Sir John Chilcott’s “masterful display of skirting round the question. Or, as he might put it, explicatory peregrination.”
According to him Tony Blair did not lie when deciding to go to war in Iraq, he “went beyond the facts” and was lacking in “fact-based advice.”
He explained, “the evidence to support it was more qualified than he gave expression to.”

It's the job of politicians to answer questions about their opinions and their actions. Democratically elected, they represent us, the people, and we want to know they are doing the right thing on our behalf.

However, being held to a single opinion when circumstances change, or when alliances mean you cannot afford to be straightforward, leads politicians (and ordinary people, too) to deliberately obfuscate or cloud their meaning so they can later claim to have held a different opinion.

The classic example in literature is the way the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm make changes to their Commandments to reverse their meaning. And in Macbeth he is mislead by the three witches into believing one thing which then turns out to have another meaning.
Call it lying, or giving wriggle room. In Macbeth, Shakespeare calls it "equivocation" - implying one thing but meaning another.
The phrase Winston Churchill made famous was "terminological inexactitude". This was a phrase introduced by Churchill in 1906 by British politicianwhich today is used as a euphemism or circumlocution meaning a lie or untruth.

Churchill first used the phrase during the 1906 election. Following the election, speaking in the House of Commons on 22 February 1906 as Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office, he repeated what he had said during the campaign:
The conditions of the Transvaal ordinance ... cannot in the opinion of His Majesty's Government be classified as slavery; at least, that word in its full sense could not be applied without a risk of terminological inexactitude.

Euphemism, evasiveness, ambiguity ... politicians especially see the danger of being explicit and being held to account, but Peter Bull, University of York, prefers the more neutral “non-replies” as often a direct reply can be unjustified.

Bull has devised an equivocation typology showing 35 different ways of not answering the question. In “Techniques of political interview analysis” he describes Margaret Thatcher's strategy as “make personal attacks on the interviewer“
He comments: “Thatcher’s tactics may also have contributed to the wider perception of her at that time as aggressive, bullying and overbearing. “
Neil Kinnock, one time leader of the Labour Party used two distinctive forms of equivocation: negative answers, and reflecting the question.
Negative answers take the form of stating what will not happen instead of what will happen. In reflecting the question, the politician simply deflects the question back to the interviewer (e.g., by saying “Well you tell me”)
For John Major (Prime Minister after Thatcher), there were three distinctive forms of equivocation (Bull & Mayer, 1991; Bull, 2003). One was termed the literalism, which a question is taken literally (and not in the sense in which it was clearly intended) as a means of not giving a reply. Another was pleading ignorance, simply saying “I don’t know” in response to a question. The third was termed the deferred reply, in which the politician says he or she is unable to answer the question for the present time, for example, by saying “Well you’ll have to wait and see”.

Other strategies include:
"communicative avoidance - avoidance conflict"
This is a choice between saying something false but kind and something true but hurtful. For example, a person receives a highly unsuitable gift from a well-liked friend, who then asks directly “Did you like the gift?”
In responding, the person has two negative choices: saying, falsely, that s/he likes the gift or saying, hurtfully that s/he does not. The person wlil usually if possible avoid both of these negative alternatives - especially when a hurtful truth serves no purpose. What s/he does instead is to equivocate; for example, someone might say “I appreciate your thoughtfulness”, with no mention of what s/he thought of the actual gift.

In October 2016 Nicola Sturgeon was heard consecutively to say that the NHS is “not good enough” but “performing well”.

Theresa May, October 2016, was asked if Britain should have access to the single European market following Brexit.
She replied: "Well what I want to see is the best possible deal for the United Kingdom in trade in goods and services."
This was a great positive answer yet one which completely failed to answer the question!

Listen out for more non-replies. They might start with "that's a very good question but ..." (flattery followed by change of subject) or "well I think you know that the more important issue is ...) (simple change of subject) or "I have asked my department to look very closely into this and until I know the full facts ... (postponement) or "while the courts are dealing with this I couldn't possibly comment."

What techniques can you find? Listen to politicians but also your friends and family. And yourself!

Bull, Peter and Mayer, Kate (1993). How not to answer questions in political interviews.
Political Psychology 14: 651-666.



 See also