Answering like a robot

Berlin, Roboter mit seinem ErfinderThe last few weeks have seen substantial election coverage in the UK. What that most often means is journalists asking questions to politicians… and politicians not answering them. I was particularly struck by this example today, from a journalist of the Plymouth Herald interviewing Theresa May:

The Herald: Two visits in six weeks to one of the country’s most marginal constituencies –  is she getting worried?

May: I’m very clear that this is a crucial election for this country.

TH: Plymouth is feeling the effects of military cuts. Will she guarantee to protect the city from further pain?

M: I’m very clear that Plymouth has a proud record of connection with the armed forces.

TH: How will your Brexit plan make Plymouth better off?

M: I think there is a better future ahead for Plymouth and for the whole of the UK.

TH: Will you promise to sort out our transport links?

M: I’m very clear that connectivity is hugely important for Plymouth and the south-west generally. 

May clearly has this down to a fine art. In each case, she says something that is supposed to be positive and reassuring, and that has some thematic connection to the question asked, but does not involve claims that might possibly offend any voters, and does not imply policy commitments that might be quoted back at her in five years’ time when she’s failed to fulfil them.

There have been two questions I’ve been asking myself about this. One is “Why does it seem so offensive?” May has been widely accused of behaving like a robot. The other question is, “Is there anything to be said for it?” After all, there are some respects in which these responses seem to be agnostic. If the politician isn’t in a position to make concrete promises, and a strong stance might be misleading, surely they are right to resist the media’s pressure to take stances and make promises? Could May even be said to be taking a kind of Middle Way on whether, for example, Brexit will make Plymouth better off?

Let’s start with the first question. I suspect the main reason why I and others tend to react so negatively to it is that it interferes so much with the expected course of human discussion. If we ask a question, we expect our interlocutor to answer it. Not doing so is rude and disrespectful, because it doesn’t recognise the equal humanity and point of view of the person asking the question. When a politician fails to answer the journalist’s question, we, the listeners or readers, tend to feel offended too. The ‘robot’ jibe is presumably due to a highly predictable left-hemisphere response from May, as when people react to us in that kind of ‘stuck’ way (disengaged bureaucrats or bosses obsessed with targets offer further examples), we tend to feel that they are not meeting us as a person.

However, let’s face it, journalists’ questions are often based on absolute either/ors: ones that they may share with the readers or listeners, but that are quite reasonably not shared by the politicians. There are some examples in the interview above. If May had admitted to being worried about the Conservative performance in Plymouth, she would probably have been criticized for weakness, and if she had said the wasn’t worried at all, she would probably have been accused of complacency. If she guaranteed to protect Plymouth from the pain of further cuts she might end up not being able to meet other important policy objectives that required her to cut the military, but if she said that unfortunately there were further cuts on the way that might turn out to be untrue as well as alienating. If she promised a new transport link for Plymouth it might then prove to be unaffordable, whilst if she denied one it would make her unpopular with the people whose votes she wanted. Politicians have to make decisions in an uncertain, probabilistic world, but one in which the people unfairly demand certainty, and blame them for ‘lying’ if they don’t fulfil their commitments.

Theresa May’s situation here is thus in some ways similar to that of someone who’s asked one of those badly-formulated, misleadingly dichotomous questions in other areas of life. Does God exist or not? Is evolution proven or was the world designed by God? Is your mind just a brain or do you have a soul? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or are things intrinsically beautiful? If I refuse to answer such questions in the simplistic terms in which they are asked, am I rude? Should I give Theresa May answers? “I’m very clear that lots of people feel strongly about God’s existence”. “I’m very clear that the beauty we experience should be appreciated”.

But the difference is surely about what we do with those situations. When people approach you with unhelpful and simplistic models, do you try to help them see that they are slightly more complicated, or do you just try to see them off? There may be many situations when people just will not listen to any kind of complexity, and insist on an instant answer, like those journalists who think they are doing the public a favour by badgering the politician for a ‘yes or no’ answer’. In those sorts of circumstances journalism is really starting to have a negative effect and to just entrench people in delusions, rather than accepting any sort of responsibility to inform. The politicians and journalists just end up in a mutual closed feedback loop of non-communication. But there are also lots of circumstances where either the politician or the journalist can push things a bit more to get beyond these dichotomies. It’s then that the politicians become a bit more worth supporting and the journalists a bit more worth listening to or reading.

In this election campaign, I’ve found Jeremy Corbyn generally far more impressive from this point of view. When interviewed on TV by an abysmally rude Jeremy Paxman, who was stuck on the idea that there was something wrong if everything Corbyn personally believed wasn’t in the Labour manifesto, Corbyn just kept gently questioning this assumption, and pointing out that the manifesto wasn’t just the result of his personal decisions. When given the opportunity, he will try to point out why he can’t answer the question in the terms set. He doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, but rather dares to hope that they will respond to a manageable injection of complexity. It’s not that May never does this, but pre-formulated ‘robotic’ responses too often seem to be a substitute.

The politicians who help society seem to be the ones that can cope with all this, by not responding to the media’s imposition of absolutes with frustration or stonewalling but with gentle and equitable pushing. Whether or not it wins elections, this is surely the strategy that will help to create more positive and creative responses in the electorate, and help them to start recognizing the complexity of what politicians have to cope with.

Picture: Bundesarchiv: 1930 robot and its inventor


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

2 thoughts on “Answering like a robot

  1. Hi,

    If May’s answers here can be viewed as agnostic, then this seems to be in the very worst way. Not only is May being deliberately evasive but she is being ‘agnostic’ in appearance only. Her first answer does not even relate to the question being asked. Plus, there is no requirement to be agnostic about whether she feels worried or not – this is well within the scope of her experience as an embodied being. None of the questions being asked here are analogous with belief in God. Take the question ‘ How will your Brexit plan make Plymouth better off’?. I agree that it is framed in an absolute way and carries several assumptions, but this need not cause May to answer in a deliberately evasive way. Of course we can not know what effect Brexit will ultimately have on Plymouth, but, we can be confident in the existence of Brexit and have confidence that it will have some effect on Plymouth. Given that May is standing on a platform of ‘getting a good Brexit deal’, it seems reasonable to assume that she has an informed opinion on what the possible effects of Brexit might be. I would go so far to say that she has a duty to make these opinions clear – which she could choose do without making absolute claims, if she so wished. It is likely that May does have an educated view on the possible effects of Brexit and has chosen to conceal them for purposes of political gain. If she was truly agnostic about the possible effects of Brexit then does she not have a duty to make this explicit? If, for instance, she believes that there is no way to be certain if Brexit will have a negative or positive effect on Plymouth then she should say so. It would be useful for those who are being asked to make a decision of June 8th. Sometimes, by asking questions that require an absolute answer an interviewer is able to pierce through the politicians self perpetuating veneer of certainty, revealing the uncertainty beneath, which might not be a bas thing.

    I agree that the process of political debate on TV and in print can be unhelpful, but quite often politicians evade very simple questions that, even if it has been asked in an absolute way could be reasonably answered otherwise. Often a simple, ‘I don’t know’ would suffice. As politicians have become more adept at this kind of evasion the people asking the questions have become more aggressive and we now find ourselves in a kind of stalemate situation. I’m not politician bashing here, I understand the pressure put on them by other politicians, the media, society etc. However, I do think that it is them who are best placed to deal with this problem. If you watch an interview with John Prescott, Ken Clarke, Caroline Lewis and even Nigel Farage, it’s often a very different kind of interview. They all try to answer questions and will often say if they do not know a figure, or have uncertainty on the outcome of some process. It takes courage, but more politicians will need to make a choice to start behaving like this before we have progress.


    1. Many thanks for these thoughts, Rich, and I agree with you entirely – especially in the observation that there are many other politicians that handle this problem better than May does!

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