Rhetoricitus: Why Politicians Need Our Sympathy

by Craig Evans

The accusation often levelled against politicians is that they are not straight with people, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s not entirely their fault. After all, they do have an affliction, a language condition (let’s call it rhetoricitus) which prevents them from saying exactly what they think.

The BBC has been campaigning for years to raise awareness of the plight of rhetoricitus sufferers, and every Thursday their in-house specialist, Mr David Dimbleby, runs a workshop. At the workshop, the brave men and women of Westminster are invited along to demonstrate the crippling effects of their affliction on their ability to give straight answers to questions posed by members of the public. With the workshops being broadcast on both television and radio, the hope is that such exposure will take away the stigma associated with rhetoricitus whilst encouraging people to be more accepting of sufferers’ use of language.

At the latest workshop, it was fascinating to observe how rhetoricitus can cause politicians to hallucinate questions that haven’t even been asked. Harriet from Peckham, aged 64, was one of the rhetoricitus sufferers who demonstrated such hallucinating tendencies at Thursday’s workshop. Harriet, a long-time victim of the condition, has experienced a worsening of symptoms over the years, as she’s moved from one ministerial post to the next. Currently the deputy leader of the opposition, Harriet was wrong-footed right from the start:

(BBC Question Time, 9 October)

First audience question: The main parties insult UKIP supporters by saying they’re just protesting. Why not acknowledge that a substantial proportion of the public just prefer their policies?

David Dimbleby: [repeats question] Harriet Harman?

Now, for those of us who do not suffer from rhetoricitus, answering this question might seem like a straightforward exercise. For example, I might say: UKIP’s policies are stupid so their supporters deserve to be insulted. Or: you’re right, a substantial proportion of the public probably do just prefer their policies. Or: I think your question is based on an invalid claim as nobody can know for certain that UKIP supporters are voting based on policy. However, sufferers of rhetoricitus are often unable to express themselves so candidly.

The problem is that they have a deep-rooted fear of alienating people. To dismiss UKIP supporters as impressionable idiots would be to add weight to the argument that the three main parties are arrogant and inward-looking. To accept that people are voting for UKIP based on policy would be to agree that UKIP is a credible political force. And to say that you don’t know what UKIP voters are thinking effectively amounts to an admission of being out of touch.

All roads lead to the same loss of support, and so Harriet goes by air – a flight of fancy, that is, the fancy that she heard the question she expected to hear: Why do you think so many people are voting for UKIP?

Harriet Harman: Well it’s always invidious to actually ask someone who you know is obviously a strong proponent of one party what’s in the minds of people when they vote actually a different party.

Harriet answers her own question with the pre-formulated logical proposition that to answer the question would be to invite criticism. The logical conclusion would therefore be to say no more, but rhetoricitus is a cruel illness which often manifests as the inability to stop talking.

Harriet Harman: All I can tell you is, you know, what people have said to me, and sometimes people who have previously voted Labour saying ‘well I’m not going to vote for you this time because I think you need a good shake up’ and that’s what people have said to me to my face and I listen to what people say.

Rhetoricitus sufferers are deeply paranoid people with low self-esteem. It comes from a desperate desire to be loved and trusted by all, but it’s not possible to please everyone. With her use of sound logic and words like ‘invidious’, Harriet seeks the approval of her peers, but she knows that this won’t go down well with everyone. The average man and woman in the street won’t care much for her debating prowess; they expect her to be humble, a public servant, not someone in a position of power and influence. This is why people with rhetoricitus will often defer to the view of the average man and woman:

Harriet Harman: I can see that it comes out of a sense of feeling that, you know, all the politicians in Westminster are living on a different planet and don’t understand their lives and that things are getting harder financially and that there’s a sense that, well, somehow the system needs a shake up.

Harriet uses the hyperbolic living on a different planet, the all-encompassing negative reference to the system, and the repeated metaphor shake up, to paint a convincing, albeit general, picture of voters’ discontent with politicians. She does this to demonstrate her empathy, to show that she is not one of the out-of-touch Westminster politicians, but she stops short of reporting the exact detail of what voters have been saying to her. After all, Harriet’s aim is to show understanding, not to reinforce criticism, but this comes at a price: to express empathy, she must convey views that are contrary to what she really thinks.

If Harriet was free to speak her mind, perhaps it would go something like: actually, I think the crushing level of expectation placed on politicians by the media and the public is unreasonable, and if we do live on another planet, then it is a cold, dark planet with a dense atmosphere that’s full of predators. So rather than criticise us all the time, why not cut us some slack?

Of course, Harriet was not the only sufferer at Thursday’s workshop. Eric from Yorkshire, aged 62, was there to demonstrate one of the more demeaning strains of rhetoricitus, the ‘Yes or No Aversion Syndrome’. With the aid of a non-sufferer of rhetoricitus, the writer and activist Jeanette Winterson, Eric showed the viewing public how the condition can create a fear of commitment that makes answering even the simplest of questions a real struggle:

Eric Pickles: We can’t have this artificial way of looking at things.

Jeanette Winterson: It’s not artificial. There is nothing artificial about saying is this for profit or is it not? That’s a very straightforward question

Eric Pickles: And a very straightforward question

Jeanette Winterson: Give me a straightforward answer: yes or no

Eric Pickles: And the straightforward answer is I don’t accept your doctrinal view. I believe we should treat patients and we should be treated early. Oft…

Jeanette Winterson: Just tell me: private or no? Private or no?

David Dimbleby: Alright, alright: we’re not going to get an answer there and I think

Jeanette Winterson: Okay well you won’t answer

Eric Pickles: Well it’s entirely false. Don’t argue and be difficult with me. It’s an entirely false argument

Jeanette Winterson: I’m not trying to be difficult, I just want to know.

David Dimbleby: Yes I know you do

Jeanette Winterson: He’s not going to tell me is he?

David Dimbleby: Well fine let’s leave it there. As you’ll discover you ask the question 5, 6 times if you haven’t had an answer you’re not going to get one at the 7th attempt

Clearly, after years of running these workshops, Mr Dimbleby is well acquainted with this particular syndrome.


Thank you for taking the time to read this post about the serious condition rhetoricitus. I hope it will encourage you to look more sympathetically on those poor politicians who are locked into a way of using language that stops them from saying what they really think. Perhaps one day we will find a cure for this condition so that the world will be a happier place where the words of politicians may roam free.


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