Politics and prolepsis: I'm not a rhetorician, but ... | Media
Ed Miliband demonstrates his theory that 'you could probably even find people who look better eating...
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Politics and prolepsis: I'm not a rhetorician, but ... | Media
Politics and prolepsis: I'm not a rhetorician, but ... | Media
Ed Miliband demonstrates his theory that 'you could probably even find people who look better
eating a bacon sandwich'. Photograph: Ben Cawthra/Rex
If you had been in the audience at a recent awards ceremony when the former Italy football coach
Arrigo Sacchi stood up to speak, you might have got that sinking feeling when you heard him utter
the words "I'm not a racist, but ... " He went on to say something about there being too many black
players playing at youth level in Italian football.
Sacchi's rhetorical strategy is a familiar one. How many times have you said, or heard, something
along the lines of:
"I'm not sexist, but ... "
"I don't mean to be rude, but ... "
"I know it's none of my business, but ... "
"I'm not quite sure how to say this, but ... "
"I'm not totally against the idea, but ... "
Variations of it crop up in advertisements too: "Our product might be the most expensive ... but it's
10 times better than the rest."
And before the prosecution has had a chance to make its case, you might hear the defence counsel
say to the jury: "The prosecution will tell you my client is a bad mother, dishonest, and violent, but
we intend to prove that such accusations are without foundation."
The pattern is simple. You have an inkling that what you are about to say might ruffle a few feathers.
So you try to head off criticism by anticipating, articulating, and answering your listener's
objections, before she's even had a chance to clear her throat. It's a rhetorical device known
variously as procatalepsis and prolepsis. The rhetorician Richard A Lanham plumps for the latter, on
the grounds that it's shorter, which is good enough for me.
Done badly, prolepsis is a high-risk strategy. The speaker, or writer, might find themselves
articulating criticisms their audience hadn't even thought of, or wouldn't dare express. Done well,
though, prolepsis can bring an audience onside by making it feel appreciated and understood.
US soldiers during the Korean war in 1950. The brainwashing of captured GIs led to research by
social psychologists into resistance to persuasion. Photograph: National Archives/EPA
But how useful is prolepsis if you want to shift people's opinions? Research carried out in the 1950s
by American social psychologists throws an intriguing light on the persuasive limitations of
prolepsis. Their interest in the comparative effectiveness of one- and two-sided messages - like
prolepsis - had been sparked by the brainwashing of GIs captured during the Korean war. Most of
these prisoners reported that they had not been physically tortured, yet they were prepared to
denounce their country in North Korean propaganda broadcasts.
In the wake of such puzzling capitulations, the social psychologist William McGuire began
researching his inoculation theory of resistance to persuasion. Just as medical inoculation boosts
immunity to a particular disease by injecting the body with a mild form of it, McGuire's theory
proposed that the best way to inoculate someone against persuasion was to expose them to weak
counter-arguments - the idea being that exposure to them would stimulate their defences.
In one experiment, McGuire tested his inoculation theory on the widely held belief that we should
brush our teeth after every meal. Some participants were asked to read or write essays in support of
the truism while others were asked to read or write essays that included weak arguments against it;
weak counter-arguments were defined as arguments that weren't powerful enough, in themselves, to
change attitudes. A few days later, all the participants were presented with an essay that contained
more powerful arguments against the idea that we should brush our teeth after every meal, and
asked if their belief in it had shifted at all.
The results of this, and similar experiments, supported McGuire's inoculation hypothesis. Those who
had been previously exposed to weak counter-arguments demonstrated greater resistance to
persuasion than those who hadn't. McGuire concluded that inoculation - pre-exposure to weak
counter-arguments - was a much more effective way of helping people stick to their guns than simply
reinforcing their existing beliefs. Was it possible that the GIs had succumbed to North Korean
brainwashing because their core beliefs had never been tested before?
In a speech last summer about leadership, Ed Miliband responded to those who had questioned his
leadership credentials. Some might have advised him against repeating each criticism, but
McGuire's research suggests Miliband's decision to use prolepsis was probably a good one:
'You can find people who ... look less like Wallace,' says Ed Miliband. Photograph: Nils
"But I am not from central casting. You can find people who are more square-jawed. More chiselled.
Look less like Wallace. You could probably even find people who look better eating a bacon
"If you want the politician from central casting, it's just not me, it's the other guy. And if you want a
politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me. Because
"But here's the thing: I believe that people would quite like somebody to stand up and say there is
more to politics than the photo-op."
Miliband uses prolepsis to transform each brickbat into support for his contention that "there is
more to politics than the photo-op". It's an inoculation strategy designed to dispel doubt and leave
his supporters feeling more confident in his ability to lead them.
The focus of McGuire's research was resistance to persuasion, not persuasion itself. Inoculation
theory reminds us that prolepsis can be a great way of reinforcing existing attitudes, but it may not
be the best rhetorical tool for shifting them. If you think Sacchi's got a point and Miliband's doing a
great job, prolepsis is going to reassure you and strengthen your conviction. But if you disagree
strongly on both counts, you won't hear the not in "I'm not a racist, but ... " and Miliband's defence
will look like a house of cards in a blizzard.
Mind your language invites readers to submit outstanding examples of electionspeak between now
and 7 May. Add your favourite below, or tweet with the hashtag #electionspeak. There are prizes for
the winning politician and whoever nominates them.