Tu quoque

A cartoon from a Russian magazine showing a Black man hanging from the Statue of Liberty. Two winged figures hold the US flag aloft above it and a book shows a Russian translation of "come unto me, ye that labor and are heavy laden".
Image from Soviet magazine Bezbozhnik, 1930

Tu quoque (you too) is a type of argument that is classified as a logical fallacy, that is, an argument that does not offer evidence of the point the arguer is trying to make but rather plays some kind of rhetorical trick, in this case by throwing the accusation back at the accuser by saying he is guilty of the same thing or something morally equivalent. It is sometimes called whataboutery and was a favourite line of argument by the USSR’s propaganda whenever its human rights record was criticised, particularly by the USA’s State Department. A favourite argument of theirs, as illustrated in the picture on the right, was “and you lynch negroes”. I came across an undated article on this fallacy today on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website after a friend shared it on Twitter. I see this fallacy being appealed to a lot in political debate, and the accusations of it are often problematic because they ignore why the argument is being made. Very often, the accusers are just as guilty as the accused, and it matters.

I call this “the bully’s fallacy”. A school or workplace bully will often justify his behaviour by attacking his victim’s character. I remember a conversation I witnessed between a bully at my school and someone he was harassing, in which he accused his victim of, among other things, “polluting the atmosphere” by smoking. His victim responded that many of the bully’s friends also smoked, to which the bully responded, “but we’re not talking about them; we’re talking about you”. He no doubt got this argument from a teacher. It’s true that if you smoke in a confined space, around other people, you risk making them ill, but at my school, some boys smoked round the back of the building and others (the ones who weren’t allowed to smoke) in an isolated spot in the grounds, so nobody who didn’t want to be there was affected. The key thing was that the criticism was not sincere and was not intended to encourage him to change his behaviour; it was intended as harassment. And the intention behind an argument is sometimes important.

Very often in political arguments, one side is accused of some vice of which the other side are just as guilty, or if not, then guilty of something similar. When we hear the present leadership of the Labour party accused of anti-Semitism, for example, a common response is to point out the numerous examples of racism on the Tory benches, where various Tory figures have been suspended and then sometimes reinstated after making openly racist or Islamophobic remarks. On some occasions, Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for statements which condemned both anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, rather than anti-Semitism alone as his critics demand. However, the guilt of the accusing side is relevant, because it is not an academic argument but a contest between two political parties for power, and if one party says to the other “you are racist”, really they are saying to the public “these people are racist; don’t vote for them”. If the accusing side is just as racist, if not more so, the public need to be aware of that.

Arguments with real consequences cannot always be treated as academic debates. When women say to men who try to engage them in debates about abortion, “no womb, no opinion”, they might be accused of an ad hominem argument, another logical fallacy, but it does not matter because the arguments have been had many times before and the consequences of a ban on abortion are very serious, not only for those with unwanted pregnancies but also for those who suffer miscarriages, who would then be liable to be investigated for evidence of abortion as been noted in many Latin American countries. As for the US v Soviet whataboutery, although the observation about lynching was by that time outdated, the US was no friend of freedom for most of the world; it was a notorious exporter of poverty and oppression and supported dictatorships almost everywhere outside Europe. This is no defence of the Soviet record of human rights or political or intellectual freedom, nor of people who reflexively assume anyone who is against the USA must be good, but for anyone outside the USA asked to “pick a side” during that time, it would not have been as simple as it would be for those of us in countries the US favoured.

I don’t believe there is any comparison between the Labour anti-Semitism controversy and the very real problem of racism in the Tory party. Most of the former consists of people’s words being twisted and often the thing that was said was true or at least arguable; the definition of anti-Semitism being deployed is ideological and the definition of a Jew is sectarian, overtly excluding many people of partial Jewish ancestry as well as dissenting and non-religious Jews; very often the accusations are aimed at silencing critics of Israel’s treatment of native Palestinians. The racism displayed in the Tory party, on the other hand, is often firmly aimed at ordinary people who are members of visible minorities who have rarely had the mass media on their side. So, if Jeremy Corbyn is indeed a racist (which I believe he is not), it is no defence of him to call Boris Johnson one, even if he is. But for Johnson and his supporters to make the claim is hypocrisy, and because this is politics and not an academic debate, that matters: a man who points the finger at others rather than address his own failings is not a good leader and a man who demonises minorities in print as a journalist is liable to do the same, when he sees it as necessary, as a political leader.

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