The Era of Tu Quoque

If this is the election year in which logic seems quaint and irrelevant, how come the rules of logic actually explain so much of what’s going on? It’s just that it’s operating in reverse, as if people are using the logical fallacies not as a warning but as a guidebook.

For example, about five times a day I come across some variation of the logical fallacy Tu Quoque. In Latin, tu quoque means “you, too.” It’s the fallacy of deflecting criticism of your own flaws by pointing out the flaws in somebody else.

In politics, this usually means turning criticism of your favorite candidate back against the rival candidate that you presume the accuser supports. For example:

It’s legitimate to point to a story about Donald Trump deleting e-mails that might put him in a hot spot in an ongoing court case. But the people who are tweeting this to me are treating it as if it somehow takes the heat off of Hillary Clinton for her own e-mail scandal. They act as if they can deflect criticism of her by pointing to something wrong with Donald Trump.

Then again, you could argue that Tu Quoque is the whole essence of this year’s election. The case for each candidate is that the other candidate is even worse. Two candidates who can’t really compete on the basis of their virtues are instead competing on the basis of their vices. But why should the sins of one candidate excuse the sins of the other?

Yet we see this argument all the time, in the following basic form: “This person I like did something wrong? Yeah, well, but this person I don’t like also did something wrong.”

Consider Sally Kohn’s reaction to the attack by a Muslim fanatic on a gay nightclub in Orlando.

What does one of these things really have to do with the other? Does one of these evils somehow cancel out the other? Or maybe Sally Kohn is just trying to change the subject so she can talk about the thing that makes her comfortable instead of the thing that challenges her worldview.

Of course, it’s not just the left that does this. Tu Quoque is the key to the alt-right. Half of their arguments consist of pointing to some other group whom they consider to be guilty of racism—Black Lives Matter, or Israel, or whoever—thereby deflecting criticism of their own racism.

This whole approach has a long and nefarious history. An article in The Economist describes Tu Quoque under a different name, “Whataboutism,” and recalls how it was a staple of Soviet propaganda in the West: “Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a ‘What about…’ (Apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).” In Russia—among a population that knew full well they were being lied to—this argument became known in a form that would be very recognizable today: “And you are lynching Negroes.”

A caller to a radio program asks, “What is the average wage of an American manual worker?” A long pause ensues. Then the answer comes: “U nich negrov linchuyut” (“Over there they lynch Negroes”)—a phrase that, by the time of the Soviet collapse, had become a synecdoche for Soviet propaganda as a whole.

You can see the obvious appeal of this style of argument. You don’t have to answer for all the bad stuff you’ve done, so long as there is somebody else somewhere in the world who has also done something wrong. And since that will always be the case, this is an all-purpose Get Out of Jail Free card.

The fact that this fallacious argument is common is not news, and you don’t need me to report to you that Someone Is Wrong on the Internet. Yet the specific style of Tu Quoque strikes me as a problem with peculiar resonance in our current culture. We live in an era when positive ideals have withered. They are considered not merely discredited but irrelevant. Instead, we are supposed to be motivated by the need to block the evils of the other side, and this is considered good reason not too look to closely at the evils of those who claim to be on our side.

This is the Era of Tu Quoque. So it’s no wonder, really, that we ended up with an election where the main case for both of the major party candidates is to point out how bad the other candidate is. It’s only logical, in its own perverse way.

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