By Farnell Morisset
This article is part of a series of “Breaking Down” articles, in which author Farnell Morisset aims to examine abstract concepts which are misused or confused in the context of current social and political events.
If there’s one thing the recent stir around Idle No More has served to highlight, it’s definitely the shocking manner in which our tax money is mishandled by community leaders. How can we, as a civilised people, stand for this? Do we really still believe the lip service they pay to the “needs of the people” while they live in mansions and enjoy government-funded six-figure salaries? How much longer are we going to empower the archaic, despotic process by which these unelected officials claim to hold any kind of authority in the name of respecting traditions? How can we allow these people to ignore and overturn our laws to enrich their friends and see to their own interest groups?
Don’t let anyone tell you different – it’s definitely time for Senate reform in Ottawa.
Early last week, in a brilliant bit of social media saavy, #Ottawapiskat swept across Canadian Twitter accounts. While meant to be a playful jab at the hypocrisy targeted to the accusations commonly weighed against native reserves, this Twitter hashtag is also the latest illustration of an all-too-common logical fallacy known as tu quoque.
Latin for “you too” and also more mundanely known as the “appeal to hypocrisy”, tu quoque is a particularly aggressive form of ad hominem (“to the person”) false argument which states that:
An accusation has no merit if the accuser is equally guilty of the accusation.
Or, in other words:
I’m not wrong if you do it too.
Every parent is innately aware of this fallacy, since children will often use it to excuse swearing – but daddy, you say it too! It’s also particularly effective in politics since,
- it usually flips the accusation around and forces the initial accuser to defend whatever he was just accusing the other of, and,
- politicians usually behave like children anyway.
Here’s a common example:
Alice: You should stop eating so many fatty foods, it’s bad for your health. (rational argument)
Bob: What? You ate a whole pizza yesterday! (tu quoque)
And Alice’s possible responses:
- Alice: No I didn’t, I only two slices and it was vegetarian! (incorrect)
- Alice: Yes I did, but I usually eat much healthier! (incorrect)
- Alice: Hey, I’m not perfect either, but it really is bad for your heart. (correct!)
The intended audience is partly to blame for the prevalence of this fallacy is politics, since modern secular governments derive their power from a perceived moral authority. Since, as our fictional Alice demonstrated, the correct and logical response to tu quoque is to either ignore the counter-accusation or acknowledge the fault in yourself before pointing out that this doesn’t change the accusation, it can strip the accuser of his perceived moral authority, since it implies or asserts that the accuser is no better than the accused. Without this perceived personal moral authority, it becomes necessary for a politician to dissociate the morality of his idea from the morality of his person… which is very hard to do.
And so, like all ad hominem attacks, in order to keep a clear mind and focus on the issues at hand it becomes important to rise above the juvenile desire for a “take that!” retort against whatever obvious hypocrite is making an argument, and instead focus on the validity (or invalidity) of the argument itself. So while #Ottawapiskat may certainly be good for a chuckle, remember: the worst thing you can do for a good cause is to defend it with a bad argument.
Other articles in the Breaking Down Series can be found here:
About the author:
Farnell is passionate about discussing (amongst other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image.
He is also alarmed by what seems to be an invasive and aggressive polarization of complex social issues for which there are no black-and-white answers. This eventual identity crisis, he feels, will only be solved through good faith in, and honest communication with, all sides pulling on our ever dwindling “pure laine” blanket.
It is with this in mind that he contributes to LifeinQuebec.com as a valued member of our, in-house, writing team.