Saturday, 21 December 2013

Tu Quoque - A Common Fallacy of the Left

Tu Quoque (literally “you also”) is a very common fallacy which I see committed again and again on comment threads. This fallacy is remarkably common in the comments that I see coming from left/liberal perspectives and I think there are underlying reasons for this which I’ll examine later. I hope that once you have this fallacy established more clearly in your mind you will be able to identify it more easily when it’s used by someone in an argument. Once you see an argument as fallacious you need waste no more time trying to counter it but simply point out that it is a fallacy and await a more logical response to your original point.

First of all, lets define a fallacy and then the tu quoque type of fallacy. One of the best sites for exploring fallacies is where you will find definitions and examples of all types of fallacies.
The rules of correct reasoning go back to Aristotle. He was both “the first formal logician—codifying the rules of correct reasoning—and the first informal logician—cataloging types of incorrect reasoning, namely, fallacies. He was both the first to name types of logical error, and the first to group them into categories. The result is his book On Sophistical Refutations.”

First an example: I make the assertion that Muslim slave traders were a constant threat to the peoples of Southern Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. That assertion is either true or false; either it can be justified with evidence or it can’t. The tu quoque response might take the following form: European slave traders were a constant threat to black Africans during the 17th century. 

As you can see, the argument does not address the truth or falsity of the original assertion but instead sidesteps it and tries to put the person on the back foot by making a charge of implied hypocrisy. Whether or not European slave traders were a threat to black Africans has no bearing on the truth of the original assertion but the person against whom the tu quoque is deployed often feels a need to defend themselves from the charge of (implied) hypocrisy and a diversionary game ensues in which the original argument is forgotten. Thus tu quoque is a form of Red Herring. The argument gets "lost" but no logical refutation has occurred.

Fallacies are instances of faulty reasoning. The fallacies that we’re concerned with are errors of reasoning. In the example above, both the first accusation and the second accusation are supported by evidence and are in that sense both true. Neither is a fallacy. The fallacy occurs when the second accusation is used as a counter-argument to the first accusation. It is the mistaken reasoning which is the specific meaning of  “fallacy” we are talking about. It is a violation of logic.

This tu quoque fallacy is in my experience committed a lot by liberals and I think there are some identifiable reasons for this:

Firstly, liberal thinking grew up in the context of a Christianity which was preoccupied with acknowledging the fault in ourselves (original sin). As it says in Matthew 7: 3-5 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye..”

One result of this teaching was illustrated very clearly in a recent presentation made by Karen Armstrong (an ex-nun and professional apologist for Islam). In commenting on the 9/11 atrocities she said, “We did this…I like to turn the finger against myself first.” This is her comment on jihadism in general, “We’ve all done terrible things.” Both of these statements are demonstrably false: We were not responsible for 9/11, the 19 hijackers and their backers were. And no, we have not all done terrible things. To say so is to falsely blacken millions of people with crimes they have never committed nor even considered committing.

What Karen Armstrong illustrates is a preoccupation with our own guilt (even when we are innocent). There has undoubtedly been a place for introspection and the desire to root out evil in our own hearts; it has developed certain moral attributes in Christian cultures that are lacking elsewhere, but taken too far and it becomes a morbid and suicidal impulse. This impulse chimes very sonorously with the implied charge of hypocrisy in the tu quoque argument.

Secondly, the charge of hypocrisy has been both justified and useful for liberal reformers. As in the example of Thomas Day making scornful remarks regarding the American Constitution when signed by men who owned slaves, the charge of hypocrisy is a powerful weapon in getting those with power over others to examine their consciences with respect to their avowed principles and their actions. It has been the well-spring for many social changes that have given life in the West its peculiar advantages and freedoms.

When a liberal levels the charge of hypocrisy against you (in the form of tu quoque) he very likely sees him/herself following in this tradition of exposing hypocrisy.

Thirdly, the Left is very focused on what are seen as the great wrongs of Western culture. They have developed thousands upon thousands of critiques; rhetorical weapons, analyses, theses, theories, jokes, articles, paintings, posters, bumper stickers, satires, poems, pop songs, operas, etc etc all aimed at undermining the position of Western civilisation. (of course, they readily scoff at the very concept of “Western civilisation”) and puncturing its self-confidence. The underlying message of all the above is that “we” are in the wrong; we don’t have a leg to stand on; we are morally bankrupt; hideously corrupt and corrupting. By contrast to us, the rest of the world is noble and innocent. We have no right to criticise anyone. Liberals distrust any form of self-congratulation in the West or the belief that we have created a culture which is “better”. Such an attitude is seen as a source of jingoism and a platform for imperialism.

With this backdrop to his thinking; with this unexamined assumption regarding the condemned nature of western culture the liberal believes that the tu quoque argument always hits the nail on the head because it points to our own wrongs. This is why he feels particularly clever and justified when using it. 

The tu quoque fallacy is often delivered in the proverbial form: “the pot calling the kettle black.” But just look at it: the blackness of the pot has no bearing on whether the kettle is black or not. The kettle is either black or it isn’t.


  1. Hi Greg,
    I really dig your analytical prowess! The leftist counterpart to your approach can be built by marrying brilliance with BS artistry. Although the brilliance in the piece I'll point you to here seems be missing, the BS artistry is on full display. Search for "what motivates terrorists? Donovan" and select the Register Guard hit. You'll thank me for steering you to this. He's actually making the case that the San Bernardino terrorists were justified freedom fighters.

  2. Thanks Steve, I'll definitely take a look at that.