What is a Tu Quoque Argument?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesA tu quoque (pronounced “too KWOH kwe” or “too KWOH kwee), from the Latin “you also,” is an informal logical fallacy, often used as a red herring tactic, that identifies hypocrisy as a way to refute an argument. That is to say, an opponent’s argument would be refuted by asserting that the opponent does not behave in accordance with their argument. For example, Person A could claim: “It is morally wrong to drive cars that increase our dependence on fossil fuels and not renewable energy. Person B responds: “How can you say that driving fossil-fuel cars is morally wrong when you drive a gas-guzzling SUV?” Another example, at the heart of our country’s founding, is this: person A states: “All men are created equal.” Person B responds: “How can you say that all men are created equal when you are a slave owner?”

Like the ad hominem argument (attacking the character, attribute, or motive of an opponent), the tu quoque argument is a fallacy because the specific actions of an opponent are irrelevant to the logic of an argument. Although the opponent can be clearly exposed for being a hypocrite, it does not make his argument wrong, and your argument correct. The resolution of the argument has to be based on the presentation of supporting facts and ideas.

Closely related to the tu quoque argument is whataboutism (also known as whataboutery) that refutes an opponent’s argument by directly accusing them of hypocrisy (or some wrongdoing) without directly disproving their argument. Danielle Kurtzleben, a journalist at NPR, describes it succinctly: “Party A accuses Party B of doing something bad. Party B responds by changing the subject and pointing out one of Party A’s faults — ‘Yeah? Well what about that bad thing you did?’ (Hence the name.)” Denise Clifton, a journalist for Mother Jones, likens whataboutism to a defensive child’s playground cry: “Look at what she did!” What about them?” “See what my opponent did!”

Whataboutism was one of the key strategies of Soviet and Russian propaganda during the Cold War (about 1947-1991). In the essay, “Come Again, Comrade?” the editors of The Economist elaborate: “Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed ‘whataboutism.’ 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).” Unfortunately, under Putin’s current leadership in Russia, whataboutism is making a big comeback. When Russia annexed Crimea and intervened in the Ukraine, Putin employed the whataboutism strategy to defuse (or more accurately, dodge) the charges of human rights violations. Recently when Megan Kelly questioned Putin about interference in the US election, Putin instinctively responded: “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal election processes.”

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, a cloud of suspicion has hung over him and members of his staff alleging that they colluded with the Russians to interfere in the presidential election. While many are disturbed about Trump’s glowing assessment of Putin, only a few journalists have noted that his greatest compliment to his Russian counterpart is his adoption of whatboutism (indeed, as the English cleric Charles Caleb Colton once observed,  “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”) NPR’s Kurtzleben notes: “President Trump has developed a consistent tactic when he’s criticized: say that someone else is worse. This week, when the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Republicans’ health care plan would leave 24 million additional people uninsured in 2026, Trump’s first move wasn’t a direct response. Instead, he took to Twitter to blast the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare), criticizing how much was spent on promoting it and asking people to tweet their own criticisms.” Dmitry Dubrovsky, an expert on Russian politics and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, believes that both Putin and Trump have similar political impulses; he explained: “[They] are both populist leaders. They always try to be as uncertain as possible. And for a populist that’s important. Whataboutism is a very substantial part of populism rhetoric… It is very childish. That’s why the populist is speaking in this language. Everyone understands it quite well. The strategy is to avoid any argument and to sound like you speak from your soul.” But Mother Jones’ Clifton believes that Trump takes whataboutism to a whole new level: “In Trump’s version of whataboutism, he repeatedly takes a word leveled in criticism against him and turns it back on his opponents—sidestepping the accusation and undercutting the meaning of the word at the same time.” [emphasis added]

Beyond being a very powerful and effective rhetorical device, whataboutism has a very dark side. Because it is employed by several leaders around the world, it has a very sinister global agenda; Dubrovsky adds: “Trump, as well as Putin, as well as others, have followed this populist path. Russia was a pioneer of this global shift in narrative. The situation globally is to destroy the principles of human rights or democracy or international dialogue. Or to deny that such principles exist at all. [The real agenda of whataboutism] is to destroy the democratic values of the truth.”

Read related posts:  O. J. Simpson Trial and the Chewbacca Defense
Most Common Logical Fallacies

For further reading: http://www.economist.com/node/10598774
http://www.npr.org/2017/03/17/520435073/trump-embraces-one-of-russias-favorite-propaganda-tactics-whataboutism
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/07/trump-rants-propaganda/


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