Who Quoque? Tu Quoque!

My beloved has suggested on more than one occasion that I should write a Critical Thinking textbook, using examples from Trump’s tweets and other public pronouncements to illustrate logical flaws.  I like this idea, and I just might take it up some time.  Lately, however, Trump has committed so many assaults upon logic, linguistics, and just plain human decency that it has been bloody difficult to keep up with him. Indeed, the onslaught has been so overwhelming that my most recent posts have focused upon the substance of what he has said (or done) rather than on how he has communicated his, for want of a better word, “thoughts.” While I’ve enjoyed writing these little bagatelles, I have felt a little guilty.  The role of a Critical Thinking Teacher, after all, is to teach Critical Thinking, and the first rule of Critical Thinking is “look at the details.”

Consequently, I resolved to redirect my attention in order to focus upon his actual words and phrasing, and to look for particularly choice examples of egregious thinking. It wouldn’t take long, I thought, before he would commit some logical faux pas or other.  And of course, Trump and General Kelly soon accommodated me by providing a magnificent catalog of ad hominem attacks upon Rep. Frederica Wilson (D., Fla. 24th).  It was easy pickings in the grove of Critical Thinking.  Believe me!

Too easy, in fact.  Everyone knows that ad hominem attacks are bad, bad. By attacking the arguer instead of the argument, they distract the listener from the issue at hand, and tend to provoke such an emotional response from all involved that reasoned discourse is impossible.  Up until recently, it would be considered bad form to accuse a female moderator of treating you unfairly because she had “blood coming out of her whatever.” Or to make short jokes about a Senator who happens to think you’re a menace to the nation and perhaps humanity at large.  Or to mock a reporter with a physical disability. Once upon a time, a bag of bile who would spout such things would be ostracized for an apparent inability to engage in civilized discourse.  Now, he’s in the Oval Office.

Do you see my problem?  Using Trump as an example of the evils of an ad hominem attack, while apt, would hardly win me any points for originality. I was about to hang up my towel when I heard something on the radio that pricked my ears.

As you may or may not be aware, President W gave a speech that, without naming 45, was a fairly damning assessment of why Trump, besides being an appalling human being, is also an existential threat to American ideals.  Bush asserted that nativism, bigotry, and protectionism are antithetical to the values we hold as a country.  In other words, Bush was a righteous oratorical antifa.

This might come as a surprise to most observers of presidential rhetoric.  W was never known as a fine spinner of words, and Christ knows I wasn’t a fan when he occupied the seat behind the Resolute Desk, but damn, he did a pretty good job of skewering Trump.  Kudos, George.

However, this is not what got my logical juices running.  I was listening to a phone-in show on NPR, and Bush’s speech was the topic du jour.  Many people were quite complimentary about the speech, and quite a few of them expressed their shock at being in agreement with W.  I certainly knew how they felt.  Anyway, I was nodding my head in agreement when the token Trump apologist opined that it was pretty rich that W, who had started two wars that we’re still fighting and whose own disapproval ratings were shockingly low, had the brass plated cojones to criticize another president.  Or words to that affect.

“That’s a tu quoque flaw,” I smugly said to myself.  “His argument is fatally flawed.”

Now, faithful readers of this blog (Hi, Mom!  Hi, Dad!) will recall that I have extensively discussed tu quoque flaws in a previous article.  However, for those of you who are new to my readership or have short term memory issues, here’s a brief explanation.  “Tu quoque” (pronounced “tu kwo-kway”) is Latin for “you, too.”  It is the “and so are you” or “look who’s talking” retort that we make when we realize that our verbal sparring partner is guilty of exactly the same behavior that he is complaining about.  Basically, the Trump supporter was saying that President Pot has a helluva lot of nerve for calling President Kettle black.  Tu quoque is a form of ad hominem attack because you are focusing the listener’s attention to a personal trait of the speaker (Bush is a flaming hypocrite) rather than the substance of his argument (Trump sucks).

But at almost the same moment that I was mentally patting myself on the back for recognizing the flaw so swiftly, the following thought caught me up short.

What if he’s right?

I asked myself this question because, believe it or not, there are times when an ad hominem attack would not be considered a flaw.  I would hazard a guess that 99.9% of the time that an insult is hurled at an opponent, the hurler’s intent is to distract the listener (and opponent) from the subject at hand.  Thus, Trump’s designation of any unflattering story as “fake news” can pretty much be seen as an ad hominem attack on the outlet that published it. Indeed, so consistent is this rule that you can just about bet your kid’s education fund on the truth of the story and sleep well at night (except the bookies wouldn’t give you decent odds on the bet, so why bother?).

However—and stay with me here, I know it’s a stretch—let’s imagine that there were a network or website somewhere the sole purpose of which was to spread unfounded rumors and outright lies about, oh, let’s say a female presidential candidate. Crazy, huh?  Let’s take that wild hypothetical a bit further, and imagine that the website is headed by a fat, cirrhotic, lying sack of shit who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends.  Let’s call him Steve.  Now, if I were debating Steve and said, “Steve, you are a fat, cirrhotic, lying sack of shit who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends,” I would be guilty of making an ad hominem attack up to the point that I called him “fat” and “cirrhotic.”  The state of his physique and his apparent ill-health have nothing to do with his propensity for publishing fake news.  However, the rest of my statement, from “lying sack of shit” onwards, wouldn’t be an ad hominem flaw.  Steve’s honesty is the heart of the matter being debated and, assuming that I can back my assertion with facts, it is logically connected to my argument.   (Where, oh where would I be able to find back up for such a spurious claim?)  Similarly, my oblique characterization of our current president as a bag of bile, while not nice, also wasn’t an ad hominem flaw because it was linked to the idea that a president should be able to engage in civil discourse.

So, are there times when tu quoque isn’t a flaw?  Am I so blinded by my misotrumpy that I glossed over the importance of Bush’s failings as a president? I’m tempted to say, “Yes.  There are times when the charge of hypocrisy is so damning that the term tu quoque denotes not a flaw, but an appropriate label.” It seems reasonable.  After all, would we sit still for a lecture by Himmler on the evils of anti-Semitism?  How many copies of Harvey Weinstein’s The Importance of Eliminating Sexual Harassment could we reasonably expect to fly off the shelf?

But isn’t anti-Semitism evil? Shouldn’t sexual harassment be eliminated? And does the mere fact that a hypocrite made these statements make them any less valid? Does the degree of hypocrisy in and of itself invalidate the argument?

To me, this conundrum illustrates perfectly why tu quoque is such an insidious flaw.  The charge of hypocrisy is powerful because we have a visceral reaction to people who dare to tell us to act in one way while they blatantly act in the other.  They make us want to puke.

But does that mean they are illogical?  Or can’t their reasoning, no matter how insincerely held, be sound?  Even if the subject of the hypocrite’s argument is “why I hate hypocrisy,” wouldn’t the reasons for hating hypocrisy remain valid? In other words, if their argumentation is valid, why should their lack of moral standing invalidate it?

I’m not sure it should.

Let’s take Bush as an example.  I recall that I spat blood when W stole the election from Al Gore, so I’m willing, for the sake of this thought experiment, to ascribe all sorts of nastiness to him.  Let’s pretend that George Bush is a goose-stepping, tiki-burning, refugee-kicking fascist.  He even likes to dress up in lederhosen embroidered with swastikas. Now, let’s look at what he says.  The entire speech can be found here, but here are three fairly typical statements:

“Our identity as a nation—unlike many other nations—is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.  Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility.”

“[B]igotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”

Is there anything wrong with these ideas?  Are they illogical, biased, or flawed? Does the fact that they were uttered by the second-most incompetent president in the history of our fair land destroy their legitimacy? Or do they merely reflect some fairly basic tenets that in ordinary circumstances (remember them?) would not have to be said?

These are not terribly controversial stands for W to be taking, if you think about it.  Our history as a nation of immigrants pretty much makes the notion of an American people pretty absurd; what brings us together isn’t our ethnicity, but our belief in certain ideals and notions embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Marbury vs. Madison.  If we take the 14th Amendment seriously, with its Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, then we really do have to admit that bigotry is a destructive force that needs to eradicated, not propagated. Didn’t we even fight a war or two over those very principles? And kids really do need role models, preferably positive ones. The only reason why these fairly unsophisticated notions have attained the status of soaring oratory is because Trump has set the rhetorical bar so low.  Frankly, it is so refreshing to hear something expressed in such a gentlemanly, multi-syllabic, and (praise be!) grammatical manner, that we swoon to hear it.  In no way does Bush’s hypothetical status as a closet Trumpite make them any less basic or correct.

So, yeah.  Tu quoque is pretty much always a flaw, no matter how hypocritical the speaker might be.

Glad that’s settled.



©2017 D. R. Miller


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