Tu quoque, yer mom!, and the way forward

Current events have me remembering some long-forgotten terms from informal logic. The general category is popular fallacies. One in particular that we saw almost every time a criticism was voiced against someone was the tu quoque fallacy. You can read about it in Wikipedia.

Tu quoque is Latin for “you also.” What we saw in the campaign was not usually exactly tu quoque but ille/illa quoque (“he” or “she also”).

Let’s say A and B are voters. M and N are candidates. Voter A is for candidate M. Voter B is for candidate N. X is some bad thing that a person might do or say or think. Y is some other bad thing. We’re also going to need P, where P is some other person associated with candidate M.

Let’s say A charges that N is guilty of X. Possible replies from B include: (1) N is not guilty of X. (2) X is not a bad thing. (3) M also does X. (4) A also does X. (5) P also does X. (6) M does Y. (7) A does Y. (8) P does Y.

Now, what you would really hope to see is a credible argument along the lines of (1) or (2). The alternatives, (3) through (8), and probably other possibilities that I have missed, are all evasions and distractions. They are not all inane. If B answers with (3) or (6)—well, you really do have a problem if M is just as bad as N, even if saying so doesn’t make N good. If B answers with (5) or (8), you need to care only if B can also demonstrate that P is going to control M’s conduct in office. If B answers with (4) or (7), we’ve got a pure ad hominem; maybe A is a hypocrite, but A isn’t a candidate, so A’s hypocrisy just really doesn’t matter for the purpose at hand. But if to multiple accusations against X, B’s answers are never credible arguments of types (1) or (2) but rather are consistently in the form of (3) through (8), we know that there’s a serious problem with N, and also a serious problem with B.

(You might notice that my options omit the possibility of asserting that either M or N might actually perform some positive good. That would again be a distraction from the charge that N is guilty of X, but wouldn’t it be great if our campaign arguments could be around competing goods! That wasn’t what was mostly before us this year.)

The preceding has to do with the form of the arguments. The content of the arguments matters as well. If the evidence is repeatedly strong that N is guilty of X, and that X is genuinely a bad thing (i.e., makes it unlikely that N will serve well in office), and if the constant retort is an argument from (3) through (8) that is either weak or falsified (does not show that M is guilty of X or Y) or else irrelevant (because the demonstrated fact that M or A or P is guilty of X or Y does not seriously undermine the likelihood that M will perform well in office), then what we have is (again) pretty much a moral or intellectual (or both) collapse on the part of B (and probably an unfit N).

To be clear about my own application of all this (though if you have read my earlier posts I think you already know this): I do not want to argue that on an individual level voting for Donald Trump in this last election was necessarily symptomatic of moral or intellectual failure in every case. On the collective level, though, I do believe that Donald Trump’s victory signals a catastrophic national moral and intellectual failure (and, as a bonus: given the 80 percent or so of evangelicals who voted for Trump, a catastrophic and possibly terminal—in terms of the possibility of any credible and effective ongoing witness in our society—intellectual, moral, and spiritual failure in the evangelical camp).

Whether or not you agree with me about His Trumpedness, I hope that you will agree that we need to do a better job of teaching our children in school to gather and evaluate evidence and to devise and answer arguments. Informal (at least) logic needs to be required in every curriculum—elementary, secondary, and university. I’m not going to rag on anyone who doesn’t want to take the time to think through my As, Bs, and Xs above. You have other things to do, and maybe I haven’t made a very clear presentation. But I am concerned that we have multiple millions of voters who don’t think clearly, don’t believe that they can think clearly, don’t believe that it matters whether they can or not, lash out resentfully when anyone suggests that they are not thinking well but should, and nevertheless feel entitled (and are in fact entitled!) to decide who should occupy our political offices. It is a culture of arrogant ignorance. And increasingly, its only argument is the stupidest sort of tu quoque: No! You’re arrogant. (Well, on that one they might often have a prima facie case.) You’re ignorant. (Nope.) Your news (well-researched and substantiated reporting by highly competent journalists) is fake news. (Nope. There are different spins, but the difference between advocacy and lying is morally and materially significant.) This is depressing. It’s worse than all the schoolyard “Your mom does X!” retorts because the schoolyard kids know they’re just talking trash.

The answer, if there is one: If we want to keep our democracy, we must not only assert that every citizen has the right to his or her opinion or preference; we also have to believe in and act on the truth that no one is hopelessly ignorant, that (almost) everyone can—and has a responsibility to—acquire enough information, enough intellectual competence, and enough moral virtue to make sound choices in our political life together. I hope that thousands and thousands of our young people who now see clearly, and complain loudly about, the general ignorance of our population will feel moved to quit “protesting” and devote themselves to the good work of educating our young—by which I mean not indoctrinating them in this or that ideology but training them to read, listen, and think well for themselves, and for the common good.

We need to quit the trash-talking and trash-thinking and say to each other: Tu quoqueyou alsoare capable of reading, hearing, understanding, thinking, and deciding well, and as your friend I expect you to do so, and I expect you to help me to do so. And then, to turn this tu quoque, this omnes quoque which is the indispensable sine qua non of democracy, from aspiration to achievement, we need lots of “activists” in the form of very smart, very dedicated teachers. And for our adults, we need thousands of skilled and infinitely patient sponsors and facilitators of serious conversation in all the spaces in which our people meet each other, face-to-face (which is best) or virtually (more difficult, but we have to try to redeem these virtual spaces), in mutually accountable and mutually affirming relationships.

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