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But What About...?

Right before the abrupt end to Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, one of my favorite readers (the one responsible for disappearing typos in these postings) asked me about what LogicCheck might have to say about a strategy of Trump’s defense team that seemed to boil down to “Yes, but what about [fill-in-the-blank]" (i.e., their continually claiming that Trump’s accusers were guilty of the very behavior they were prosecuting the former President for engaging in).

This ju-jitsu maneuver comes in legitimate and illegitimate forms, and critical thinkers need to be able to discern when trying to turn the tables on opponents is reasonable or just a dodge.

One form of dodge is actually a named fallacy called tu quoque which translates to “you too" or "you as well” (often illustrated with the old-fashioned rejoinder “Oh yeah! Well so’s your old man!”).

Tu quoque is an informal fallacy that tries to shift the spotlight off the accused onto the accuser (or someone else). For example, part of the indictment of Donald Trump was based on the fact that he would not recognize the legitimacy of the recent presidential election, a process that involved Republican allies refusing to certify 2020 election results.

As it turns out, many Democrats (including at least one House impeachment manager) did the very same thing when it came time to certify the 2016 election of Trump, leading to a series of challenges to the legitimacy of that election’s results that now-President Joe Biden (acting as President of the Senate at the time) had to continually gavel down.

While accusations of hypocrisy such as tu quoque pack rhetorical power, they are easily refuted since they are primarily designed to distract. This means they can be countered by simply focusing attention back on the actual point being debated. For example, while many Trump opponents did indeed challenge the 2016 election results (a few in problematical ways), they did not take actions that led a mob to attack the US Capitol, the crime that was the focus of Trump’s impeachment trial.

Another illegitimate version of this “what-about” strategy is actually called “whataboutism.” While that term has been used generically to describe any strategy that involves using the behavior of others as a defense, it has traditionally referred to claims that accusations of wrongdoing cannot be taken seriously by anyone who does not devote as much or more time fighting greater versions of the same wrong.

An example of the whataboutism dodge would be to claim that it is hypocritical to get mad about injustice in the US legal system unless you are willing to put as much or more time fighting even greater injustices in China where the law is used as a tool of repression by a totalitarian government.

Whataboutism is kind of a backwards slippery-slope fallacy. Traditional slippery slopes move from reasonable point A (If you let kids play with toy guns…) to unreasonable point B (…they will grow up to become schoolyard shooters). In its whatabout version, you start with an unreasonable request (Unless you fight every form of injustice in the world…), to a claim that a reasonable course of action is illegitimate (…then you can’t be taken seriously when you claim to be fighting for justice here in the U.S.).

In a planet packed with problems to be solved, we all have to pick causes we feel are worth fighting for at the expense of others. If you succeed in getting a playground built in your hometown, are you virtuous for having done something good for your community, or wicked for expending time and energy that could have been put into saving starving children on the other side of the world? While we should acknowledge that other, possibly more severe, problems exist and never exaggerate the stakes in our own struggles (by claiming a new school dress code represents the onset of Fascism, for example), we should not get distracted if someone tries to use a technique designed to distract us like whataboutism.

Having described two fallacious forms of argumentation that focus on other people’s behavior, is there a legitimate role such turnabout can play in reasonable argumentation?

Legitimate forms of reversal harken back to the issue of contradiction which, as discussed previously, is at the heart of critical thinking. The reasons accusations of hypocrisy are so resonant is that they confront us with contradictions the human mind instinctively loathes, especially when applied to moral matters.

This means that arguments which apply moral principles consistently can be reasonable, even if they end up sounding similar to tu quoque or whataboutism.

For example, playing videotape that shows Democrats claiming the 2016 election was stolen or justifying political violence and asking Senators to acquit President Trump because “everyone does it” was a weak argument. But pointing out that there are important principles at stake in a democracy, such as recognizing the legitimacy of free-and-fair election results and never introducing violence into the body politic, is a powerful premise for a strong one.

If you accept such a premise, this means any activity by any party that explains away defeat with conspiracy theories or claims that violence is justified for certain causes is acting dangerously and immorally. While such an argument might not be suitable in court (or the Senate), it can provide all of us ways to understand what types of behaviors and attitudes should never be tolerated, even in the name of a noble cause.

A fallacy I thought I had coined, but which turns out to have been used elsewhere, is the fallacy fallacy which says that just because an argument might resemble some named fallacy (like tu quoque or slippery slope), that doesn’t make all versions of such arguments inherently illegitimate. For there are times when the behavior of others is germane in a debate, and times when arguments highlight important principles that should transcend partisanship.


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