LawProse Lesson #248: Today’s most popular rhetorical gambit.
The ancient Romans called it tu quoque, meaning “you also” or “you’re another.” It’s pronounced /too kwoh-kwee/. Today we see this tactic prominently in both politics and law. A few examples. If one politician says that he or she wants to raise the standards of ethics, an opponent will say that that politician has engaged in some of the most unethical behavior seen in recent years. If a candidate calls another candidate a liar, the response is that the accuser is the biggest liar of all. If a judge criticizes colleagues as disregarding separation of powers, those criticized might say that the critic is the biggest offender—the suggestion being that no others can be validly criticized on that score. The result is a shouting match in which commitment to the truth (at least on one side) has seemingly vanished. Although this rhetorical technique has always been thought to be fallacious, it seems to work with uninformed audiences, who may not have access to all the facts. Even if they did, they would have difficulty sorting through the evidence—and doing so would require great motivation. So a debate can appear to be the undifferentiated noise of accusations and counteraccusations. Sometimes, of course, pointing out the hypocrisy of one’s adversary is relevant: “You’d do the same thing in my shoes, and probably will when the situation is reversed.” This can be a legitimate retort. Start noticing all the tu quoques that besiege us this campaign season. Many are done by proxy. Doubtless you’ll hear many examples every day. For the critical thinker, the key is to find a way of evaluating the claims that matter. Further reading: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 906 (3d ed. 2011).