Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hypocrisy and Tu Quoques

A tu quoque is a latin phrase that literally means "and you too!". It is also a rhetorical technique in a dialogue or debate used to shift the content of the debate to scrutiny of the other interlocutor's side(s). It can be a fallacy of reasoning when used incorrectly but I am interested in the sound usages of tu quoques.

I recently read an article by the (recently) deceased British political philosopher, Gerald Cohen titled, "Casting the First Stone: Who Can, and Who Can't, Condemn the Terrorists". Read a draft here.

Cohen talks about his experience as the father of a son who had been a victim of terrorism (a bombing had left some shrapnel in his skull).

The elder Cohen blames and condemns terrorism but tried to come to an understanding of, at first, inexplicable anger and moral outrage at the words of an Israeli ambassador to Britain. The ambassador basically said on a radio program that Palestinian terrorism is never justified as it targets the innocent who are not responsible for Israeli policies.

Cohen basically agreed with this sentiment and the content of it he thought was sound but couldn't help feel indignant at the statements. He wondered if he was holding contradictory beliefs or biased feelings against Israel or her supporters.

He thought about it for a while and eventually figured out why he was so indignant at the statements and that this bitter indignation had been justified for the following reasons.

Israel and all its representatives cannot condemn Palestinian terrorism because

1. they have been and may continue to be a state that uses terrorism themselves.

2. They are partly responsible for Palestinian terrorism through their policies in the Occupied Territories.

These are basically tu quoque charges. They are not valid whenever they are used simply as ad homs or red herrings but Cohen argues that charges of hypocrisy are a kind of legit tu quoque and are sometimes justified.

Unlike other forms of criticism that one may level at one's interlocutor, a tu quoque is not a criticism of the *content* of the interlocutor's words necessarily. Rather, it is meta-discursive, that is, it criticizes the right of the interlocutor to make those very criticisms (criticizes the right to the speech act itself or illucutionary act of criticizing by the criticizer).

Cohen offers some reasons why hypocrisy e.g., are sometimes sound as argument techniques. The second reason given above for why Cohen found the Israeli ambassador's words odious is obvious, Palestinian terrorism has a partial excuse. But why should a "and you too!" be sound on the first reason Cohen gave, that is, why should the fact that Israeli policies count as arguments against the ambassador's words?

One is that his words seem deceptive in that he condemns terrorism on behalf of his country against the terrorism it faces but does not do so for condemning his own country's brutal actions. So we get the impression that he is not really concerned about terrorism per se or moral behavior of countries, just Palestinian terrorism or when it suits his country's interests. Kind of like how it's wrong to give people impressions that you care about some issue when you really don't care at all or secretly supports the other side of the issue or when you change the topic when someone legitimately criticizes one of your wrongful behaviors to their alleged wrongful behaviors. So the reason why it's wrong may be similar to why some lies or misleading statements or behaviors are sometimes wrong.

I find that a good explanation but I find it just one among others of why charges of hypocrisy are sometimes legit and that hypocritical criticisms are wrong. Another reason, I think, is that some criticisms from those who "do not have a moral leg to stand on" are used to deplete a valuable resource and that since this resource is finite and valuable, it is subject to concerns of justice and fairness.

That resource is our collective attention or political consciousness towards political/moral issues. Unfortunately, I realize that "collective attention" or "collective political consciousness" is a clumsy way of phrasing it and there may be much more eloquent ways of putting it and there may even be well-explored studies of it in media studies, e.g. Unfortunately, I am not aware of such explorations, however, so I'll go on using the clumsy terms. It is finite because we have limited attention span, intelligence, resources, energy and time to evaluate issues. I suggest that hypocrites steal more than their fair share of that collective attention by hijacking the issue to suit their own purpose. It is clearly in demand and thus valuable in the economic sense because people want desperately to make public and get more attention for the issues they are concerned about. Hypocrites pollute that collective space with their own issues to obscure or blanket others' issues because their hypocrisy is suggestive that their criticisms are really diversion tactics or rhetorical red herrings.

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