Et Tu, Quoque? How We Backstab Ourselves


I suspect we are all familiar with the argument that if someones behaviour does not seem consistent with their message, the message is obviously false. The argument is totally wrong, but it needs to be taken very seriously because the fact that it is wrong turns out not too matter in the slightest.

First why it is false:

In the first place how someone behaves has no bearing on the truth or falseness of what they say, it is entirely irrelevant. Someones case for the truth of some claim is determined by the facts relevant to the claim, not their behaviour.

“A tu quoque argument attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting his failure to act consistently in accordance with that position; it attempts to show that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it. It is considered an ad hominem argument, since it focuses on the party itself, rather than its positions. “ tu quoque ad hominem

Second, we need to look at the whole of someones behaviour to determine if they even are being hypocritical, not simply an out of context example. In some cases there is no difference, such as when someone exhibits racist or sexist behaviour. Any single occurrence is hypocrisy. Naturally this still would not invalidate their claims, but at least the logical fallacy is not also a Straw Man.

Julius CeasarIn other examples it is the total behaviour that would tell us if someone is being hypocritical. If I generate five tonnes of CO2 to go somewhere and give a talk about climate change, but as a result of my talk 100 people reduce their CO2 emissions by one tonne each, then my Net impact is -95 tonnes and I am clearly not being a hypocrite. This example might apply to Al Gore for example, a frequent target for the tu quoque ad hominem accusation.

On a more day to day level, if I buy commercial produce because it is local and has a lower environmental impact than the industrially produced organics that are flown in from far away, then here again there is no hypocrisy. Note the reverse is true too, that someone who drives all over the countryside every week to buy local (and presumably reduce the energy cost) has clearly missed the point.

That being said, it doesn’t matter that the hypocrisy argument is false, what matters is the social reality. The social reality is that people look to our behaviour as a clue both to the validity of our claims, and as an indicator of how seriously we take them ourselves. As Randy Olson noted, perception is reality.

If someone tells us that the building is on fire as they recline on the couch & channel surf, we take it pretty much as a given that they are either joking or the situation is not serious. In the same vein talking about climate change or any environmental issue while leading a lifestyle that is materially indistinguishable from the North American norm undermines ones message regardless of whether it is hypocritical or not. Irrespective of any other consideration, it is taken as a sign that you won’t take your own message seriously.

They have a point. Just how serious is one if all you are doing is the easy things like recycling, cloth bags and owning a hybrid? We know perfectly well that even if universally adopted these gestures will not make any meaningful difference in the outcome, although they may extend the deadline somewhat. They are part of the solution, but if they are all we are going to do then it is arguably pointless to even bother with those.

Before anyone jumps to the Straw Man fallacy, I am NOT saying we all need to go live naked DSC00736in a cave somewhere. I am saying that the solution is defined by the problem, not what we find easy to do in response to it. As it stands we need to reduce our carbon consumption to at least 10% of current levels, not by 10%.

Further, that if we are individually not taking measures consistent with our message then it is valid to wonder how much we believe our message and just how serious we are about the issue at all. Let’s be honest and acknowledge that for many progressives the rationalizing for doing only a little is exactly the same reasons and reasoning used by those doing nothing. Since neither approach is actually going to change anything really, how are we different? And how are they to take us seriously?

One of the more important lessons I got in activism was the first time I went to jail over a social justice issue. All kinds of people who did not want to hear what I had to say about the issue before suddenly wanted to hear about the issue. Media that I had previously pestered to give it any coverage at all were calling me for interviews, and so on.


It occurred to me that we are all constantly bombarded with messages about ‘what is important’: who wins the World Cup, how we smell, what we where, what we invest in. Our lives are filled with a cacophony of demands that we take this or that seriously. That our particular message comes with the notation that it is about justice, equality, or human survival does not make it stand out from the noise in any way. They are all labeled “important” in one way or another and ours is just another such label.

Rosencrantz: “Consistency is all I ask!”

Guildenstern: “Give us this day our daily mask.”

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

What does make it “different” is how we behave personally. That we are willing to “sacrifice” in a meaningful way underscores that we at least take our own message very seriously. This is understood by many to be an indicator that there may be something to it. It won’t necessarily lead to anyone else immediately making similar changes, but it will get some of them to listen and that is the first step.

DSC00610Obviously at this point it is not possible for most to reduce their carbon budget to 10% of the North American norm, but 50% is easily doable, and 35% not that much harder. Flying to a climate conference or to the bedside of a sick parent may be justified, but the vacation in the Caribbean is clearly an indulgence that undermines our own work.

To be effective as activists we need to get behind our own messages to support them, not to back stab and bury them. Whether or not accusations of hypocrisy are valid or not, the appearance of hypocrisy and/or insincerity is sufficient to completely undermine anything we are trying to say.

They will take us seriously when we do, and not before.

Image Credits:

DSC00604 by Leia Speia

Julius Ceasar by Crouchy69

DSC00736 by Leia Speia

DSC00572 by Leia Speia

DSC00610 by Leia Speia


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