I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.
Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research, .
But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, Rinehart the Kochs). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.
I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.
Now let’s look at the tu quoque in a bit more detail. First, there’s the claim that the left is just as anti-science as the right. Of the three examples, anti-vaxerism can be dismissed most easily. US presentations of this argument (it’s rarely made in Oz) invariably focus on Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who is indeed an anti-science loon. But the only notable thing about RFK jr is that he happens to share his name with his famous father. He’s never held, or even stood for, elective office of any kind. By contrast, prominent Republican politicians included Michelle Bachmann and Dan Burton have pushed anti-vax rhetoric. At one time, the generally leftish Huffington Post ran a lot of anti-vax stuff. But they came under sustained pressure from the pro-science left, and have now abandoned this almost entirely. The only recent anti-vax piece I could find came from Lawrence Solomon, a right wing climate denier (more on this later) And survey evidence suggests that anti-vaxerism, like other conspiracy theories, is more prevalent among Republicans. A PPP poll reports that 26 per cent of Republicans believe that vaccines cause autism, compared to 16 per cent of Democrats.
Next, there’s nuclear power. As we’ve discussed, policy choices regarding nuclear power raise a wide range of issues, few of which can be answered by referring to peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The right wing claim (usually implied rather than spelt out) is that the left is opposed to nuclear power because of unjustified fears about health risks and accidents. The standard straw person here, filling the role of RFK Jr in the antivax debate, is Helen Caldicott. The problems with the right wing claim are numerous
* First, the left as a whole does not take any unified view on this question. Most obviously, the Obama Administration in the US has promoted nuclear power as part of an “all of the above” approach to climate change, and has received little in the way of pushback from the broader US left (compare the intensity of the campaign against Keystone XL with the handful of desultory protests against nuclear plants currently under construction)
* Second, while some on the left may have opposed nuclear power for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny, they at least got closer to the correct answer on the broader question of whether nuclear power is a sensible solution to our energy problems. It is the political right who have proved immune to evidence on this question. Despite the fact that no country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period, and that investors everywhere have abandoned the technology, the belief that nuclear power is a solution to our problems, being blocked only by crazy greenies, remains a cornerstone of rightwing tribal identity.
* Finally, even on the narrow question of accident risks, it’s hard to reach a conclusive answer. Nuclear meltdowns are rare but extreme events. No one can say for sure that the worst accidents we’ve seen so far (TMI,Chernobyl and Fukushima) encompass the worst that can possibly happen. These are complex engineering questions on which science doesn’t have a lot to say. Alleged experts who claimed to know for sure (notably Barry Brook in relation to Fukushima and the pre-TMI Rasmussen report on nuclear safety in the US) ended up with egg on their faces. My own judgement is that accident risks alone aren’t enough to reject nuclear power, but the cost of the safety precautions required to prevent accidents is part of the reason nuclear power is inefficient.
Evolution and creationism provide an even more interesting case. Until relatively recently, beliefs about evolution were largely uncorrelated with political affiliation. But creationism is now a Republican political issue, and beliefs are lining up accordingly, with Republicans supporting biblical literalism and Democrats mostly supporting theistic evolution
Finally, there is the question of Genetic Modification (GM) technology. This is the strongest point of the rightwing tu quoque. Greenpeace, for example, is guilty as charged of being anti-science on this issue. But Greenpeace and likeminded groups are only a minority among Greens who are, in turn, only a minority of the Left.
There are a variety of reasons for being concerned about the assertion of corporate ownership over genetic resources of which GM is (a relatively small) part, and for allowing consumers to choose whether or not to consume GM foods (regardless of whether there are objective reasons to prefer non-GM to GM, or vice versa). But outright opposition to GM based on spurious claims about health risks is definitely a minority position.
Turning to tribalism, it is silly to point to criticism of figures like Murdoch and Rinehart as tribalist. They are powerful people who use their power (derived from wealth) to advocate bad policies, and do so in an aggressive and dishonest way. The fact that they then whine about being the subject of counter-attacks, is just further evidence of their dishonesty.
Similarly, there is nothing inherently tribalist in advocating policies that would redistribute income, wealth and power away from the rich for the benefit of society as a whole, any more than in advocating free market policies that would harm some groups and benefit others. Such policies should, be advocated on the basis that they will make society as a whole better off, and not on the basis that the winners are the right kinds of people and the losers the wrong kind,
Tribalism involves attacks designed to mobilise one group against another on the basis of perceived identity. It is easy to point to a long list of groups perceived as tribal enemies by the right: environmentalists, public sector workers, unionists, gays, scientists, cultural ‘elitists’, refugees, welfare recipients (except age pensioners), ethnic and indigenous ‘lobbies’ and so on: in fact, just about any group that is seen as supporting the left or centre-left, is attacked in these terms.
By contrast, most of the groups that form the base of the political right (for example: small business, farmers, the military, self-funded retirees, mainstream churches) are treated with solicitous respect by the centre-left parties. The most notable example of a group commonly treated as a tribal enemy is that of fundamentalist Christians, and even here, there have been plenty of attempts at engagement, for example, on the idea of environmental stewardship.
To sum up, even when true, the tu quoque argument is an implicit admission of error. When it isn’t, as in the case of the claims that the left and right are equally guilty of tribalism and anti-scientific thinking it amounts to an intellectual coverup.
fn1. Almost entirely in the US, Canada and (now that Turnbull has rolled over) Australia. To a slightly lesser extent in UK and NZ.
fn2. By contrast, this is the normal response when instances of racism or corruption are pointed out. The primary defence is that these instances are unrepresentative. A tu quoque if offered, is usually of the form “there are similar instances on the left”, but no one on that side would concede that they are unrepresentative.
fn3. Here’s an attempt, which relies on the ludicrous claim that among Congressional Republicans ” the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming” (There’s also a big load of tu quoque)
fn4. Some have tried to argue that this position is just as inconsistent with science as is Young Earth Creationism. But in reality, anyone who believes both in God (in the usual senses of this term) and evolution must believe that God guided evolution, just as they must believe that God was responsible for the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe. More generally, they must believe that religion is consistent with the findings of science. Whether or not this is a logically defensible position, it isn’t anti-science.
Note to commenters: We’ve done nuclear power to death, so I will delete any comments on this topic. If you have something you absolutely need to say about nuclear in the context of this post, put it in the sandpits with a heading “Nuclear and tu quoque” pr similar.
133 thoughts on “Tu quoque”
“Although it is fair to say there has been an illiberal attitude by some within the debate towards those they disagree with” [over climate change science].
In my estimation, any illiberal attitudes have been an understandable response to those who have made a profitable career peddling demonstrable untruths and discredited data. Brandis’s claim that anyone questioning majority scientific opinion on climate change has been “silenced” was risible. On the contrary, they have been so vocal they have effectively won the argument, at least as far as translating scientific consensus into community concern and political action is concerned. Witness the reaction to the most recent IPCC report – a polite yawn. Indeed I don’t know why people like Brandis keep playing the victim; they’ve won and they’d be better off treating the subject as closed. Perhaps he’s playing to his own little tribe.
Much as I dislike the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, we’re stuck with them – at least as broad and roughly defined concepts/descriptors.
Re: ‘diminishing partisan commitment’ & ‘increasing number of swinging voters’, I’m often a very loud ALP critic because in my view they have shifted so far to the ‘right’ on so many fronts as to be barely distinguishable from the LNP. I sense that I’m far from alone in that criticism.
I don’t get the feeling that there are similar numbers of disenfranchised ‘right’ voters who criticise the ‘right’ political parties for not being far enough to the ‘right’. There does seem to be a little bit of it but it never really sounds more than mild and half-hearted – more like helpful suggestions than scorn.
The tribalism (of both ‘sides’) is more like barracking for a sports team than supporting or opposing ideas/policies etc.. And just as pointless.
Ikonoclast – if Obama means right wing for you and left wing for me then we really are going to be talking past each other on issues of left and right.
I suspect that Brandis’ piece is really about pre conditioning public opinion for the coming redebate to remove the carbon pricing mechanism. We are likely to see a lot more of this in the next months.
Brandis is attempting to label opponents as being “unreasonable”. The Coaltion has, clearly, been studying coercion techniques thoroughly.
Removing a tax is not coercion.
How do you feel about those that make discredited predictions?
I agree. It means Genghis Khan would be in the middle of your spectrum as a moderate. After all, proposing that money rule everything and government just protect the wealthy ruling class (the outcome of your model in practice) is indeed extreme right wing.
Your #5 is a tu quoque. Good example.
As for the content removing the heavily compromised Carbon Pricing at this point is not such a serious long term issue as it will ultimately serve to discredit the Coaltion and make future Climate Action Initiatives more stable.
“How do you feel about those that make discredited predictions?”
Depends how confidently the prediction was made. If it was stated as an absolute truth, then trying to distinguish between a discredited prediction and a demonstrable untruth is a distinction without a difference. However trends and tendencies stated as best-fit predictions given the data available at the time, surrounded with all the usual scholarly qualifications, have not been discredited. They simply turned out to be wrong, as to the best of my knowledge all those concerned have acknowledged.
How astoundingly ironic. A thread on the existence of tu quoque thread filled with tu quoque, best exemplified by Terje’s exceedingly ignorant naught to Godwin in five seconds flat with his East Germany factoid.
This is a good example of a tu quoque, and, as Will points out, by no means your first, even in a thread devoted to the subject.
Will – do you mean where I said:-
“And from my perspective mass surveillance is a totalitarian outcome that the left has historically been quite into. Think communist East Germany.”
John – I think you’re ignoring the context. Ikonoclast claimed that Obama was “far right”. And the basis of this claim is the support Obama gives to mass surveillance. But if Obama is “far right”, and by extension Democrat voters are “far right”, then how can the supposedly more scientific views of Democrat voters count as credit points for the left. Surely any credit points they get for being more scientific must go to the “far right”. You can’t have your cake and eat it on this. The Democrats either represent the left or they don’t.
Here’s a thought on tribalism which doesn’t, I confess, come from deep thought or deep experience much mulled over.
Few would be politicians have the star quality to have themselves elevated by acclamation without embedding themselves in a group/tribe which will give them a share of the spoils. So ordinary mortals normally do what is natural and become or at least give a good appearance of becoming one of a tribe. That analysis helps explain why tribal groups of the same nominal allegiance can be so different. The Labor Movement’s history is notorious but the differences between the NSW and Victorian Liberals illustrate the point just as well.
So, what a surprise, we can explain tribalism in politics as largely about making a career. But….. what about the young fogeys at the IPA? What about those on the left, Catholics for social justice, any number of NGOs etc.? Yes tribalism is to be found everywhere but, given JQ’s dismissal of the case of Robert Kennedy in contrast to actual politicians I am alert to the fact that there are any number of tribes in the shape of longlasting think tanks, NGOs and the like (at least as many on the left as on the right) which presumably serve the psychological need to belong while sufficiently satisfying the participants need to feel good about shared values, traditions and interpretations of historical and other facts.
In sum, I suggest that the tribes of right and left should each be subdivided into those primarily for career and those with a major emphasis on values and fraternity.
Supplementary to the idea that the tribalism of elected politicians is mostly about having a clique/tribe/faction to help them get on is the consideration that practical would be politicians must know what a poor record relying on individual genius or star power has. In our sort of context where we don’t have to consider the claims of a Hitler, Mussolini, Peron or
……we could count Menzies as almost unique but then note the failure of the admirable Michael Ignatieff and see what Gorton’s would-be nemesis Ted St John QC made of his opportunity in a safe Liberal seat when he behaved as if he wasn’t a tribedman but special.
What’s your justification for describing as a ‘centre’ position the position which you in fact describe as ‘centre’? In what sense is it a ‘centre’ position, or if it’s at the centre of something, what is that thing?
As far as I can see, if anybody is allowed to declare any position arbitrarily to be a ‘centre’ one, that makes the term ‘centre’ meaningless, because then it can mean anything, and then the same thing has to happen to the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. If you’re going to make the terms meaningless, then it’s better to do without them altogether.
Termed I replied to #5 on first page, but my comment was held up in moderation, presumably because it included a link (to the quarterly greenhouse reports from Department of Environment)
You claimed that Direct Action was a political fix, and “to be fair” (???) so was the Labor govts climate policy. I pointed out to you that on the evidence, the previous govts policy was working, which is why it’s so infuriating that Abbott is trying to get rid of it.
Whatever your political views, you should respect the evidence.
Sorry about typos, it’s autocorrect doing or not doing its thing.
A strong dose of cynicism is healthy but total cynicism is paralysing.
If people use the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ with approximately the same meanings, they facilitate communication.
If people start out using them differently but can reach agreement on shifting to a single agreed framework of meaning, again communication can be facilitated.
If people insist on using the terms in ways that fail to correspond in meaning, then communication will be hindered, and unless that’s the desired goal, it’s probably best to stop using the terms altogether and look for alternatives, even if they’re wordier and clumsier.
I for one would be very critical. I notice you don’t provide any names of people that do this though…
“Removing a tax is not coercion.” No, but attempting to intimidate into silence opponents you know you cannot honestly debate is.
Are there any specific criticisms attached to that, or just having a merry round of “shut up, leftist!”?
I made three distinct points which I’m happy to discuss. So far the only attempts at contesting them have consisted of offhand insults.
The ‘left’/’right’ labelling seems to mostly serve to denote the perceived ‘other’ side from the viewpoint of the speaker.
In other words, it seems to me that it is used (conceptually) most often to encompass the ‘tribe’ one feels they are NOT, rather than their own ‘side’. Everyone knows what they hate about the other ‘tribe’ but finds it harder to explain what the love/like about their own.
Wikipedia is its usual ambivalent self on any kind of useful definition:
I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves as a fascist.
I’d describe Obama as centre-right, based on the fact that his policies could have been implemented by any Republican prior to about 1980. He’s certainly less liberal than Teddy Roosevelt and probably no more liberal than Dewey or Eisenhower.
With the failure of Bretton Woods, defeat in Vietnam, the oil price shock and Watergate, the centre-right Carter administration had to step up and recompose American hegemony. The administration laid the foundations by backing the Shah of Iran, backing the takeover of Iraq by Saddam Hussein and confronting challenges from left-populists in Nicaragua and El Salvador. This cleared the path for a more unambiguously right of centre Republican administration to shape US policy around a massive military build up, assaults on central America and backing of the mujihadeen in Afghanistan, deregulation and immiseration of US workers. By the time Clinton achieved office in 1992, running in part on an expressly racist platform and workfare, the Democrats had shifted unambiguously onto the ground occupied by traditional Republicans. The early foundations of the Patriot Act date from this period. At the end of that administration Clinton removed Glass Steagall, opening the path to the GFC nearly a decade later, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor that had started by 1980.
Obama, for many liberals, promised an end to Bush era usages, but in practice he embraced Bush policies, bailing out the banks and big financial houses, continuing Bush.s military policies, hanging onto Guantanamo and the black sites, building up troops in Afghanistan and increasing drone strikes to a level more intense than under Bush. Domestically, he is breaking records on deportations and as we all know, is spying on his own population and anyone in contact with them. He even tried seizing a commercial aircraft in flight to reach Snowden, and reached out through the UK government to grab Assange.
Environmentally he backs the keystone pipeline project and drilling for off-shore oil. He has taken virtually no steps to cap emissions of GHGs, much less price emissions.
In no meaningful sense therefore is Obama a left liberal, his rhetoric notwithstanding.
I don’t want to sound supercilious or superior but if you aren’t willing to attempt clarity as a matter of courtesy when addressing a question to a particular person you might think it worthwhile simply to show that your communications are capable of being rationally understood and answered. I refer to the fact that, hours into a multiparty conversation you use the word “that” as though others must be obsessed with the same bit of trivia as you.
I assume that you are complaining about my agreeing with Midrash that characterising your bête noire as people who think that obeying the wealthy without question is for the good of society AND, to compound the mystification, trying to connect that to a “debate” on scientific issues is not in the realm of sane discourse.
We don’t live in the era of Downton Abbey when it might have been possible to find lackeys who would think it right to obey their aristicratic masters without question – though not, be it noted the rich unless aristcrats with old money – and I have never, in the several decades I can recall well, met anyone who meets that description. And I would make a very large wager that you haven’t either, certainly not amongst the argumentative classes. Nor would your documentary evidence, if any, win you the bet. Moreover amongst my very large number of friends and acquaintances who are, or have been, of the left have I ever heard uttered, even when drunk, such an extravagantly preposterous description.
If one can, if only with an editorial blue pencil, eliminate anything patently grossly lacking in logic or factual absurdity, it is helpful and courteous to one’s readers and gives anything sensible one says a better chance of receiving respectful attention. I’m perfectly happy for you to try tu quoque or reference to pots and kettles but you’d better get into training quickly: this is my sport.
Taken at face value, the first two sentences of your comment seem to mean that people describe their opponents as ‘left’ and ‘right’ but don’t describe themselves as ‘left’ or ‘right’. To me this is so obviously false that I suspect that can’t be what you meant. But if that’s not what you meant, I’m not sure what you did mean. Possibly you meant that people who consider themselves to be on the ‘left’ find it easy to define what they mean by ‘right’ but harder to define what they mean by ‘left’, while people who consider themselves to be on the ‘right’ find it easy to define what they mean by ‘right’ but harder to define what they mean by ‘left’. If that is what you meant, you’re wrong, but if that’s not what you meant, I remain mystified by your comment.
No that isn’t a fair representation of what I said. The Labor Party policy was genuinely intended to do something beyond mere political tactics. I don’t regard it as having been merely a political fix.
My statement was as follows:-
My criticism of the Labor policy is not that it was merely a political fix. But rather that it made little worth while difference to global temperature.
TerjeP, where is your evidence for the claim that Greenpeace sank a ship in a marine park, and are hypocrites? (And why are you deploying a tu quoque argument in a thread about the stupidity of tu quoque arguments?)
Since not all tu quoque arguments are stupid it is plausible that he was using such a ploy to cast doubt on the bona fides of another participant in a thread by no means confined to one narrow topic – indeed headed Politics (General) and Science.
Over at project Syndicate, give or take constitutional confusion about Australia and NSW, a discussion of anti-vaxers action of NSW government
Feelings and values must always have a voice in any democracy. We need the passion of advocates on all sides to move society forward. But when those passions fly in the face of the facts and put us at risk, it is entirely fair that in the name of public health and safety, you and I and our governments all say, “Enough is enough.”
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/david-ropeik-praises-the-australian-government-s-recent-moves-against-an-anti-vaccination-advocacy-group#CcGIuJ7CY2xH8H4w.99
You are “mystified” because you do not understand.
I’ll try to make it simple for you, but with the caveat that this is the simplistic version.
The “right” say the “left” is wrong.
The “left” say the “right” is wrong.
Neither put forward arguments anymore about why their side is better.
This is misinterpretation at an Olympic level:
Apart from the sheer arrogance (“you’re wrong” with no justification or argument), the inability to see that it cuts both ways is astonishing.
The point was that NEITHER ‘left’ or ‘right’ hold higher ground when it comes to reasons for being against the other, and both fail equally in arguing in favour of their “tribe”.
Sorry Terje I left out “largely the case” that it was a political fix – you didn’t say they were identical. I knew that but in my haste I didn’t mention it. However you were also saying that the Labor Government’s policy would “largely” do “sweet FA”. In both cases you are damning by association.
As I pointed out to you, the Labor government’s policy is making a measurable difference in the electricity sector. By itself it is not enough, but as a starting point it’s quite good. That’s what you have refused to acknowledge, and that’s where the lack of integrity in your argument lies.
Val – you’re still slicing and dicing what I said in a manner that misrepresents. To use this to beat my integrity shows rather astonishing bad faith. I did not say the Labor policy was doing sweet FA to the electricity sector. I was quite specific in the metric in which the Labor policy would do sweet FA. Why don’t you read what I actually wrote instead of making up silly straw man alternatives to blow down.
faustusnote – in answer to your question here is an extract from Wikipedia.
Compare with the Wikipedia article relating to “Brent Spar”.
In short when Greenpeace dumps it’s stuff in a marine park they call it an ecological contribution but a few years later when Shell try’s to dump something conceptually similar in the deep ocean they are cast as evil. Greenpeace are hypocrites.
We are agreed on that. And I said that Labor’s policy had made a measurable reduction (in CO2 emissions from) the electricity sector.
And now you are (apparently) trying to say that reducing CO2 emissions from the electricity sector has nothing to do with altering “the trajectory of the global temperature”. Do you honestly expect anyone to take you seriously? Why on earth would you say something like that?
John Quiggin – I will ask you directly. Do you agree with Ikonoclast that Obama is “far right”. And that as such the scientific outlook of his followers is a credit to the far right. Or do you count him and his followers as part of the left? In other words does the ledger for the left include both the assets and the liabilities of Obama and the Democrats or just the assets?
Of course CO2 correlates with temperature. However you are getting closer to the nub of the issue.
What are you trying to say?
Ignore my last question. Obviously if you knew what you were trying to say, you’d be able to say it.
I rephrase my question as: could you please try to explain again what it is you’re trying to say, because what you just said doesn’t make sense.
#43 meant for TerjeP obviously, not for myself (that would be weird)
Terkel, where is your evidence that greenpeace sank the ship? It was refloated for forensic analysis, which you will note was not greenpeace’s job but the govts. Where is your evidence that sinking it was bad for the marine park, that it was not properly prepared for scuttling, or indeed that the islands are a marine park? Or that greenpeace decided to dump it there or claim it as an ecological contribution? And where is your evidence that sinking a small boat has the same ecological impact as an oil rig?
This is a classic example of your method of arguing by fabricated assertion, and particularly slimy in this instance given the ship would never have been scuttled were it not first blown up by the kind of people who hate hippies: the circumstances are nowhere the same but that doesn’t stop you dumping an ugly slur on the victims of a terrorist act.
Why are the Right winning? As John Stuart Mill said, not all conservative people are stupid, but all stupid people are conservative. Maybe this makes the conservatives a majority.
Val – neither the coalitions direct action nor the ALPs carbon tax will have a significant impact on global temperature.
I didn’t follow this exchange closely, so it may be there was no “tu quoque” in that case. There certainly was in the example to which I pointed.
If what you’re saying is that nobody gives positive arguments in favour of their position, but only negative arguments against their opponents’ positions, you have not substantiated your case.
And your source for this assertion is Andrew Bolt? or Alan Jones?.
We’ve been over this nonsense many times. Of course, since Australia is only a small part of the world, small actions we take will have only small effects. But that’s equally true of any collective action problem you care to name. It’s just like the IPA/ANDEV saying that, since Northern Australia is small in relation to the national economy, there’s no harm in creating a tax-free zone there.