With Jane Fonda recently conducting a tour of Alberta's tar sands, I was ready for the predictable backlash from oil activists (yes, it's a thing). I was not disappointed.
Often when anyone tries to defend the environment, they are labelled hypocrites. They point out how Fonda arrived in Fort McMurray in a plane powered by the fossil fuels she seems to be speaking out against. They may not realize it, but they are committing a logical fallacy, or error in reasoning.
The logical fallacy of Tu Quoque (pronounced "too kwoh-kway"), Latin for "you too", seeks to avoid responding to criticism by turning it back on the accuser. It assumes the accusers argument is wrong because they "do it too". It attacks the person, not the argument, and it is both wrong arguing and wrong thinking.
Oil activists and other anti-environment types (if you aren't for it, you're against it), often use attacks on the other side involved by making blatant or subtle efforts to sabotage, undercut or demean them. This also is used to make the speaker look good, right, moral, trustworthy or in other ways better than their opponent.
But the whole purpose of an argument, or discussion, is not make yourself look good. It is to address the issue at hand. It is to be involved in a communication process whose goal is the growth of both personal and mutual understanding. Personal attacks are a no-no. Please stick to the argument.
Because the celebrities that speak out against the tar sands consume fossil fuels to get there, does not invalidate their argument that this extractive industry is harmful to life in general.
And it is. The tailings ponds alone are an environmental catastrophe - if birds land in them they die. Thousands have died in them already, and more will in the future, despite all the sound cannons they blast off on a regular basis to prevent birds from doing what comes naturally. The environmental NGO Boreal Songbird Initiative has estimated that some 166 million birds could be killed over the next 30 to 50 years as a result of tar sands extraction.
Another problem with using the "you too" personal attack is that there are currently not any viable alternatives to fossil fuels. So how, exactly, is one to get to the open pit mines of Fort McMurray without burning fossil fuels, in order to have a discussion about fossil fuels?
I wonder if we could successfully remove the opportunity for the tu quoque error in communicating if we walked to the tar sands wearing "no fossil fuel footwear" and a woollen outfit? And lived caves and grew all our own food? And didn't have computers?
Better yet, maybe when our opponents dismiss our arguments by saying we are hypocrites, we could respond by saying,
"You know, that was a personal attack, so you automatically lose the argument. Sorry.
If you'd like to re-offer your last comment without the personal attack then you may still convince me, but otherwise... thanks for the discussion.
Like Jane, I'll take my win and go home."