[Column] Everyone is a hypocrite

The elections are approaching, and with them poor debates and false promises. Bas Rooijakkers is irritated by the rhetorical tricks of politicians.

Bas Rooijakkers: “Until a new Cabinet takes office, I’m holding my breath.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Approaching elections always bring a certain excitement. New faces and parties enter the political stage, and voters look forward to the opportunity to vote for the future of their country. But in truth, the campaign run-ups to the elections are meaningless as they are filled with poor debates and false promises. They always leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

These days political campaigns seem to be more about rhetorical tricks and demogoguery than substantive discussions and transparent promises. I want to look at a particular rhetorical trick that is often used during political debates: the ‘tu quoque’ or ‘jij-bak’.

Tu quoque is a classic example of a sophism used in debates to divert attention from the point of the argument. It is a rhetorical distraction manoeuvre whereby the person being accused of something responds by accusing the accuser of similar behaviour. In other words, instead of addressing the original argument, the person tries to weaken the accusation by suggesting that the accuser is just as guilty.

This phenomenon is common in our everyday lives. Everyone sometimes experiences situations in which they are commented on for inconsistent behaviour. If, for example,  you claim to be vegan someone may ask you why you are wearing leather shoes.

If one person does not live according to their ideals, are their arguments worthless?

We see this tactic frequently in the political arena. A politician who argues for strong climate regulations is accused of flying instead of taking the train to Brussels. This could lead to the following argument: Frans Timmermans (former Executive Vice President of the European Commission and now party leader of the joint Green Left and Labour parties in the Netherlands) may stand behind all sorts of climate plans, but he does not take the train to Brussels.

They are absurd arguments. Yes, Timmermans does indeed fly. Does that mean that we do not need to do anything about the climate? If one person does not live according to their ideals, are their arguments worthless? If Thierry Baudet (Leader of the right wing Forum for Democracy Party) is caught recycling, does this mean that he is suddenly believes in climate change?

What irritates me the most about the tu quoque tactic is not so much that it is used in political debates but, even worse, that it seems to affect many people. This even includes my fellow students here at TU Delft who, if they have done everything they should, should have taken a course on argumentation theory. It is understandable that politics is often seen as a battle between ‘us’ and ‘them’, in which ‘them’ is often viewed as the enemy. People may then lean towards judging arguments according to the person behind them instead of on the quality of the arguments themselves. No one is perfect. So during the next elections please keep in mind that everyone can sometimes be hypocritical, and listen carefully to the substance of the argument.

Bas Rooijakkers is a master’s student in Applied Physics. He was born in Brabant and spent part of his youth on Curaçao. He enjoys jogging and since the corona pandemic has also picked up cycling. He is also always in for a coffee or a craft beer.

Bas Rooijakkers / Columnist

Columnist Bas Rooijakkers

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