Jane Fonda flying to oppose tar sands isn’t hypocrisy; that’s the “tu quoque” logical fallacy

@JaneSeymourFonda in the Alberta tar sands: with @barbarawilliam_, @UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and ACFN (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation) Chief Allan Adam on January 11, 2017 (UBCIC Instagram)

This post is about a logical fallacy that for a decade has been popping up all over social media and comment streams on news stories. It’s the “tu quoque” or “appeal to hypocrisy” fallacy and it has recently re-emerged with a vengeance, all because Jane Fonda flew to the Alberta tar sands on January 11 to advocate for a transition to green energy.

I posted on Facebook this CBC article about Fonda’s trip to Alberta and speech in Fort MacMurray, the capital of Alberta’s tar sands. I immediately had strangers commenting that Fonda is a hypocrite for flying to the tar sands in a fossil-fuel-powered plane, and she should stay home because she is talking the talk but not “walking the walk.” Perhaps if she lived in a cave and walked to Fort Mac wearing animal skins she would be a credible voice?

This brand of argument seemed to pick up steam during Occupy, when many observed that people in Zucotti Park had iPhones and were wearing GoreTex. These commenters would triumphantly say “the system you hate created those!” as if they’d proved some sort of fatal flaw in the arguments of those criticizing the system.  This sort of ‘logic’ that makes me want to  lie down on the carpet and not get up. Clearly, we are not teaching kids how to identify logical fallacies. We’re also not teaching them history.

argument from hypocristy - logical fallacy

Cartoon via @CosmasIndico

I thought it was worth having another go at explaining why this a logical fallacy, and I hope it’s useful to those of you who want to dismantle this argument whenever and wherever you see it come up.

The way the commenters frame their critique—and they seem to think this is terribly clever—is that you have to “walk the walk” by refusing to participate in your society’s mode of production in order to critique your own society. The problem with this is twofold. Not only is it impossible to live outside one’s society and its energy and industrial systems, this critique also contains a fundamental misunderstanding of how our social, political, economic and technological systems work and how change happens, historically. Individuals alone cannot transform the current energy or economic system, even and especially through consumer choice alone. This is true regardless of their numbers.

For one thing, especially with increasing inequality, the vast majority of people are financially strapped and are forced into buying the cheapest options, which in the current system are fossil-fuel based products and transportation. Mass produced agrobusiness food is far cheaper than truly sustainably produced organic food; a Ford is a lot cheaper than a Tesla. The tragedy is that oil-based options are mainly cheaper because oil is heavily subsidized by our governments thanks to the oligarchic control exercised by oil interests over the democratic process. (See the Koch oil baron brothers, tar sands corporations and their lobbyists, etc.) Only the wealthy can afford to buy the greenest alternatives, and they are a vanishingly small minority and getting less numerous all the time. And even if everyone—including ALL of the poorer masses—somehow completely eschewed oil products, which is 100% impossible, it would still not achieve our objective.

The only thing that will be effective, if you want to change the our current energy system, is government action involving government-sized funding and subsidies. If you don’t believe this, do some research on the history of technological innovation. Much of this innovation begins with major government funding. (Actually, much of it begins with the military, which has abundant state funds for R&D, and is, perhaps surprisingly, now an institution more concerned about climate change than many governments are, due to security threats posed by climate chaos.)  Even when private corporations play a role in technological change, it’s historically been because enormous state grants to the military and universities have paid for the R&D and innovations that corporations then use for free and make shedloads of money selling back to us, in a kind of corporate welfare (socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor). This is the story of a staggering number of corporations from Apple to IBM to arms manufacturers. At the very least, governments could be incentivizing a switch to green tech through R&D, tax instruments and job retraining programs and by empowering public energy utilities to transition to new tech.

Meanwhile, government-level change only happens when government is pushed into it, either through national security issues, civil unrest or social pressure, or some form of crisis. What does not drive historical change is individuals changing their consumer patterns based on voluntary moral decisions.

Why does someone have to be a naked cave-dweller to protest? I try to own fewer fossil fuel-related objects than average, but even I own many oil-derived products because I participate in this world and there just aren’t alternatives. I don’t have the money or know-how to make such alternatives. We won’t evolve from oil dependency if I either live in a cave or magically figure out how to make a computer from organic stuff I have around the house. Again: no private consumer choice, or even private corporation no matter how large, will EVER switch us over to alternative energy.

Jane Fonda walking in sackcloth to the tar sands will achieve diddly squat, so please stop going on about it. It is not hypocrisy, and she is “walking the walk.” She’s walking it in the only way that will work, which is vocal resistance. Please. I am near tears over this. Just kidding.

Of course, this is not to say that our vocal agitation for a new energy system will be  successful either. Like the “voting with your dollars” option, it might fail. Many of us have been agitating fruitlessly (so far) for green alternatives most of our adult lives. But our voices don’t have the media reach that Jane Fonda’s has. Leonardo DiCaprio also has reach, and he has made valiant efforts on this front too. Personally I would prefer that we not do politics via celebrity, but given the deafness of the Trudeau government, which apparently never saw a pipeline or LNG (fracking) project it didn’t like—and let’s not even talk about the Trump administration—Fonda and DiCaprio could be useful political tools right now. In the meantime, our collective voices are starting to become more numerous and  the volume is rising.

I realize that some may have personal reasons to feel defensive about fossil fuels and resource extraction, because they’re employed in these industries. Those who’ve made their livelihood from them are in a tough spot. I apologize if I sound snarky or dismissive. I am very sympathetic to the tar sands workers, even if may of them have been snarking this “gotcha” argument at BC environmentalists for decades, while receiving substantial often union wages while the environmentalists they like to call privileged usually aren’t and generally subsist on low pay. It’s time to put these divisions aside. We are all implicated in these industries in one way or another. The federal government must step in to retrain and help fossil fuel workers during the coming transition to green energy. And we need to exit this “you’re a hypocrite!” thought loop if we are to survive as a species.

A friend of mine who has been involved in writing Canada’s environmental policy since the 1960s remarked to me flatly that “climate change is failed energy policy.” We’re not going to achieve the transition green energy through voting with our consumer dollars. We’re going to get it by forcing politicians to rewrite policy. We need to stop individualizing this fight, stop making it a moral injunction to individuals to only exercise their desires through consumption patterns, cycling, electric cars, veganism, asceticism, prayer or whatever. Those things are all fine but we need to put more energy into collective political action. Let’s identify ourselves as fellow citizens, not consumers. ‘They’ want us to operate as consumers; let’s not. Instead, let’s get together and sink our teeth into the legs of politicians.

Frankly, I’m happy that Jane Fonda is in Alberta, and I don’t care how she got there.


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