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 called the “tu quoque” fallacy or “the appeal to hypocrisy” 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 argue “the system you hate created those!” This is the kind of ‘logic’ that makes me want to just lie down on the carpet.

argument from hypocristy - logical fallacy

Cartoon via @CosmasIndico

So I want to have another go at explaining why it’s a logical fallacy, and I hope this is useful to those of you who want to dismantle this argument whenever and wherever you see it arise.

The way the commenter framed their critique—and those who wield this argument seem to think it’s terribly clever—is that you have to “walk the walk” and effectively not participate in your society’s mode of production in order to critique your own society. The problem is that not only is it possible to live outside one’s society and its mode of production, this critique also contains a fundamental misunderstanding of how our social/political/economic/technological system works 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. The tragedy is that these options are mainly cheaper because oil is heavily subsidized by our governments thanks to the oligarchic control exercised by oil barons over the democratic process (see Koch Brothers, tar sands corporations and their lobbyists, etc.). Only the wealthy can pick more expensive green 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 is effective, if you want to change the dominant energy model and technological mode, is government action involving government-sized funding. (And if you don’t believe this, do some research on the history of technological innovation, much of which actually derives from the military.) Government-level change only happens when government is pushed into it, either through enough unrest and pressure, or when change becomes inevitable through an event or crisis such as climate change (but even then… see Trudeau), or when it seeks supremacy or security and funds military R&D. The military has in fact been a major locus of the technological side of historical change.

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 have lots of them because there aren’t alternatives. I don’t have the money or know-how to make such alternatives. We won’t evolve from oil dependency by me magically figuring out how to make a computer from organic stuff I have around the house. Again: no private choice, or even private corporation no matter how large, will EVER switch us to alternative energy. All such changes, historically, require major government action and funding, and this is more true when it comes to energy policy. Even when private corporations play a role, it’s because enormous state grants to the military and universities 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 true of most corps from Apple to IBM to arms manufacturers. But I digress. 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. I am near tears over this. 

Just kidding about the tears, but I think it’s very important that we keep making this rebuttal until it sinks in. And of course this is not to say that our agitation for a new energy system will be  successful either. Like the “voting with your dollars” option, it might fail. Like many others, I have been agitating fruitlessly (so far) for green alternatives most of my adult life. But we haven’t had a lot of voices with media reach as wide as Jane Fonda’s. Leonardo DiCaprio has been great on this too. Personally I would prefer we not do politics via celebrity, but given the deafness of the Trudeau government, which apparently never saw a pipeline or LNG project it didn’t like—and let’s not even talk about the US election which was just won by oil (see Tillerson)—well, Fonda and DiCaprio are useful political tools right now. Meanwhile our collective voices are now more numerous and getting louder.

Also, I apologize if I sound snarky or dismissive, even if I’m tired of mostly older men snarking at me with this argument. We are all implicated in these industries, but those who’ve made their livelihood from them are in a tough spot, and they may feel defensive. I am very sympathetic to that, and I don’t blame them. They are right in many ways, and I feel for the tar sands workers, even if they’ve been snarking in a superior manner at BC environmentalists for decades and making our work more difficult. They have also been getting serious union wages while the environmentalists they like to call privileged usually aren’t. It’s time to put that division aside. The federal government must step in to retrain and support workers during this transition. I just think we need to exit this thought loop if we are to move forward.

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 get green energy via our consumer dollars, we’re going to get it via political force. 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, vegetarianism, whatever. Those are fine but we need to put more energy into collective political action; let’s identify ourselves as citizens not consumers. The latter is how ‘they’ want us to operate. We must sink our teeth into the legs of politicians. Frankly I’m happy Jane Fonda is up here, and I don’t care how she got here.

PS As for design, we designers are too often ignorant of the history of design. The  materials history of design shares in the history of military and government R&D and investment. We are often blissfully unaware of where our materials and even styles come from. This is not to say all design derives from the enormous military-industrial complex process that give us our dominant modes of energy, transportation and communication. Small innovative designers, small widget makers can innovate, certainly. And also it’s not a dichotomy; many designers move in and out of the massive complexes where innovation happens such as government, military and corporate R&D. But real change takes serious capital and also motivation, and nations are motivated by desire for wealth and military security if not supremacy. Mostly designers are stuck working with the dominant paradigm in which they find themselves. Even billionaire Elon Musk is having trouble getting widespread adoption of his ideas, running close to the financial wire and marketing mainly to the wealthy. With governments increasingly strapped for cash since oligarchs and donors have forced massive tax breaks, our ability to use governments to move us to new energy paradigms is diminishing. We need to claw back the destruction of policies and regulations that would make this R&D possible. It’s the job of designers to take part in this fight because we’re implicated in it.

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