Tu quoque

The onnagata [male actors in the kabuki theatre who play female roles] justify their perpetual monopoly by saying they believe that women are too close to femininity to capture its essence…
Richard Eyre, Guardian Review 21 August 20004

Looking back at the rationales the dominant classes used to offer to justify their oppression of others, it is remarkable how paper-thin their arguments often were. Unless we are prepared to say that people just used to be more stupid, the most likely explanation is that the reasons people offer for their beliefs often have very little to do with the real reasons why they hold them. It also seems that we are good at convincing ourselves of the rationality of the most irrational of prejudices. That would not be a very reassuring diagnosis for those who wish human action to be rationally guided.

The reasoning of the onnagata is a striking example of privilege being given a pseudo-rational gloss. The problem with their justification for excluding women from the kabuki theatre is that the principle they appeal to, if true, seems also entail that men should not portray men. If “women are too close to femininity to capture its essence” why aren’t men too close to masculinity to capture its essence? That would require that men played women and women played men, not that men should play all roles.

Although that might seem straightforward, this kind of objection has to be treated with extreme caution. It is of the general type “tu quoque”: you’re another. This argumentative move works by showing that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it. In this case, the reason the onnagata give against women playing women applies equally to male onnagata playing men.

There are two reasons why this move is not be quite as obviously powerful as it might first seem. First, very often the alleged lack of consistency on which the move depends may require some establishing. In the case of the onnagata, for example, it is arguable that I haven’t yet shown that the principle can in fact be turned against them. I have not, for example, considered the possibility that the onnagata have some good reasons for thinking that women are closer to femininity than men are to masculinity. If that were the case, there would indeed be a reason why women shouldn’t play women which doesn’t apply to men playing men.

Nonetheless, the tu quoque move does at least force us to confront the apparent inconsistency. The onnagata, if they are at all interested in defending their practices rationally, would either have to accept the inconsistency or explain why it is not an inconsistency after all. Either way, we are taken closer to the heart of the issue.

The second problem with tu quoque is that it is not a means of identifying which principles and arguments are actually wrong. Let us say, for example, that we are satisfied that the onnagata are guilty of inconsistency. Does that mean that they are wrong to say that women are too close to femininity to capture its essence, or does it simply mean that they are right, but that they should also accept that men are too close to masculinity to capture its essence?

The choice is between giving up the principle that leads to the inconsistency; or holding on to it and accepting other principles that remove the inconsistency. Nothing about tu quoque tells us which option is more rational.

When we realise that there is a tu quoque response, it often feels as though we have found the magic bullet that will destroy our opponent’s position. It can therefore come as something of a shock when we find them perfectly willing to bite that bullet. If someone is inconsistent, they are wrong about something. But if we want to nail down which thing that is, we need to rely on more than just tu quoque.

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