But What About….?

When my children were little, it wasn’t unusual to hear a quarrel where the one accused of some wrongdoing would yell at another “Well, you were just as bad! You did [thus and so]!” The kids eventually grew out of that very childish behavior.

Unfortunately, our polarized politics has brought an adult version roaring back.

The Hedgehog Review recently considered inconsistency– the less pejorative version of whataboutism. Assume, for example,  someone expresses anger about the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs, but not about [choose your outrage].

The online term for this move is whataboutism… in which someone who is outraged by one thing but not visibly outraged by another is called a hypocrite, a bad faith interlocutor, even if no real mismatch between values and actions is present. If you are angered by the treatment of the Uyghurs in China, do you really have standing to be angry, given the treatment of migrants at the United States border or the detainees in Guantánamo? If you think Vladimir Putin suppresses dissent, where is your anger when Twitter or Facebook refuses to allow actors on their platforms whom they believe to spread “misinformation”?

What about whataboutism? Attention is finite, the record of how we spend it public, and it is easy enough to check if somebody who tweets every day about Ukraine has ever tweeted about Yemen. Many people are inclined to give somebody they trust a pass; behavior that might attract loud condemnation of a stranger might be ignored if done by a friend. Sometimes, such inconsistencies, added up, indicate that somebody is untrustworthy, that her commitments are insincere, and that there is something manipulative about her public persona. But most of the time, I would hazard, they indicate that people do not live their lives striving for perfect consistency.

The author excuses much of this selective attention by pointing out that voicing  disapproval of X doesn’t mean that the person isn’t equally horrified by Y.  But as he says, “it is undeniably true that how somebody feels or posts online is not going to do anything to help any of these people, and even truer that scolding someone about his selective outrage will not.”

The Internet, however, has only one currency, and that currency is attention. On the Internet, we endlessly raise awareness, we platform and deplatform, we signal-boost and call out, and we argue about where our attention should be directed, and how.

These observations are certainly fair. Every time we point to “outrage A” is not evidence that we don’t give a fig about outrage B. That said, however, the essay ignores a widely-employed form of whataboutism that does deserve condemnation–the use of “what about X”  to distract from the behavior being discussed, and–not so incidentally–to draw unfair moral equivalencies.

Are Republicans assaulting and undermining democracy? Well, some Democrats are corrupt!

Trump defenders who respond to his theft of highly classified materials with “well, what about her emails” are an example of that not-so-innocent form of whataboutism. Not unlike those long-ago arguments between small children, they want to point fingers somewhere else, and they want to suggest that “everybody–especially members of the other party–does these things and that they are all equivalent, so it’s unfair to pick on our guy.'”

A recent essay in The Conversation addressed this less-innocent form of the tactic.

Formally speaking, whataboutism is a fallacy most closely related to the ad hominem fallacy, wherein a person responds to an accusation by attacking the person making it.

Even if the counter-accusation is true, it doesn’t justify whoever is being accused in the first place. “At best, it shows that both parties behaved shamefully. And, of course, two wrongs do not make a right.”

In philosophy, an argument is a reasoned debate aimed at truth. But in many other contexts, people often do not view arguments in this way. They view them, rather, as battles to be won. Their goal is to get their opponent to concede as much as possible without their conceding anything themselves.

Viewed in this way, whataboutism is an effective strategy. It works on the principle that offence is the best form of defence. By launching a counter-attack, you place your opponent on the back foot.

The problem is, when everyone is arguing about which behavior is worse, problems don’t get solved.


  1. “The problem is, when everyone is arguing about which behavior is worse, problems don’t get solved.”

    Whatabout the fact that truth is no longer spoken within major factions of our government at all levels; the most dangerous at the federal level? Whatabout the fact that there appears to be no way and no one to force elected lawmakers to uphold their Oath of Office at all levels of government? Why are we, as a nation, bothering to respond to accusations and declarations which are blatant lies rather removing their authority while in office? The Legislature was founded on the responsibility and power to prevent one person in the Executive branch from ruling over all three branches of government and this nation; but here we are with Trump continuing to be the face we continue to see and the voice we continue to hear because there is no way to force government officials to do the job we elected them to do and pay them to do.

    So whose behavior is worse; those who are continuing their outrageous, sedition and borderline treasonous activities or those who sit idle and allow them to continue, ignoring their own responsibilities and powers? This “whataboutism” is being watched by the world; as was reported this morning. Our allies are not trusting us to protect their past information exchanges with the U.S. due to one man who declared countless numbers of Confidential, Top Secret and Military information of our government and theirs to be his personal property. He hauled them with him on foreign trips while president and has them scattered everywhere among his personal belongings and throughout his home which is is an elite hotel setting and within reach of anyone who wants to look.

    Actions speak louder than words, we are still in recovery and on life support from Trump’s White House fiasco, which continues today, and the prognosis is still uncertain.

  2. This should be the point for most discussions: “In philosophy, an argument is a reasoned debate aimed at truth.”

    However, I don’t see that too often in the world today. People want to be entertained – not told uncomfortable truths. Their life is already a struggle that many are looking to escape.

    Therefore, oligarchs provide them with escape outlets for profits. It’s a win-win situation temporarily. It’s part of short-term thinking because the longer-term consequences are most unpleasant. We see these all around us now.

    As a general rule, humans are pain avoiders and pleasure seekers. Unfortunately, truth causes pain most of the time because we prefer living in a delusion of our own making.

  3. “In philosophy, an argument is a reasoned debate aimed at truth.” In math, an argument is a line of reasoning intended to show or explain why a mathematical result is true (Encyclopedia of Mathematics Education). Sadly, we do not live in the world of philosophy or math. Which is easier: to use fear or to use reason to persuade?

  4. “In philosophy, an argument is a reasoned debate aimed at truth.” In politics, a problem is solved through bipartisan agreement or a substantial majority.

  5. … And the assertion of “just as bad” is just as untrue in politics as it is in childish quarrels.

    You want to compare corruption between the two parties? Check out the number of indictments by party over the decades. Then check out the number of standing indictments against Trump vs Hillary. (Hillary has zero.)

    You think Soros is just as bad as Koch? Soros has four foundations that fund institutions dedicated to community development (a non-political activity, although he does make political donations). Koch has at least 24 foundations that fund hundreds of institutions, most of which are education non-profits dedicated to training political operatives, and all of which are working to eliminate taxes, regulations, and government.

    We can go on and on. Speak out against false equivalencies!

  6. the tu quoque fallacy, as it dismisses criticisms of one’s own behavior to focus instead on the actions of another, thus creating a double standard.

  7. “when everyone is arguing about which behavior is worse, problems don’t get solved.”

    When one party accuses the other of being “just as bad,” realize that they are both right. End the duopoly.

    Want reasonable people to develop and enact reasonable solutions? FWDtogether.org

  8. Perhaps, a root cause of the huge increase in this is our slowly deteriorating common agreement on morals, principles and values. When “anything goes” and I can “be” anyone I want to…

  9. “The Internet, however, has only one currency, and that currency is attention. On the Internet, we endlessly raise awareness, we platform and deplatform, we signal-boost and call out, and we argue about where our attention should be directed, and how.”

    For many users, there is little difference between the Internet and entertainment media, which all visual media is. Each of us may choose our poison but no matter which channel we pick, the job of the programmers is to hold our attention from one set of commercials to the next. They do that by keeping us entertained. In the case of social media, their job is to hold our attention while we spill out information about our likes and dislikes which are sold to commercial interests for directed advertising.

    Follow the money.

  10. Whatabout the fact that the GQP is still in the thrall of that infantile, fat, orange-pasted, hogfaced loudmouth?
    There simply is no equivalency between anything the Dems have done, and fomenting, and engaging in,
    insurrection…period. So, any “whatabout” a Lindsay, or any of them come up with is BS.
    But whatabout my question? I’m reading “In Hitler’s Bunker,” by Armin D. Lehman, who, at age 16 was the
    fervent NAZI he was brought up to be, in war time Germany, even honored to serve in Hitler’s bunker..
    At the end of the introduction he asks “Why did I not open my eyes just briefly to try and see…the awful truth
    about his beloved Fuhrer, about the man many Germans used to believe had been sent by their god, to
    lead their country to its “deserved” prominence in the world. He suggests that it was because he had spoken
    to their outrage at what the lopsided treaty of Versailles had done to them. And here, we have a demagogue
    who speaks to the sense of loss so many people have at what the economy, and the rabid capitalism has done
    to them, especially with the sending of o many thousands of jobs overseas…and, of course, one can not fail
    to mention the fear that having a Black president instilled in them. He has spoken, LOUDLY, to their bigotry.
    And they will defend him to the bitter end, like the young Armin did, dodging allied bullets, as he says, in the
    very last days of the conflict.

  11. Column in today’s Boston Globe speaks to our subject:

    Guns make Americans safer

    All things being equal, criminals would rather not target victims who may be armed.


  12. I had a fried post a meme about failures, and one of the items pictured was Biden. I pointed out some of the accomplishments. One of the replies was he got COVID, Twice! This was a nice whataboutism. Switch the topic to something that is irrelevant.

    This is slightly off topic but another reply was more instructive: “Liberals have be mad, he’s done nothing for them”. I laughed and replied this in a way was a really good compliment for a public servant and that I can see his blind spot. The last guy only played to his base. Biden is the President of the entire United States. He should make compromises to take care of everyone.

  13. kinda hard to have a argument,when the information,er is handed back is hearsay,propaganda,and wordspeak. the otherside here,trumpers,only parrot whats been
    yelled into their ears as they blissfully gain respect among themselves. the subjet today
    between informed and educated,over,the othersides ignorance being constantly repeated
    because the same subject get the same answer over and over..few subjects matter,and the question that really needs ask,isnt in thier sphere,nor would the answer.. living with this in everyday face to face with who I work side by side with in a blue collar world,
    is like living in a drought,(yes we are in NoDak) where when the wind blows the dust engulfs you,
    their words have the same affect..

  14. Christopher:
    the whole part of my conversatiin is to place some fact to their repeated one subject/no value to anyone. seems plain to me,you have to rise above and make the facts stand,and smile while
    your burning a hole on the ground your standing on. reality quenching denial.
    thise foundations,not one supports a living wage..

  15. Whoever compared Soros to Koch as two oligarchs controlling each party is false. The Koch Network essentially owns the GOP and controls 23 states outright.

    Soros funds a media company that holds Koch’s Network accountable. However, if you look at the Democratic Party, their donors are mostly hedge funds (Wall Street) – the financial oligarchy. Blackrock runs the FED/financial oligarchy with the Wall Street Banksters.

    The financial oligarchy represents the establishment or status quo – socialism for the rich, rugged capitalism for the working class.

    The TransAtlantic elite (Davos crowd) and Bilderberg partners are getting very scared.


    Both parties agree on much

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