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.