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.



I’ve gotten used to “whataboutism”–most vividly illuminated by Republicans who respond to every criticism of Trump with “But what about Hillary’s emails!” There are lots of other examples: think of the people who respond to incidents of racist violence with “But what about black on black crime?”

What is so infuriating about this particular deflection technique is how intellectually dishonest it is. Whatever one’s position with respect to Hillary’s emails or black on black crime, they are irrelevant to the issue being raised. 

Recently, Bret Stephens wrote a “whataboutism” column for the New York Times decrying liberal intolerance and excoriating left-wingers who “believe all the old patriarchal hierarchies must go (so that new “intersectional” hierarchies may arise), who are in a perpetual fervor to rewrite the past (all the better to control the future), and who demand cringing public apologies from those who have sinned against an ever-more radical ideological standard (while those apologies won’t save them from being fired).”

Stephens is a conservative, so coming across a conservative takedown of the column was particularly satisfying.

Tom Nichols is the author of The Death of Expertise (a book I recommend highly, by the way). Nichols is a conservative professor at the Naval War College, and like Stephens, a Never-Trumper. He took to Twitter to respond to Stephens’ column, and the thread was captured by AlterNet.I’m reproducing it in full, because it’s well worth reading in its entirety.

Yes, I read the Bret Stephens piece. Ho hum. Yes, the intolerant left is a threat. Stipulated. However, I have excoriated people on the left for most of my career. But only opposing Trump produced harassment, demands to fire me, and death threats. Cancel culture, indeed. /1
I mean, I have blistered everyone from Obama to Hillary Clinton, and across the seas to Putin and Assad. For years, I was an outspoken conservative. But I never encountered McCarthyist thuggery like the kind I’ve gotten from the Cult of Trump. So spare me the hand-wringing. /2
I am not blind to the totalitarian streak on the left. I wrote about it – and at The Federalist, back in the day, no less. Amazingly, no one on the left tried to get me fired for it or told me I’d be hung as a traitor or left endless f-bombs on my voicemail at work. Imagine. /3
Look, the Democrats always have short-pants Stalinists in their midst. The GOP has always had theocratic wanna-be ayatollahs in *their* midst. The difference is that the GOP is now in power and owned, completely, by its fringe – one that is frantic with fear and anger. /4
The people who want to pull down statues without reading the nameplates (or without reading a book) are idiots. Many are the children of privilege. Some are even stupid enough to think they’re leading a revolution. They’re not. Calm down. /5
Leftist revolution here is about as likely as the Civil War 2.0 porn that Trump’s kooks love so much (not least because those same young people would freak out if no-kidding socialism was ever implemented).
Meanwhile, right-wing attacks on the Constitution? Happening now. /6
“Oh noes, the college kids are gonna take over the country!” is one of those cyclical things that conservatives worry about – usually as an indication of how little faith conservatives have in their own ideas and how much they fear their own personal weaknesses./7
But what about the culture war, right? Here’s an open secret: most GOPers never really cared that much about the culture war. They say they do, and they wave the flag and decry the behavior of poor people and brown people and people in cities, but that’s mostly a show. /8
How can I say this? Because you don’t see much of that culture war reflected in the personal behavior of most self-identified conservatives, who are as decadent as anyone else. These are not Amish stoics. They just don’t like *other* people being decadent, too. /9
What are they, then? They’re white people, who liked the world (or imagine they did) the way it looked when they were kids, and use the culture war as a proxy for resentment and nostalgia. The behavior of political evangelicals since 2016, especially, finally outed all that. /10
You want me to worry about college Marxists? Yeah, I’ll get right on that as soon as we dislodge the febrile anti-constitutionalists of the GOP.
I have plenty of concerns about the left. But right now, I’d like to deal with the obvious and demonstrated threat from the right. /11
I’ve been hearing about leftists taking over the country since I was a kid. It was supposed to happen in the 60s, after the 80s, etc etc. And the culture war, such that is, was over decades ago. But I never thought I’d have to fight over the Constitution – with the *right*. /12
So take all your fears of rampaging drag queens and how Joe Biden is controlled by the College Spartacists, and put ’em in a sock, pally. I’ll be first in line to oppose extremist left-wing dumbassery – once we defeat far more dangerous people like Barr and McConnell. /12x

You go, Tom!