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“But you did it first!”: A defense of whataboutism




My niece has reached the age where she realizes I’m a ridiculous hypocrite. Half the time I say one thing and do another.

“Sorry, you can’t drink beer.”

“But how come?” you can?”

“Okay, now it’s time to go to bed.”

“But stay up For real leave!”

In other words, my niece is in the old age of ‘whataboutisms’. It’s an age we never really escape from. From schoolyard arguments to congressional debates, people are masters of whataboutisms — that’s when instead of answering a question or tackling a problem, someone accuses the rival of the same thing or something. If someone says, “People kill so often in the name of religion,” the whataboutism would be, “Yeah, but Stalinism and Nazism killed just as many.” If Hannah says, “Valleys is always wrong,” a whataboutism would be, “Well, Hannah, didn’t you cheat on your ex with your coworker?”

Whataboutism is deflection, obscuration and distraction. It is considered an informal logical fallacy – an incorrect way of debating that does not act in truth, but rather ad hominem attacks. But how true is this actually? is whataboutism always a bad argument?

Red herrings and dead cats

The big problem with whataboutism is that it doesn’t address the actual problem. It raises tangential and often irrelevant issues that are deliberately meant to distract from the argument – a red herring.

A whataboutism is almost always an emotionally charged and personal attack. As such, it’s designed to divert attention from the problem to something much safer, ignoring the original (and often inconvenient) question. When we accuse Hannah (above) of having her affair, we make it over hair and hair wrongdoing, and not the question of the morality of deceit.

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In 2013, the future Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, wrote an article describing a “dead cat” strategy of politics. The idea is to imagine a family screaming and yelling over a fight that lasted for years. Then Grandpa enters and throws a huge, mangy and very dead cat on the table. Suddenly the argument is forgotten. The dead cat is all the family talks about. Johnson’s point was that if you present the public with one flashy, ridiculous, or outrageous news story, they forget about this much more difficult news altogether. It’s something that media strategists and spin doctors exploit every day – it’s when the whataboutism boils down to “Oh, look there!”

Good and bad whataboutism

Philosophers, logicians and debaters often dislike whataboutisms because they resemble ad hominem attacks. This is where a speaker attacks the person or source of an argument rather than the argument itself. If China Daily published a piece saying, “China is the best at table tennis,” the ad hominem would be, “You’d say you’re owned by the Chinese government.” In terms of whataboutism, asking about Hannah’s affair is a personal attack on her rather than the immorality of polyamory. It is a fair criticism of whataboutisms.

But whataboutism doesn’t always have to be a logical fallacy. When done right, it can be a legitimate way to argue. Here are three ways they can be used:

Point out inconsistency in an argument. If someone says, “Taking in Syrian refugees is wrong”, and someone says “what about” with “so why do you think it’s okay to take in Ukrainian refugees?”, that is a legitimate counterpoint and argument. It points to an error or at least a shortcoming that needs to be addressed. It may of course be that the inconsistency of whataboutism can be tackled, but that is precisely the point of a rational, good debate.

Emphasize common factors. Returning to our first example of religious and atheistic evil, whataboutism may even have a function of forcing the speakers to recognize a common, underlying factor on both sides of the argument. (In the above examples, an unwavering, dogmatic adherence to an ideology may sometimes come at the expense of human life.) It’s a good way to identify the philosophically relevant factors of an argument.

Clarify positions. In the case of cheating on Hannah, whataboutism can help clarify and establish our position on things. If Hannah tries to defend her infidelity (saying, for example, that her husband was constantly absent), it means she can broaden her stance on the morality of cheating. She may grow up and bend in her rigor to something like “cheating is wrong unless X or Y.” When we address a person about inconsistency, it invites them to reconsider their beliefs.

There is a time and a place for whataboutism. This is not to say that they are always good arguments or useful devices, but we can certainly see how they can be put to good use. We might even have to do it Lake whataboutism.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He has a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini-philosophy: a small book with big ideas.




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