Whataboutism And Its Victims
During the past few years, Americans have become more familiar with the term “whataboutism.” For those of us to whom the term was previously unknown, we had no doubt engaged with such arguments (and probably promoted them ourselves) to some degree. Whataboutism is a response to an accusation or argument that does not address the merits of the asserted position, but rather accuses the original speaker of hypocrisy in light of their views on either the same issue or a different one that is purportedly analogous. Often, though not necessarily, whataboutist responses involve analogies with exaggerated similarities. I think of it as kicking up dust. In politics, it is often used as an attempt to defend a policy that may be difficult to defend on the merits or to excuse bad behavior. Or sometimes it is just laziness. “What about Obama’s executive orders?” “What about Bush’s spending?” “What about Hillary’s collusion?” “What about Bill Clinton’s affairs?” “What about when [insert politician’s name from opposing political party] lied?” The actual use of “what about” is not required, (though whataboutism can be easier to spot when it is), and “what about” is also used outside of the context of comparisons. Ultimately, the use of the phrase “what about” is neither necessary or sufficient for whataboutism to exist.
In August of 2017, Dan Zak published a helpful piece in the Washington Post titled “Whataboutism: The Cold War Tactic, Thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump,” which serves as an example of the public’s growing awareness of this type of debating tactic. There, Mr. Zak provided some of the historical usage of the argument as a tool in politics, and pointed out that one way in which the Soviet Union has responded to outrage against its treatment of dissidents is to allege ill-treatment of others by the United States. Instead of substantively defending its actions, they argued that others have done this purportedly similar type of things, too. Mr. Zak’s article further highlights President Trump’s frequent adoption of this tactic:
“Putin’s a killer,” Bill O’Reilly said to Trump in a February interview.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump whatabouted. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think – our country’s so innocent?”
It is not just President Trump of course, though he is a frequent offender. Members of Congress engage in whataboutism, as do average citizens when arguing. But is it always wrong?
If the context is, “what does a healthy press look like in our society?”, a debate over how best to obtain similar press treatment for similarly situated political actors of different political parties is a worthwhile discussion. Providing various situational examples in order to try and identify a generally applicable standard may be wise. The straightforward defenses of whataboutism generally do not seem particularly well thought out, but there have been some nuanced pieces that are more interesting. For example, this piece in the New York Times that offered a limited defense is worth a read. But the examples here and in other defenses, the ones I find more persuasive anyway, do not really seem to involve whataboutism as defined above.
We should not try to excuse some wrong behavior or position by pointing to someone else’s wrong behavior.
First, it doesn’t really work logically. If someone asserts A is bad, and someone responds B is bad also, well, we’re still left with A being bad. Yes, I’m working with the assumption that there are such things as a real Right and a real Wrong. And that we ought to strive to do the right thing.
Where whataboutism is used in policy debates, often alleged victims of a wrong are used as a means to an end, and to make it even worse, that end may be unjust. “Who are you to judge me on issue X when you have an awful position on issue Y?” Or, another way, “you say X is bad, but what about your position on Y?” Now, perhaps the individual who responds with the whataboutist reply has a solid defense of X on the merits, and perhaps would have the right position. Or perhaps not. But we don’t find out. Instead, note what does happen: One person alleges that the position on X is not the right position. In response, the whataboutist seeks to shield that position by pointing to some other alleged wrong by another in an attempt to excuse one’s own alleged wrong. Instead of reasoning together to work toward “what is the right position here?” the argument turns instead to, in essence, “it doesn’t matter if my position on X is wrong because your position on Y is wrong, and that makes you worse.” It can easily become a race to the bottom in terms of what our laws ought to be, where we purport to justify our own wrong positions by alleging “well, at least I’m not so bad as him.” And in such cases, we forget that we are not the real victims; those individuals impacted by the policies are. And we use those who we think are victims of one alleged wrong as a mere means to an end.
A similar race to the bottom happens in our politics when we evaluate whether certain wrong actions by public servants are worthy of some form of censure. It may be relevant to think about “how do we usually treat offenses like this?” But when it is “I will defend this person because they are on my side and I can find one example of an arguably comparable situation where the person wasn’t ousted even though it was egregious, and they were of the other party,” it sets in motion the erasure of all moral standards in public life and the destruction of society’s ability to function. We can almost always find someone of an opposing political faction who got away with some arguably analogous behavior. Does that mean that one’s own side will forever be immune from claims that such behavior is disqualifying? And if so, I suppose the other side is immune too? Whataboutism knows no party, after all. And what of those who aren’t on either side, but just want what’s right to happen? Everyone suffers, regardless of whether they have played a role in the elimination of standards.
I have little doubt that I have engaged in some form of whataboutism in situations like those that I condemn here. Someone can probably find something (or perhaps many things) I’ve written somewhere which highlights the very behavior I’m suggesting is a bad form of argument that does not do justice to alleged victims in our political arguments. But that wouldn’t make my argument wrong; it would mean I’m a flawed person. Which is true.
But I should try to do better, as we all should.