Whataboutism And Its Victims

Patrick De Klotz

Patrick De Klotz

Dad, Husband, Former USDOJ Attorney, Current Business Attorney, Gonzaga Alum, GWU Law Alum. Portland, OR.

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  1. Avatar LeeEsq
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    The original and classic Soviet whataboutism was “what about the African-Americans in the South?” when every anybody pointed out their persecution of Soviet Jews.Report

  2. Avatar Em Carpenter
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    I agree that “whataboutism” does not necessarily do anything to prove the validity of the argument of the person who uses it.
    Honestly when I use it, it’s to point out that the person I’m debating doesn’t really hold the belief or conviction he or she is espousing. It’s useful for pointing out disingenuous debate. “You don’t really have a problem with the thing that X did, you only have a problem with X.”
    Another example: After Parkland, people were “disgusted” by gun control advocates “trotting out” the families of the dead “to score political points”.
    Cut to Donald Trump’s “angel families” press conference, with the relatives of people killed by illegal immigrants. That was no problem for many of the same people who thought the pro-gun control people were ghoulish.
    So, they don’t really have any convictions against using the families of the dead to bolster an argument. It’s just an avenue of attack.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Em Carpenter
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      You are right, it is hypocrisy all the way done. But! Noting that, politics isn’t a debate club event, it is vicious, a no holds barred fight for control. If either side can get away with it in the quest for power, then they would be fools not to use it.

      And for the record, I would say in both of your examples that the practitioners, left and right, believe what they are preaching and feel that there is a moral imperative to use this tool at this time.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Em Carpenter
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      I’d warn you against the fallacy of composition, though. In an online debate, you could have 30% of the righties complaining about the Parkland kids, and then 30% of them defending the “angel families” strategy. It’s not necessarily the same people, though (although some people may be in both groups).Report

      • Avatar pillsy in reply to Pinky
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        They may not be the same people, but many of them believe that letting that kind of tactic slide from members of their own coalition is less bad than having a big intra-party fight over it.

        Are they wrong? Dunno.

        Of course, that’s not the only thing that could be happening, which is why the argument from silence is usually a super-weak argument. A lot of the time people fail to comment on a given controversy because they don’t even know about it.Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to pillsy
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          For the record, I think the intra party fights we Dems have over Franken or Bill C are valuable, even if they are painful.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            I agree.

            But there’s not actually an obvious one size fits all answer.

            Sometimes a politician does something controversial and it’s controversial because it’s super bad, and sometimes it’s controversial because the opposition is willing to grasp any straw, but it’s frequently because it’s kinda bad but not super bad.Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chip Daniels
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            We are about to have a big inter party fight over Ilhan Omar and other new Representstives who do not like Israel. They are going to continue to make some rather uncareful statemrnts. Some will criticize, others will defend. The hope is to avoid something like what Labour is going through regards to anti-Senitism.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            I have mixed feelings about this.

            On the one hand I think that the Omar comments aren’t that bad; her apology sufficed for the first set and the second set don’t even require that.

            On the other hand the fact that we’re having this kind of fight now means we’re more likely not to wind up where Labour is in 20 years.

            The crazy thing to me is that about 15 years ago, Jim Moran (a Dem representing Virginia’s 8th district) made much worse comments [1], was rightly condemned for them, apologized, and that was pretty much that.

            My parents would call me before every election to complain about how their Congressman was an anti-semite… before going to vote for him again.

            [1] As quoted on his Wiki page:

            it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should.

            Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chip Daniels
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            There were different demographics 15 years ago because Muslim-Americans are generally still Republican then. This was when Bush Jr. and Rove really wanted to make the Republicans more multi-cultural and less white nationalist. After a decade or so of Republicans settling on the white nationalist platform, we have different demographics.

            So most Jewish Americans are Democratic and tend to be at least somewhat fond of Israel. However, most Muslim Americans are now Democratic and they have entirely different and often extremely hostile opinions of Israel. You also growing leftist-activist push in the Democratic Party that tends to code Israel as white and hate it too. People who are critical or hate Israel to the core believe this is the perfect time to change the former consensus over Israel in American foreign policy and opinion. Its not likely to change.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            How is this argument going to be dealt with in the coming months: “Maybe it just comes across as hostile because it’s not the enthusiastic millennialism of the American Evangelicals”

            Because I imagine that that argument is going to be given as well as arguments that First World Countries need to be held to the same Progressive First World Standards as Europe and North America.

            And if the only pro-Israel forces are Jewish Democrats and Hayseeds, I don’t know that these arguments will be able to be dismissed with accusations of anti-Semitism.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Most of the time the fights over anti-semitism are only tangentially related to the actual actions taken by the State of Israel (or criticism of same) and focus on people arguing about why Israel has the support of American politicians.

            No matter what you think of the merit of individual allegations, they’re all tied up in a debate that is actually kind of pointless.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Eh, I imagine that we’ll hear a lot about “Palestinians” in the coming weeks and months. Here’s an article from yesterday, for example.

            The clickbaity headline: Ilhan Omar Has a Less Bigoted Position on Israel Than Almost All of Her Colleagues

            The pointless debate is going to heat up. The more that BDS gets popular on college campuses, the more pointed the debate is going to get.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            I’m not following your argument.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            The argument that you wave away is going to get worse in the days to come.

            The fact that the argument is pointless is not an interesting fact to the people who you will be arguing against.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Who do you think the people I’m arguing against are?

            And which argument do you think I’m saying is pointless?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Right now? You’re arguing against me. This is just a dry run, though.

            In the future, you’ll be arguing against people who feel things very, very strongly.

            I think the argument you’re saying is pointless is the one over why American politicians support Israel.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            OK. So the reason I think the argument is pointless is that it doesn’t actually get you closer to solving the problem.

            This is very different, IMO, from talking about the Palestinians and the reprehensible way Israel treats them. I don’t think that is a pointless conversation at all.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            it doesn’t actually get you closer to solving the problem.

            If you think that the problem is X and they think the problem is Y and they come up with a way to solve Y, looking and saying “this doesn’t solve the problem” is… well. You’ve got two different things going on.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Well the thing is I think the problem is X, and they say they think the problem is X, so if they actually think the problem is Y, it seems like there’s something else going on here.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Oh, yes. And when they fix the problem of Y and the Xers are stuck there saying “but I thought that X was the problem”, there will be a great deal of slowly dawning horror.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            If I am parsing your argument right it seems like I should conclude that people who purport to be concerned about the actions taken by the State of Israel are actually just using those actions as a pretext to spread conspiracy theories.

            This strikes me as (a) wildly incorrect, and (b) the exact opposite of what I thought you were arguing.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            that people who purport to be concerned about the actions taken by the State of Israel are actually just using those actions as a pretext to spread conspiracy theories.

            No, that’s not my argument. It has nothing to do with conspiracy theories.

            I’d tie it closer to something that Lee said above: You also growing leftist-activist push in the Democratic Party that tends to code Israel as white and hate it too.

            The whiter that Israel gets, the more it becomes a White Ethnostate in one of the brownest parts of the world.

            And it is 2019.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            OK let’s say I agree with what @LeeEsq is saying. I’m not sure I do but I’m not sure I don’t.[1]

            That construction of the problem doesn’t make the argument over why Congress votes the way it does any less pointless. Indeed, if you actually take that perspective, there’s no mystery at all: Congress voted for some racist shit, which they do all the time.

            [1] Whether it’s a trend is a separate matter. Whatever you have to say about the claim that Zionism is racism, it’s not new.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            It used to be obviously false among a critical mass (a bipartisan one, even!).

            It is now no longer obviously false among “the left”.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            I think you’re overestimating the degree to which any of this is a change on the Left.

            I think you think I’m underestimating the degree to which any of this is a change on the Left.

            You know how people are complaining about Corbyn and Labour, and worrying about how the Democratic Party may be going the same route? I have many uncomplimentary things to say about Corbyn, but one of the first is he’s old as shit and is clinging to bullshit from the ’80s.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Oh, I think that comparisons to Corbyn are specious.

            But Omar is young.
            And Pelosi is old.Report

          • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Jaybird: The whiter that Israel gets, the more it becomes a White Ethnostate in one of the brownest parts of the world.

            White? I thought it was mostly populated with people the Arabs kicked out after Israel became a state. Tens of thousands of European Jews created it after the holocaust but then almost a million Arabic Jews came.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            Please understand that my statement was made in the context of Lee’s statement (immediately above the part that you quoted) and quoting it without also quoting Lee’s statement is to remove some pretty important context.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Chip Daniels
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            But Omar is young.
            And Pelosi is old.

            But Pelosi is competent.
            And Omar has no idea what the hell she’s doing.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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            If you believe that Omar doesn’t know what she’s doing because Pelosi said so, go back and remember how competent Pelosi happens to be.Report

            • Avatar pillsy in reply to Jaybird
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              Oh no I’m not basing my assessment on what Pelosi said. I’m basing this on Omar meticulously stepping on every rake she can find.

              Sure it attracts attention, but, pace Dark Matter, I don’t think she’s attracting the kind of attention that is going to endear her to normie Democrats, and seems to be antagonizing her actual constituents.

              As for her anti-semitism but the trajectory has been from saying stuff that was, IMO, “WTF holy shit!” to “Pretty bad!” to “Sorta bad if you kind of squint.”

              Maybe she’s learning to hide it better. Maybe she’s learning that she believed a lot of bigoted shit that’s prevalent on the Leftward fringes without recognizing how bad it is. Maybe it’s a mix.

              Still, she has needed to hide it.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to pillsy
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                …prevalent on the Leftward fringes…

                Some of her formative years were spent in an Arabic refugee camp.

                Those camps can have a level of anti-semitism that far exceeds what we have here short of a Nazi rally. From her point of view part of what she’s doing is speaking the truth to power.

                As for it costing her the job or Dem votes, she comes from a heavy Arabic district and the Dems’ couldn’t even mention her by name or even talk about anti-semitism without cloaking that with tons of other issues in their “condemnation”.

                We may be seeing a shift where the Dems become the party of anti-semitism.Report

          • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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            And Omar has no idea what the hell she’s doing.

            She’s saying things to gain attention, sort of like how Trump does. That first anti-semitic statement was from… 2012? And now she’s had two more in just a few months?

            And yes, I’m sure she (like Trump) really does believe in the evil [category], and she’s practicing identity politics.

            So yes, she really is an anti-semite, but she’s smart enough to know where the lines are drawn and how close she can get to them, and she’s doing this deliberately.Report

            • Avatar pillsy in reply to Dark Matter
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              If she knows where the lines are I think she wouldn’t be constantly crossing them and having to walk it back and apologize. I don’t know how much of the anti-semitism is committed vs. casual reflection of ambient anti-semitism, but I really do think she’s a lousy politician.

              She’ll probably get a primary challenger now, and that primary challenger might well win.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to pillsy
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                It’s obvious that Ilan Omar was the result of conservatives spending years screeching about Sharia Law and Islamic Terror.
                Her constituents were so tired of being insulted and maligned they just figured screw it, and voted for the most Muslim candidate.

                So really, conservatives should do some soul searching and move towards the center.Report

        • Avatar Pinky in reply to pillsy
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          I’m not sure what to do with that comment. It’s true that sometimes people are deliberately hypocrites, or are unaware hypocrites, or believe that some battle isn’t worth fighting. All that is true. The point I was trying to raise is that the internet casts an illusion that you’re talking to a unified side when you’re really talking to people who may be broadly on the same side but differ greatly on particulars.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Pinky
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            I’m not sure what you should do with it either,.

            I do think that a lot of the whataboutism and accusations of hypocrisy and actual hypocrisy come because we’re trying to sort of manage our own fractious, messy coalitions and make tons of compromises to do so but are, at the same time, deathly afraid of admitting it. Admitting it will just cause so many headaches, after all.

            “Yes, those people are a bunch of weirdo extremists and also huge jerks, but we need their support to enact this more moderate policy I support, and I’m all for tossing them under the bus once we’re done!” is not the sort of thing you say if you want to win friends and influence people.Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to Pinky
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            But you’re emphasizing a really bad motivation for the seeming contradictions. I’m providing a morally neutral explanation. Does that mean that either of us is necessarily right? No. But I don’t see why I should admit to a problem that might not be so big, while ignoring an explanation that I think is bigger.

            We see our grandmother with a bruise on her arm. I say, we should get her a walker so she doesn’t fall down as often. You say, we should all just admit that nursing care workers sometimes hit their patients. Well, yeah, it does happen…but that’s a really dark place to go, and maybe nanna just needs a walker. And I really don’t care for the kinds of behaviours that fall within your “well some things you can’t avoid” parameters.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Pinky
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            For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’m offering a really bad motivation.

            Is it morally neutral?

            I think It depends on the circumstances.

            In order to effect political change you’re almost certainly going to need the cooperation of people who you don’t agree with that much, and also people who you think are jerks. But if you are too open about what you really think about them you won’t actually be able to have their cooperation.

            In contexts other than politics, not telling people that you think they’re huge jerks so you can cooperate with is generally called something like “politeness” or “professionalism”.

            (And yes, politeness and professionalism can definitely be taken too far and end up enabling bad and even abusive behavior. None of this is easy.)Report

  3. Avatar JoeSal
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    I think it is valuable to use ‘whataboutism’ when looking how ‘principles’ vary from social construct to social construct. It is a way to try and test whether the social constructs are consistent in any kind of social objective way.

    The one I have been thinking about the last few days is the social construct of ‘enforcement’ has been highly criticized for producing less than a hundred unarmed people being killed(shot), but if you look at the social construct of ‘healthcare’ abortion in particular, there are over 750,000 killings per year.

    The principle of ‘not killing’ doesn’t really transfer from construct to construct. Take the social construct of the armed forces, which doesn’t even kill as many as the healthcare construct, but has actual tasks of killing.

    I have a hard time looking at people who claim society is X or society should be Y. I haven’t found a case where the truth component of social objectivity has a resolved truth component. Therefore, I haven’t seen grounds to say the laws and standards are of whole cloth, nor that they ever were.

    If it were up to me I would wash everyones brain of the concept of a greater ‘society’ and make them resolve every bit of social objectivity as they attempt to re-build social constructs from the ground up. The social, and society folks are stealing a huge base when they form any social claim.Report

  4. Avatar atomickristin
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    Well, I’ll quibble with this post a bit because I find that many times what’s written off as “whataboutism” is really recalling events in order to shed light on a greater context that may have affected a person’s decision making.

    To give an example, one of the most disingenuous criticisms (to me) of Trump is “he’s a p–y grabber” because it ignores the greater context of Bill Clinton’s behavior (which, even just the proven things are problematic, let alone some other allegations) and Hillary Clinton’s defense of Bill’s behavior, and how neither of them have ever seemed at all remotely contrite for that. It matters. It affects people’s decisions and it SHOULD affect people’s decisions. There wasn’t a choice between Donald Trump and a choirgirl, there was a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and bringing up what happened in the past with Bill in the light of that, is NOT just “whataboutism”. It’s hard to look at Trump and think “My God he called a woman Miss Piggy” and be outraged about that, when we all know that Monica Lewinsky was called that type of thing and far worse in the media for decades and the Clintons and those surrounding them did not discourage that and even encouraged it.

    And that’s just one small and minor example of the type of fair criticism I’ve seen written off as whataboutism. Sometimes it’s important to bring up that the other side has behaved badly in the past to shed light on what is happening in the present.

    I just see a lot of people crying “whataboutism” over things that are contextually relevant and important in the decisionmaking process, to such extent I’ve started to wonder if it’s even a helpful concept any more.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to atomickristin
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      I think there is a key difference here in how the term is used. To use your example some people might throw out the clinton hx as a reason to ignore Trumps. The whataboutism is used to defang very appropriate criticism of trump to ease his election or sooth the cognitive dissonance of the trump voter who also hates his p***y grabbing. It’s fine to look at the context but if the only reason to look at context is to help you ignore that which you fear to accept that is toxic and leads to the race to the bottom in morals. So many of the people who were presented with trumps myriad corruptions or offenses just wanted to avoid seeing them, so they tossed a whataboutism grenade to give themselves cover.

      Context is fine unless it’s just an excuse to avoid facts you don’t want to accept. And of course whataboutism is often just a way of arguing to attack the enemy, not to listen.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to atomickristin
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      The missing word here is “also”.

      As in, if someone accuses Trump of harassment and you respond Clinton, what you’re saying is Clinton was ALSO, that is you admit the charge.

      Which then leads you to a place where, if only one of these guys is currently asking for a vote, you are left to explain why you would vote for them.

      Is ” I won’t vote for Kamala Harris because of Bill Clinton” really a persuasive argument?Report

  5. Avatar Stillwater
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    Whataboutism can play both ways. The most common instance is when your interlocutor responds to a criticism of his teammate by asking what about your teammate who did the same things . On the surface, the exercise is supposed to expose a self-serving, partisan based hypocrisy which undermines a person’s credibility. At a deeper level, tho, the purpose is to undermine any shared conception of right and wrong, or fact and fiction, reducing people’s priors to instruments of (partisan) political power.

    But I recall the technique being used repeatedly against Noam Chomsky back when he wrote negative critiques of US foreign policy. “What about the Soviets?” people would ask. “They’re worse and yet you never criticize them.” The idea, again, was to imply that the speaker’s priors and purpose, revealed by the focus of his or her critique, were non-neutral, but instead were expressed in service to, and perhaps even as a result of, ideological commitments flowing from institutional power-seeking. Chomsky always answered these types of queries the same way: that as a citizen of the US he could influence the policies and actions of his own country more than another.

    Whataboutism as it’s currently practiced seems to me to have developed out of a class of pundits and social policy analysts who view themselves as above the fray, folks who believe they uniquely situated to view the partisan political squabbles which define the trenches with a detached objectivity, and from that position *observe* that in fact, both sides do what they each accuse the other of doing. Whataboutism as practiced by these above-the-fray, “bothsidesdoit” folks wasn’t used to undermine the legitimacy of a particular partisan claim, but to undermine the legitimacy of partisan politics in general. In effect, it was to reduce partisan politics to substance free emotional commitments to rhetoric devoid of policy significance. And the effort was pretty successful. The current partisan weaponization of “whataboutism merely picks up where the higher minded bothsidesdoitism left off: by reducing political statements critical of the speakers opponent, regardless of their truth, to an emotion devoid of external content.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Stillwater
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      If you have to be consistent in your ethics but your opponents don’t, you’re at a disadvantage in the short term (maybe in the mid term and long term).

      If you have to be consistent in your metaethics but your opponents don’t, you’re at a disadvantage in the mid term (maybe in the long term).

      If you have to be consistent in your metametaethics but your opponents dont…Report

  6. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    I believe the official term is “Red Herring”, which has become the new darling of folks unable to engage an argument since the previous preferred method, the “Ad Hominem” is no longer effective.Report

  7. Avatar Pinky
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    There is one valid use of a “whatabout”, and that’s in response to an accusation that something is unprecedented. That accusation can be implied, but it’s got to be there. The problem is that sometimes it’s unclear.

    “Roy Moore is gross.”
    “Anthony Weiner is gross.”

    Is that a valid reply? If the first statement meant “Republicans vote for people that Democrats never would support”, then it is. If the first statement meant “Roy Moore is gross”, then it’s not. But what if the first statement meant “Republicans vote for gross people”? Is that an implied comparison? And remember, people can misunderstand even explicit arguments online; once you start making implicit ones, you’ve got no right to expect the other guy to follow it.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Pinky
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      Weiner’s only election after his grossness was revealed was a mayoral primary in which he got 4.9% of the vote. After his revelations, Moore got 48% of the vote for senator.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    Since I’m a cynic, I think that there are a lot of cherished myths that the media elite and maybe many others in the professional class hold dear that turn out not to be true. Grappling with the fact that these aren’t true turns out to induce the same amount of madness as staring at Cthulu so people at places like the Atlantic are doing their best to pretend they were true and we can go back to the old ways.

    There is a certain kind of journalist, normally at an organization like the Atlantic that prides itself as being above the fray, that likes to think all policy and democracy revolves around grand and civil debates of ideas and that every election turns the American public into a blank state that is waiting to be convinced. This is a very comforting myth. It also seems to be absolutely false.

    A lot of politics and democracy is tribal and we are increasingly dealing with sides that really dislike each other and think their opponents act in constant bad faith. I admit to these feelings. I see a lot of “debate” from the right-wing and libertarians to be in bad faith. At best a lot of it is concern trolling.

    There is a lot of mourning in the press about the death of the “golden age of bipartisanship” but I wonder if that was ever true and/or what conditions made it true. Rick Perlstein’s books adeptly show how the Eisenhower moderates were being attacked since Day One by a right-wing upstart movement within the GOP. Every one likes to point out that Nixon passed the EPA but he was hemmed by a Democratic Congress that would have overruled his veto. He also worked effectively to kill a universal pre-K bill because the Evangelicals hated it.

    We have all these comforting myths about the power of debate and rhetoric that I’m not convinced are true.Report

  9. Avatar DensityDuck
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    An impassioned defense of the Fallacy Fallacy, where one claims that because another’s argument is similar to a common fallacy, it therefore is an example of that fallacy, and thus need not be discussed further.

    I mean, yes, tu quoque is a thing, congratulations on identifying it, but not every “you say X about Y because Z, but you said not-X about P, and Z certainly applies to P” is not immediately a fallacious argument. It’s a request for you to explain (or, perhaps, explore) your reasoning further.Report

  10. Avatar Jaybird
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    A few months back, there was an exchange that I saw on twitter that positively floored me. A person (a woman, if that’s relevant) posted something or other about a particularly misogynistic attack on a woman involving a Muslim perpetrator.

    One of the first responses was someone else (a guy, if that’s relevant) explaining that this sort of thing happens all the time with White perps.

    It was the weirdest exchange.

    The exchange only made sense if you saw it as two people jockeying for the positional good of the moral high ground.Report

  11. Avatar KenB
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    A complication here is that when the accusation is being leveled by someone on team A against someone on team B, there’s very often an implicit additional argument beyond the one on the surface, suggesting that this bad action is typical of team B and is additional evidence of why team A is better. In that context, pointing out equivalent behavior on team A is a reasonable response (though in practice that’s just a segue to arguing about the relative level of prominence of the bad actors on each side).Report

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