In Defense of ‘Whataboutism’

We live in bad and unprecedented times. 

But that is no reason for bad and unprecedented rules—especially when it comes to how we think and how we talk. In fact, because thought comes before action, it is more important than ever to think clearly, so that we can act prudently and decisively.

Case in point: “Whataboutism.”

We’ve all heard it: 

“Such-and-such is really terrible, and we must all condemn it.” 

“Sure,” someone might reply, “I agree it’s bad. But what about what happened with [some other event]. That was bad too.”

“Don’t give me your what-abouts! I’m talking about this, not that!”

Regardless of the merits of any particular argument, this high-handed dismissal or rejection of whataboutism is one of more disturbing phenomena of recent years. 

Any reasonable discussion or examination of an issue has to look at context, consider parallels, and check for consistency. Is this condemnation or policy recommendation we are hearing ad hoc, or has it been applied to similar situations in the past? This is an important thing to know. 

Comparisons are an established and legitimate way of making sense of what’s happening in the world. Imagine trying to explain a favorite book, or a recent movie you’ve watched, without being allowed to compare it to anything. 

The refusal to consider what-abouts amounts to saying, “I demand we focus exclusively on this thing I don’t like; and I don’t want to hear about this other thing that challenges my narrative!”

Of course, like anything, “what-abouts” can be misused to confuse or deceive. Mixing apples and oranges might be appropriate in some cases; but that’s not the same as mixing apples and orangutans. When someone offers a what-about that is completely out of line, the response should be to expose the equivalence as false—not to reject the very idea of making comparisons. 

That is why it is especially unfortunate when academic types deploy the term whataboutism in a way that is more dismissive than instructive. It’s not not so different from putting up a palm and telling someone to check his privilege. It is shutting down discussion, rather than fostering it.

That’s the real problem.

In our polarized time, ideologies on both sides want to emphasize the special iniquity of the opposition—and make its failures and bad actors uniquely worthy of reproach. But both Right and Left include crazy elements, and each side has an incentive to shine the spotlight on the worst elements across the aisle, while minimizing any talk about its own weirdos. 

This sort of slanted or dishonest rhetoric is to be expected from political hacks. It is, in fact, what they are paid to do. Unfortunately, it is getting harder to separate the hacks from the public officials who are supposed to represent all the people. With one political party about to assume undivided control of the federal government, we should be worried about this tendency to suppress a fair examination of extremism, or hypocrisy, on both sides. 

Equally disconcerting is the way the mainstream press and social media oligarchs are shutting down the possibility of making meaningful comparisons, by ruling certain viewpoints, and even individuals, out of bounds. Free discussion becomes impossible if some what-abouts are not permitted.  

As the country drifts even further apart, communication will continue to break down between the two major political camps. Increasingly, our nation is split between people who have different conceptions of human nature. At some point, it is almost impossible to talk to someone who seems to be living in an entirely different reality. (Or watching a different movie, as Scott Adams likes to say.) The possibility of a shared concern for the common good seems almost gone. 

Yet we need to be able to talk in a reasonable way to people who are not hard-core partisans. Our political situation is still very fluid; people are changing their minds, and their political opinions every week. (In my own family, a relative went from being apolitical his whole life, to becoming a hard-core Trumper. And I had nothing to do with it.) No one has ever had his mind changed, in the long run, by being bullied or deceived—or being told, “You aren’t allowed to make analogies!”

It’s also important for those of us in the same camp to remain open-minded with each other. To the degree that all of us are trying to figure things out and make sense of this tumultuous time, we can’t afford to declare that ordinary ways of thinking and arguing are simply out of order. 

Whataboutism is a valid, even necessary, tool for thinking and debating. It is one way that intelligent people think through events and arguments. Nowadays, we need every tool available for clear deliberation. 

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