"Whataboutism:" Some Thoughts

In discussions of the president’s astonishing incompetence and morally outrageous venality, people supportive of the president typically engage in what’s been called “whataboutism.” This term describes the conversational subject-changing move that diverts discussion to other figures: “Well, what about Obama?” “What about Hillary Clinton?”

I’ve encountered “whataboutism” when I’ve had discussions with people about the purposeful spread of misinformation by Fox News, I’ve often been asked, “what about the other side?” Or, “why don’t you say anything about CNN?” “Whataboutism” refers to the failure of some people to face up to certain alarming realities by more or less changing the subject.

So, some thoughts.

First, it is intellectually lazy. It is a failure to stay with the topic of discussion. As a scholar I’ve been trained to identify a question and drill down on it, turning it over and examining it from various angles. “Whataboutism” manifests an inability to stay with the question. It is intellectually lazy because it manifests a lack of ability and stamina to endure the process of critical reflection.

Second, it is petulant. It is a bizarre way of participating in a conversation by insisting or demanding that everyone engage in a different conversation. “You are talking about topic A, but what about topic D? You haven’t said anything about topic D.” Now, here’s the thing, especially about online discussions: they are elective. No one is forced to participate in them. So, anyone who wants to talk about topic D can do that with someone else.

I have repeatedly pointed out the toxic character of Fox News because I see the corrosive effects of its propaganda and misinformation in my culture. I am often asked, “why don’t you say something about CNN?” Or, when I criticize the president, I hear, “why don’t you criticize Obama?”

These are petulant questions that cannot be answered. I can explain why I say what I say, but I cannot explain what I don’t say. I have no reasons why I don’t write about the growth of the HVAC industry, mortgage rates, cell division, plant life in Western Canada or social developments in 19th century Australia. If I am asked why I don’t write about these topics, I don’t have a reason, and I regard such questions as either ignorant or petulant.

Third, “whataboutism” prefers irrelevance. The current president is in charge of the executive branch of the federal government and citizens are wise to scrutinize his conduct. To demand that we change the subject to analyze someone else like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is to call for an irrelevant conversation. They are private citizens who are not the president of the United States.

An analogy: if we’re on a bus with a stone drunk driver whose erratic steering causes the bus to careen all over the road and someone points this out, it is irrelevant to call for a discussion of the previous driver.

Fourth, it ought to be added to the list of informal fallacies, for it violates logic. If I say, “Fox News is a propaganda outlet that spreads misinformation,” the “other side” is “Fox News is not a propaganda outlet that spreads misinformation.” That is a discussion that assesses the relative merits of Fox News. Or, if I say, “Donald Trump is incompetent and does not understand what the presidency entails,” the “other side” is “Donald Trump is competent and knows precisely what the presidency entails.” That is a discussion that assesses the relative merits of the president.

It is not the case that “the other side” of the first statement is, “CNN is also a propaganda outlet that spreads misinformation.” There is a world of assumptions that sees things this way. It is a separate question and a different discussion to analyze CNN, which is worthy of serious criticism, but for other reasons, in my opinion.

And it is not the case that “the other side” of the second statement is, “President Obama was also incompetent and did not understand what the presidency entails.” Again, that’s a separate question and a different discussion.

“Whataboutism” is not a fruitful way to participate in good conversation. It reveals a problematic association of one’s identity with the current president and with a media corporation.

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