“But but but… OBAMA!!!” “But but but… TRUMP!!!” “But but but… HILLARY!!!”. And a blast from our not-too-distant past, “But but but… BUSH!!!”
It’s called “whataboutism“, or what I coined as “relativism” before I learned the proper term, and it’s the trendy thing in political debate currently. It’s really nothing more than cheap deflection when arguing your side is difficult because you know deep down the truthful answers are inconvenient.
Huffington Post did a good write up on whataboutism, What Is ‘Whataboutism,’ And Why Is It Suddenly Everywhere?
What it means
Whataboutism refers to the practice of deflecting criticism by pointing to the misdeeds of others. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.”
Essentially, it’s an appeal to hypocrisy ― a logical fallacy also known as “tu quoque.” Instead of proving that your opponent’s claim is wrong on its face, whataboutism argues that it’s hypocritical of the opponent to make that claim at all. (Oh, you think I shouldn’t cheat on a test? What about that time you took a crib sheet into your calculus exam last year?!)
Is it really so hard to stay on topic??? God forbid we might have to actually… oh, I don’t know… adult-up and acknowledge the other side has a legitimate point. We might meet somewhere in the middle and accomplish something and move on with our lives, and we can’t have that, can we?
The Washington Post, in Why is whataboutism having a moment?, says…
Whataboutism is a cheap rhetorical tactic that relies on drawing false or sketchy comparisons between two things which may not actually be all that comparable.
Now, to be reasonable, there are times that it is legitimate to draw out a comparison. But like most anything else, in moderation, when used sparingly, and when used with intellectual honesty. And there’s the rub, our political debate has become so partisan and brain dead extreme that far too many people have taken this concept and abused it to the point of absurdity. It’s become a non-thinking argument…
Look! A squirrel!!!
There may be an issue with something Donald Trump did, or what Nancy Pelosi said, or Paul Ryan, or Chuck Schumer, and instead of discussing what was done or said, the common response is, “What about what <insert demon spawn from the other side here> did/said?”
Whataboutism, to be done with integrity and honesty, requires that one be very clear where they stand on the issue of the moment. Don’t just throw it out as a defense, because it’s most certainly not a defense. If you’re saying that ‘X’ is wrong (or right), then specifically say ‘X’ is wrong/right, then make your comparison and point out the hypocrisy of the consequences, or whatever.
Let’s take a recent example: Hillary Clinton’s email scandal where she used a private server for official business. There was great question as to whether this was ethical, let alone legal. People on the far right blasted her for it and called for her prosecution. Many people on the far left responded with, “But what about Colin Powell? He did it, too.”
Ok, so what? Seriously, so what? Are you saying it’s bad or wrong that Powell did it? If so, then you’re also admitting it was bad/wrong when Hillary did it, too, and she should indeed be prosecuted or suffer some other negative consequence. What, exactly, are you arguing here? Essentially, you don’t have the intellectual integrity to say so. You’re defecting because the truthful answer is inconvenient.
Or, were you saying that using a personal server is just fine, ethically as well as legally? Ok, fair enough, but say so. Defend it. And if that’s your position, why did you even bring up Powell to begin with? What purpose did that serve? This is why I see whataboutism deflection as people expressing former, rather than the latter. Without specifics to bolster your point, employing whataboutism is intellectually dishonest.
I suppose one could claim they’re just pointing out the disparity in consequences for doing the same thing, but that just brings us back to the action being bad/wrong. If the action were fine, you’d say so.
(Disclaimer: There are plenty of examples from the other side, too. Don’t get all indignant. I just picked one that was ready in my mind.)
Political debate in current society is no longer about being correct or accomplishing something, it’s about winning. Winning the argument. Making the other side look foolish. We don’t really care of anything gets done at all. And that’s really sad if you slow down and think about it.
Of course, I’m probably preaching to deaf ears. The people who need to hear this, who need to take it to heart, are the same people who will dismiss it and defend their cheap deflections as somehow being legitimate, the people who do it and abuse it the most, in other words. They’ll read this with a perplexed look on their face, maybe a raised eyebrow, then dismiss it in a huff. “That’s not me!”, they’ll tell themselves.
To paraphrase the comic strip Pogo… We have met the enemy, and he is us.