Whataboutism

While Whataboutism has long served as a tool for Soviet (and now Russian) propagandists, it has now become entrenched in American political discourse. It is, as noted by comedian John Oliver, a beloved tool of Fox News and President Trump.

Whataboutism is a variant of the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In the standard tu quoque fallacy it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

 

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite, but this does not prove his claims are false. For those noting the similarity to the Wikipedia entry on this fallacy, you will note that the citation for the form and example is to my work.

As would be expected, while the Russians used this tactic against the West, Americans use it against each other along political lines. For example, a Republican might “defend” Roy Moore by saying “what about Harvey Weinstein?” A Democrat might do the reverse. I mention that Democrats can use this in anticipation of comments to the effect of “what about Democrats using whataboutism?” People are, of course, free to use Bill Clinton in the example, if they prefer.  To return to the subject, the “reasoning” in both cases would be fallacious as is evident when the “logic” is laid bare:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, A did not do X.

 

Obviously enough, whether C did X is irrelevant to whether or not it is true that A did X.

 

Alternatively:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, it is not wrong that A did X.

 

Clearly, even if C did X it does not follow that A doing X was not wrong. This sort of “reasoning” can also be seen as a variant on the classic appeal to common practice fallacy. This fallacy has the following structure:

 

Premise 1. X is a common action.

Conlcusion. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most people do X is used as “evidence” to support the action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable. In the case of whataboutism, the structure would be like this:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  X done by your side?

Premises 3. So, X is commonly done/we both do X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

It is also common for the tactic of false equivalency to be used in whataboutism. In the form above, the X of premise 1 would not be the moral equivalent of the X of premise 2. In fact, the form should be modified to account for the use of false equivalency:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  Y, which I say is just as bad as X, done by your side?

Premises 3. So, things just as bad as X are commonly done/we both do things as bad as X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

This would be a not-uncommon double fallacy. In this case not only is the comparison between X and Y a false one, even if they were equivalent the fact that both sides do things that are equally bad would still not support the conclusion. Obviously enough, you should not accept this sort of reasoning—especially when it is being used to “support” a conclusion that is appealing.

Whataboutism can also be employed as a tool for creating a red herring. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

 

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In the case of a whataboutism, the structure would be as follows:

 

  1. Topic A, my side doing X, is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced: whatabout X done by the other side?
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In closing, it should be noting that if two sides are being compared, then it is obviously relevant to consider the flaws of both sides. For example, if the issue is whether to vote for candidate A or B, then it is reasonable to consider the flaws of both A and B in comparison. However, the flaws of A do not show that B does not have flaws and vice versa. Also, if the issue being discussed is the bad action of A, then bringing up B’s bad action does nothing to mitigate the badness of A’s action. Unless, of course, A had to take a seemingly bad action to protect themselves from B’s unwarranted bad action. For example, if A is accused of punching a person and it is shown that this was because B tried to kill A, then that would obviously be relevant to assessing the ethics of A’s action. But, if A assaulted women and B assaulted women, then bringing up B in a whataboutism to defend A would be an error in logic. Both would be bad.

As far as why you should be worried about whataboutism, the obvious reason is that it is a corrosive that eats at the very structure of truth and morality. While it is a tempting tool to deploy against one’s hated enemies (such as fellow Americans), it is not a precise weapon—each public use splashes the body of society with vile acid.

 

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