Saturday, February 13, 2021

Yes, Whataboutism Can Be a Fallacy, But Not Always, and Even Then It Is Usually Quite Rare

"Physician, heal thyself." 
(Luke 4:23)

"Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, 
and not notice the log in your own eye?" 
(Matt. 7:3)

Yesterday the term "whataboutism" was trending on social media, because during the impeachment trial of Former President Donald Trump, Democrats were anticipating for Trump's lawyers to issue forth a series of whataboutisms in their response to the accusation that he incited an insurrection on the Capital Building. At the end of the day, Democrats felt vindicated, because while Trump's lawyers presented their evidence and pointed out the hypocrisy of his accusers, they in turn were believed  to have also committed the fallacy of whataboutism, which they thought invalidates all their arguments. But should they feel vindicated? I would say no, because whataboutisms when you think about it are very rare, and not as common as accusers would like to think.

Today, when someone is accused of whataboutism, it is usually because they respond to an accusation by pointing out a lie of their accuser, or the hypocrisy of their accuser, or the slander of their accuser. However, none of these instances are in fact whataboutisms. In order for a whataboutism that is a legitimate fallacy to be committed, someone would have to do something wrong that has been proven to be wrong, and when they are told they are wrong the person who did the wrong diverts away from the topic and points out something the one who called them out did wrong. In other words, it cannot be a mere accusation. There can be no question that the one being told they did wrong actually did wrong. There has to be pretty much unanimous consent that what they did was indeed wrong. And here's the kicker: even the one who did the wrong should know they did wrong, otherwise it can often be argued we are still at the accusation stage.

Believe it or not, it is not often that someone who does something wrong and acknowledges it diverts attention away from themselves and challenges the one who points the finger at them. But sometimes they do, and thus they would be committing the fallacy. However, these are usually people that commit crimes like known war crimes, terror and murder, though it could also be for something as insignificant as stealing a pen from someone's desk, or somewhat more serious as an addict lying about doing drugs, but in the overall scheme of things, it is a lot rarer than what most people think, though it surely does exist.

My primary problem with the accusation of whataboutism is when it is used against someone who is responding to a debatable issue or an accusation. When it is used like this, then it is only used to shut down any debate or response. It is a power move. This is intellectually and ethically a very weak and unfair use of logical principles, perhaps even a weaponizing use. It is as if the accuser or accusers think their personal judgments are sufficient to condemn someone else, whether they are an individual or group of people. Rather, when there is in fact still room for debate on an issue, or if there is room for doubting any accusation, then the motivations of the accuser could play a crucial role in determining whether the accusation is indeed true or motivated by something else, especially if they are trying to place themselves on a higher moral ground than the one they are accusing, which is why in these instances the use of whataboutism can be useful by the accused in pointing out the hypocrisy of the one making the accusation.

My intention was to write not more than five paragraphs on this issue and then move on to something else, but as I write this I realize that I could probably easily write a whole book on the subject, so I will just give my concluding remarks in a few more paragraphs before I spend too much time on this. My only intention in writing this is to help people think more clearly and honestly when they throw around words like "whataboutism", these days more often as a political weapon. 
Some thinkers would argue that to accuse someone of whataboutism is itself a whataboutism. There is truth to this, and it is something those who throw around the term should consider. For example, yesterday when news networks accused Trump's lawyer's of whataboutism, the fact that they dismissed the alleged whataboutisms by calling it a whataboutism makes them actually commit the fallacy of whataboutism, which leads to an endless circle of whataboutism accusations, and no one is held accountable. Furthermore, one should also be honest with themselves and remember that two wrongs don't make a right, so if someone points out your hypocrisy and you are indeed a hypocrite, you should own that just as much as the one who did the clearly wrong thing should acknowledge they did wrong before pointing fingers elsewhere.

Which leads to my final thoughts: never throw around the term "whataboutism" unless you know you have the moral high ground and are not a hypocrite, otherwise it is just pointless and the arguing goes in circles, perhaps rightly so. Therefore, when you think about it, the accusation of whataboutism should be an extremely rare thing.

Furthermore, remember that the word "wrong" could also be misapplied, since sometimes what is clearly wrong to one person, may in fact be right in the overall scheme of things, otherwise even someone like Jesus can be accused of a whataboutism in Luke 11:37-39:

"And as He spoke, a certain Pharisee asked Him to dine with him. So He went in and sat down to eat. When the Pharisee saw it, he marveled that He had not first washed before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, 'Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness.'"

My point in all this is, let's make the term "whataboutism" somewhere between rare and obsolete again. It really serves no good purpose except in legal matters and official debates.