Whataboutism

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Whataboutism is an umbrella term for a collection of rhetorical tools and fallacies used to respond to a criticism with a counter accusation presented in the form of a question.

Ad Hominem fallacies are often used in a Whataboutism. The general tactic is to attempt to refute a criticism by attacking something about the person making the criticism. If a group is the target, the this would be the Genetic Fallacy. The general form of the Whataboutism Ad Hominem is:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A makes critical claim X about Person/Group B doing or claiming Y.

Premise 2: B asks, “what about A doing, being, or claiming Z?”

Conclusion: Therefore, X is false.

 

This reasoning is flawed because attacking something about the source of a criticism does not refute the criticism.

Probably the most common Whataboutism fallacy is a version of the Ad Hominem Tu Quoque. Presented as a Whataboutism it has this form:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A makes critical claim X about Person/Group B doing or claiming Y.

Premise 2: B asks, “what about A doing or claiming Y?”

Conclusion: Therefore, X is false.

 

Another variant has this form:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A accuses Person/Group B of doing or claiming Y.

Premise 2: B asks, “what about the accusation that A did or claimed Y?”

Conclusion: Therefore, B did not do Y (or B was not wrong in doing Y).

 

This is fallacious because a person’s inconsistency in their claims or between their actions and claims does not prove any specific claim they make is false. This Whataboutism can have considerable psychological force especially when the target audience already dislikes the target of the fallacy. For example, Democrats might find the use of this Whataboutism on a hated Republican by a fellow Democrat very appealing.

The Common Practice fallacy can also be used in Whataboutism. Used in this manner, it has the following general form:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A makes critical claim X about Person/Group B doing Y.

Premise 2: B asks, “what about A doing Y?”

Premise 3: Y is commonly done (both A and B do Y)

Conclusion: X is not wrong/correct/justified/etc.

 

This is fallacious for the same reason that the standard Appeal to Common practice is fallacious. Concisely put, it does not follow that a practice is correct just because it is commonly done.

False Equivalency is also commonly used in Whataboutism. If the target of the Whataboutism has not done or said anything equivalent, then a bad faith solution is to find something they have done or said and draw a False Equivalence. The use of a Straw Man or simple lying are also options that can replace a False Equivalence. One version is to use a False Equivalency and Common Practice together:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A makes critical claim X about Person/Group B doing Y.

Premise 2: B asks, “what about A doing Z which is just as bad as Y?” (When Y and Z are not equivalent).

Premise 3: Y is commonly done (both A and B do Y).

Conclusion: X is not wrong/correct/justified/etc.

 

The False Equivalency can also be used in conjunction with the Two Bad variant of Two Wrongs:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A makes critical claim X about Person/Group B doing Y.

Premise 2: B asks, “what about A doing Z which is just as bad as Y?” (When Y and Z are not equivalent).

Conclusion: X is not wrong/correct/justified/etc.

 

Two Bad can also be used on its own, without the False Equivalence. In this case, Y and Z would actually be equivalent.

Whataboutism can also use (or be) a Red Herring to distract attention from the original issue:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A makes critical claim X about Person/Group B doing or claiming Y.

Premise 2: B asks, “what about A doing or claiming Y?” (When this is not relevant to the issue).

Conclusion: X has been refuted or X should be ignored.

 

As with a standard Red Herring, distracting attention from the original issue does not resolve it. This tactic can be very effective when the target audience dislikes or hates the target.

The above discussion is not exhaustive, there are other ways to engage in a Whataboutism.

While Whataboutism is fallacious, this does not entail that all comparisons that resemble Whataboutism are. When comparing two things (people, political parties, laws, whatever) then it is relevant to consider the flaws of both. For example, if the issue is whether to vote for candidate Joe or Don, then it is reasonable to consider the flaws of both Joe and Don 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 asking about 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 Joe is accused of punching a person and it is shown that this was because Don tried to kill Joe, then that would be relevant to assessing the ethics of Joe’s action. But, if Joe assaulted women and Don assaulted women, asking about Joe in a Whataboutism to defend Don would be an error in logic.

 

Defense: As a general defense, you should be on guard against the use of “what about” and similar phrases. While not always used in this fallacy, they are indicators. For the specific versions of Whataboutism, the defenses are the same as the more general fallacies. For example, if someone is using an Ad Hominem Tu Quoque, then you should remember that an inconsistency between a person’s actions and their claim does not show that their claim must be false.

You should also be on guard against mistaking something that merely looks like a Whataboutism for a Whataboutism. In some contexts, it can be relevant and non-fallacious to ask “what about X” when engaged in a comparison. For example, in an election in which you must choose between the Democrat and the Republican, then making good faith comparisons to determine which is worse would be reasonable.

 

Example #1

Deana: “The Russians were wrong to invade Ukraine. They have no moral justification for it.”

Tucker: “Yes, but what about when the United States invaded Mexico? Here in New Mexico we are living in what was, well, once just part of Mexico.”

 

Example #2

Bill: “Your Republican candidate, Smith, has numerous credible allegations of sexual assault, embezzlement, and bank fraud against her. She should be in jail and not in office.”

Tucker: “Buttery Males!”

Bill: “What?”

Tucker: “Sorry, habit. What I meant to say is what about your Democratic candidate, Jones? What about the allegations against them? People are saying they are groomers.”

Bill: “Yeah, you are saying that. Got any evidence?”

Tucker: “Lots of people are saying it. Look, I am just asking questions, like what about Jones being a pedophile?”

 

Example #3

Tucker: “Your Democratic candidate, Smith, has numerous credible allegations of sexual assault, embezzlement, and bank fraud against her. She should be in jail and not in office.”

Bill: “What about your Republican candidate, Jones? What about the allegations against them? People are saying they are racists.”

Tucker: “Yeah, you are saying that. Got any evidence?”

Bill: “Lots of people are saying it. Look, I am just asking questions, like what about Jones being a racist?”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More

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