“But you did it first!”: A defense of the whataboutism
- A whataboutism occurs when someone in an argument opts to avoid the issue or question at hand and instead accuses their opponent of being a hypocrite.
- The whataboutism is considered an informal logical fallacy: It's a bad argument because it distracts from the issue and makes an ad hominem attack.
- But there are good and bad kinds of whataboutism. Here we explore three ways it could be used well.
My niece has reached the age where she’s realized that I’m a ridiculous hypocrite. Half of the time I’ll say one thing and do another.
“Sorry, you can’t drink beer.”
“But how come you can?”
“Right, it’s time for bed now.”
“But you stay up really late!”
In other words, my niece is at the great age of “whataboutisms.” It’s an age from which we never really escape. From schoolyard arguments to Congress debates, humans are masters of whataboutisms — which is when, instead of answering a question or addressing an issue, someone accuses the rival of the same or similar thing. If someone says, “People so often kill in the name of religion,” the whataboutism would be, “Yeah, but Stalinism and Nazism killed just as many.” If Hannah says, “Cheating is always wrong,” a whataboutism would be, “Well, Hannah, didn’t you cheat on your ex with your coworker?”
Whataboutism is deflection, obfuscation, and distraction. It’s considered an informal logical fallacy — an incorrect way to debate that does not deal in truth but rather ad hominem attacks. But how true is this really? Is whataboutism always a bad argument?
Red herrings and dead cats
The big problem with whataboutism is that it does not address the actual issue. It raises tangential and often irrelevant issues deliberately intended to distract from the argument at hand — a red herring.
A whataboutism is almost always an emotionally charged and personal attack. As such, it’s designed to move attention away from the issue and onto something much safer so the original (and often awkward) question gets ignored. When we accuse Hannah (above) of having had her affair, we make it about her and her misdeeds, and not the issue of the morality of cheating.
In 2013, the future Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, wrote an article describing a “dead cat” strategy of politics. The idea is to imagine a family screaming and shouting about some years-old argument. Then, in walks grandpa, who slams a huge, mangy, and very dead cat on the table. Suddenly, the argument is forgotten. The dead cat is all the family is talking about. Johnson’s point was that if you present the public with one showy, ridiculous, or scandalous piece of news, they forget altogether about this much more difficult one. It’s something media strategists and spin doctors exploit every day — it’s when the whataboutism amounts to “Oh, look over there!”
Good and bad whataboutism
Philosophers, logicians, and debaters often dislike whataboutisms because they’re similar to ad hominem attacks. This is where a speaker attacks the person or source of an argument instead of the argument itself. If China Daily ran a piece saying, “China is the best at table tennis,” the ad hominem would be, “You would say that: You’re owned by the Chinese government.” In terms of whataboutism, asking about Hannah’s affair is a personal attack on her rather than the immorality of polyamory. It’s a fair criticism of whataboutisms.
But a whataboutism need not always be a logical fallacy. Done properly, it can be a legitimate way to argue. Here are three ways they could be used:
Pointing out inconsistency in an argument. If someone says, “taking in Syrian refugees is wrong”, and someone “whatabouts” with “so why are you okay with taking in Ukrainian refugees?”, then that’s a legitimate counterpoint and argument. It points at a flaw or at least shortcoming which needs to be addressed. It might be, of course, that the whataboutism inconsistency can be addressed, but that is simply the issue for rational, good debate.
Highlighting common factors. If we return to our opening example of religious and atheistic evil, it might even be that the whataboutism serves a function in forcing the speakers to both recognize a common, underlying factor to both sides of the argument. (In the examples above, it might be that an unwavering, dogmatic adherence to ideology sometimes comes at the expense of human life.) It’s a good way to identify the philosophically relevant factors of an argument.
Clarifying positions. In the case of cheating Hannah, the whataboutism might help clarify and establish our position on things. If Hannah seeks to defend her infidelity (by saying, for example, that her husband was constantly absent), it means she can more broadly adapt her position on the morality of cheating. It might be she matures and bends in her stringency to something more like “cheating is wrong, unless X or Y.” When we call out a person for inconsistency, it invites them to revise their beliefs.
There’s a time and a place for the whataboutism. This is not to say that they are always good arguments or helpful devices, but we can definitely see how they can be used well. It might even be we ought to do more whataboutism.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.