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Whataboutism and the Death of Political Discourse

December 2nd, 2017

If you’re a politics-watcher like me, you need to know about whataboutism. It’s spreading like a cancer and threatening the most vibrant and crucial component of our democracy — dispassionate, accurate, and rational discourse. Invented by the Nazis and perfected by the propaganda arm of the Soviet-era KGB, whataboutism is a rhetorical tactic more traditionally known as diversion.

Here’s how it works.

When a criticism is made against a powerful individual or institution, rather than addressing the criticism, the validity of the evidence supporting the criticism, or the moral culpability of the alleged perpetrator of the offending action under criticism, defenders of the accused simply re-direct the discussion to another allegedly related topic. This strategy has become the daily bread and butter of the right’s defense of its increasingly indefensible stances.

Mention Roy Moore’s sexual predation, they say “What about Bill Cinton?”

Mention the obviously corrupt Trump Foundation and they say “What about the Clinton Foundation?”

Mention the indefensible proliferation of military style assault weapons, and they say, “What about our right to defend our homes?” Like Joe Biden said, get a shotgun.

The goal of this tactic is to change the subject, while pretending to remain on the subject. You got to give them credit. It’s kind of brilliant in a sick and malicious way.

The entire right wing media is constructed on a bedrock foundation of whataboutism. It bought Sean Hannity a mansion. It built Breitbart brick by virtual brick. And it forms the core content of most of Trump’s Tweets. His “base” (I’m coming to love that word more and more) eats it up.

The tricky thing about whataboutism is its faint resemblance to actual logic and argumentation. To the unschooled, it sounds like logic, like valid analogy. But it’s a charade. It isn’t sound reasoning at all, but a diversionary strategy meant to muddy the waters and throw us off the track of the original line of reasoning.

In critical thinking, whataboutism is the enemy. Any attempt to obfuscate is the enemy. The first rule of rational discourse (go back and read Plato if you need a historical primer) is to focus on a single thread. Whenever anybody pipes up with, “Yeah, but what about…?” you know there’s trouble up ahead. Either the argument is being intentionally sabotaged, or through sheer ineptness your interlocutor has stumbled off the trail and is lost in the woods. Whatever you do, don’t follow them. Don’t let whataboutism distract you from the real work – clear, focused, rational discourse where single ideas are debated and opposing arguments are deliberately considered and evidence weighed. Only then do we stand a shot at getting somewhat closer to the truth.

The very survival of our democracy depends on an educated populace engaging in authentic critical thinking and rational discourse. Keep your ears open for whataboutism. Ignore it and gently but insistently bring the discussion back to the topic at hand. It’s the only way we’re going to make it out of here alive.

 

Peter Bolland

Peter Bolland is the philosophy and humanities department chair at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California where he teaches world religions, Asian philosophy, world mythology, and ethics. Bolland is also a columnist for both Unity Magazine and the San Diego Troubadour. An award winning singer-songwriter and poet, Bolland draws on the world’s wisdom traditions as a frequent lecturer and performer throughout the San Diego region.
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