People use a lot of bad arguments online, but few frustrate me more than the tu quoque fallacy, otherwise known as whataboutism. It is, of course, one of the most commonly used methods of changing the subject, dating back as far as grade school when we used to win arguments by shouting “I know you are but what am I?” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue…”
Sadly, most of us don’t outgrow this.
But here lately it’s become a virtual epidemic, especially when discussing the current state of politics in America. I’ve been following discussions online for a while now, but it’s never been this bad before. It’s virtually incessant at this point.
It happens most frequently when someone tries to call out Donald Trump or some other affiliated political ally on something that he’s said or done, and it takes fewer than two replies for someone to chime in saying, “But what about so-and-so and what they did back in…[whenever]?”
Permit me a minute to explain why this is such a cop out. Hang with me for a minute, please.
What’s Wrong with Whataboutism?
The tu quoque argument (lit. “you, too”) is considered a logical fallacy because it redirects the conversation from the thing being talked about to some other thing. Which isn’t to say that there’s no value to discussing whatever that other thing is. But it needs to be noted that The Original Thing has been completely sidestepped.
Is it that hypocrisy invalidates a criticism? Do you really believe that? Have you stopped to consider what that implies?
There are at least three things that should trouble you about reflexively redirecting the criticism at hand to something or someone else that wasn’t originally being discussed:
1) Any sudden change of subject indicates that you don’t have a good defense for The Original Thing being discussed. It’s essentially a forfeiture of the discussion. But the other person brought it up because they feel it’s important, and you’ve just found a way to change the subject to someone or something else which may be somewhat related, except that…
2) You’ve just signaled that your priorities override those of the other person by indicating that what YOU want to talk about is far more important than what the original commenter was trying to discuss. That rubs people the wrong way for reasons that I wish were obvious, but evidently they’re not. It’s invalidating, and if you notice they’re frustrated by this, you should understand that this is at least a part of why it bothers them. But of course that will only affect you if you have respect for people who disagree with you, and maybe you don’t. Either way, it also follows that…
3) You’ve failed to clarify that you do indeed believe whatever behavior you’re debating isn’t actually okay to engage in. Regardless of whether or not you realize it. And maybe that’s not as important to you as feeling like you’ve won an argument (because silence on the other end can only mean you’ve won, right?). But there are more important things going on.
I’d like to take a moment to unpack that last point because it’s the crux of what made me sit down to write about this.
The Search for Common Values
The world is a big, diverse place, and in particular the United States of America is a microcosm of that global reality in which a lot of diverse people groups co-inhabit the same spaces. Some have called it a “melting pot” of cultures and ethnicities, but in reality it’s turned out to be more of a “salad bowl” of coexisting subcultures that don’t always blend so consistently.
Just like every other time in history when widespread geopolitical unrest has led to a seismic redistribution of large numbers of people, our age has seen a resurgence of nativism and nationalism across the globe…which leads to a lot of angry people telling the newcomers to “go back to where they came from.”
But multiculturalism is a fact of life in a country that’s made up almost entirely out of immigrants. I mean, sure, we can enact the kinds of reactionary policies that Stephen Miller has convinced the president make sense in our day and age, but diversity is a fact of American life that you cannot erase by simply limiting the number of people you let in from other places for the duration of a president’s term in office.
Diversity is woven into America’s most basic identity. You can’t change that in a single generation.
Which means that we cannot assume that everyone we interact with on a daily basis shares our same beliefs and values. That’s something we just have to deal with, and online interactions are no exception to that rule.
So when we debate an issue with someone else we’ve encountered online, there are at least two levels of discussion happening whether we realize it or not:
1) We are discussing the issue at hand—an issue which you may be treating like a hot potato that you’d rather not handle, and…
2) We are also wondering if at bottom we even share the same basic values? That’s a layer of communication going on underneath the surface whether you see it or not.
Perhaps you are accustomed to interacting only with people who already agree with you on things. Maybe you live in a homogeneous environment in which everyone believes the same things that you do. You may not ever seriously question whether or not other people’s values match your own…or maybe you just assume they have so little in common with what you believe that it’s not even a relevant question. It’s not worth your time to figure out.
But for many of us, that is an ongoing inquiry: Does this other person at least agree with me about basic values? Do we at least see eye-to-eye about what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and what kinds are not?
That question is lurking beneath the surface whenever people discuss controversial things online. And when you change the subject to something else…every. single. time….we start to wonder if you really believe the thing being discussed is a thing worth discussing in the first place?
Because rather than agreeing that Behavior X is a bad thing to do, you just keep reiterating that everybody does it…which leads us to wonder if you even think it’s a bad thing at all.
To break it down into a kind of socratic dialogue, the discussion goes something like this:
Them: Person A (from your team) has engaged in Behavior X and I think that’s a bad thing.
You: Oh yeah? Well Person B (from your team) has also engaged in Behavior X so get over yourself.
Them: Does that mean that you still believe Behavior X is a bad thing?
You: Did I mention Person B (from your team) did it, too?
At some point it needs to be said that Behavior X is bad, but for some reason that moment never arrives, and that troubles us at a level that we cannot always pinpoint, so I’m doing that right now.
Normalizing Bad Behavior
I know I’m not the first person to realize this dynamic is going on underneath the surface. Not too long ago Claire Fallon wrote:
The problem with whataboutism is that hypocrisy is a durable problem (humans being flawed and inconsistent), but it is not the only problem. Forever circling around each other’s hypocrisies pulls us away from necessary conversations about how to reach for and enforce the values we aspire to and hold each other accountable for wrongdoing.
Nobody knows the flaws of their own tribe like skeptics do. People like me who question everything exist in every subculture, including religious ones (See: progressive Christianity). You can usually find us sitting together on the back row during meetings so that we can poke fun at whatever the people down front are saying.
If you’re like me, I intentionally collect external criticisms of whatever community I belong to so that I can always critically evaluate what I believe and question why I believe it. People like me know all too well how tribalism can blind you to your own excesses. If anyone knows about the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of their own tribe, it’s people like us.
You don’t have to convince us we’re all hypocrites. But there’s a bigger problem we need to address. Fallon goes on to say:
This is particularly crucial when it comes to our [national] leadership. With all the power of the American government behind him, the president has every responsibility to reach toward our most aspirational ideals. Whataboutism provides an excuse for our most powerful to evade self-reflection and self-improvement.
In order to sustain a society rooted in pluralism, we have to be able to agree on at least a handful of central tenets pertaining to basic human rights and behavioral expectations. We may not be able to agree on our beliefs, per se, but at minimum we must find a way to decide on which behaviors we will accept and which ones we will reject. We have to settle on some basic values. That’s just American Life 101.
Some of us are trying to figure out if we agree on those basic moral and ethical values, but it feels like you are constantly shifting that discussion around like a shell game in which we can never know for sure what you really think. Is that intentional? Are you trying to avoid actually answering the question at hand?
Because if the consistent response to a question about Behavior X (whether it’s sexual assault, or tax evasion, or bullying, or whatever) is to keep insisting that people from both competing teams engage in it…one starts to wonder if you are actually trying to normalize the behavior?
At some point you have to clarify that you at least agree that the behavior is bad or else we’re going to start wondering if you really believe that. Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR put it this way:
Whataboutism flattens moral nuances into a black-and-white worldview…This creates a useful moral equivalency…if nobody is perfect, there’s license to do all sorts of imperfect things.
And that’s what upsets us at the end of the day. After enough reflexive finger pointing by you from Team A to Team B we begin to wonder if you really feel like we should just drop this standard entirely and lower our expectations toward our leaders? Because we’re starting to notice that at no point have you actually stopped to clarify that if your person engages in Behavior X then you want them to be held accountable for it.
Getting Everyone Off the Hook
Have you actually said that out loud? That you believe your guy should be held accountable, too? Because at this point we really don’t know if that’s what you think or not.
It seems like you’re suggesting that no one should be held accountable for it. Each time we talk about some illegal or unethical thing that we see your person doing, you pivot to talking about how our people do it, too…but you never actually indicate that you think it’s bad for your person to do it. Is that intentional?
Ultimately this is what bothers us most about the tu quoque line of argumentation: Not only does it dismiss our own concerns by redirecting the conversation to the subjects you’d rather talk about, but it also leaves us wondering if you really agree with us on the basic values we should expect from each other and demand especially from our national leaders.
If you never get around to admitting that you’d be appalled by said behavior in the person representing your team, we are left to wonder if you would even agree that it’s bad behavior in the first place. At some point you should probably say it out loud lest we wonder if your unmistakeable air of moral superiority is in fact misplaced. Then and only then can we feel like any of this even matters to you.
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