How can I respond to Whataboutism?

  • While this uses examples that could be seen as supporting one side or the other, it is intended as a politically neutral question, to the extent that that is possible

    This has come up more and more in political discussions I've been having recently, mostly to do with the American election. Basically, whenever a point is brought up, it's not really addressed, and is countered with something that the other candidate has done, or a slur against the other candidate.

    E.g. If Donald Trump's racism is brought up, a response I've heard is that Hillary Clinton is also racist. Another one I've heard is attacking Obama's policies on illegal immigration in response to an attack on Donald Trump's policies (e.g. his "wall").

    These are just examples, and the accuracy, or not, of the counterpoint is not the issue, the issue is that the counterpoint doesn't address, or attempt to defend against the point made. This makes it very difficult to have a level-headed political discussion without it degenerating into "Donald Trump did this", "So did Hillary Clinton" and vice-versa.

    So my question is this:

    How can a meaningful political discussion be had with someone who uses Whataboutism extensively?

    This isn't really a political question as much as a debate technique question. Would probably be best asked in 'debating.se' if such a site existed (actually, that'd be an interesting site!)

    Old strategy in Soviet propaganda: *And you are lynching negroes*.

    Assuming the "whataboutist" is not a monologist, and would actually like to persuade you, there's always Socratic irony.

    If the debate is which candidate or party best serves the country's interests -- as it often is -- then the example you gave is not whataboutism.

    @KeithMcClary I assume that's irony. The problem with whataboutism is not that the response is factually incorrect (it usually has at least a core of truth), but that it's a red herring fallacy.

    @gerrit In rational scientific discussions it is normal to ask whether your reasoning and methods apply in analogous situations and then explore the logical consequences (i.e., "whataboutism"). This is part of the scientific method and not considered a "red herring fallacy". In political discussions some people seem to think they are allowed to believe six contradictory things before breakfast - no logical consistency required.

    @KeithMcClary We could have a discussion on the boundaries between (rightly) calling out hypocrisy, and whataboutism. I don't think there's a sharp boundary between the two. I also don't think the analogy with natural sciences is particularly fitting or helpful. I'm not sure this discussion fits on [Politics.SE], maybe on [Philosophy.SE], but probably neither.

    Having just re-read this, I would suggest that the best way to prove "it is intended as a politically neutral question" is to actually provide either politically neutral example (Philipp<> typically uses cat lovers and cat haters); or, to provide **two** equally biased examples, that are opposite in strength and direction.

    debate, about politics, is of course an inherent part of politics: see e.g. Fisher A. The Logic of Real Arguments. Cambridge University Press. 1988

  • user4012

    user4012 Correct answer

    4 years ago

    Note: this is a pretty long answer; and the specific points regarding whataboutism are at the last section, so you may want to skip there first if that's all you care about.

    How can a level-headed political discussion be had with someone who uses Whataboutism extensively?

    Ultimately, by not having a level-headed political discussion.

    OK, this wording was a bit ironic, but in reality, many observers note that people in general are not often moved by facts - especially when said facts contradict their core political beliefs (the cognitive psychology terms for that are "selective bias"/"biased assimilation" and even worse, "Backfire effect" when the views are strengthened).

    In short, human brains are built in by evolution to find arguments to disprove any facts provided that contradict one's deeply held core beliefs; political ones chiefly among them. The exact evolutionary psychology reasoning behind this is somewhat off-topic so I won't go into details.


    But seriously, I would like to have such a discussion.

    So be it, Jedi....

    The four general approaches to convincing people I would recommend are:

    1. Overwhelming evidence.

      This was discussed on "You're not so smart" podcast covering Backfire effect, in essence, there's a threshold at which that cognitive system breaks a dam, so to speak, and starts incorporating conflicting facts.

      But one, or two, or three, facts, would not be enough.

    2. Use proper framing.

      According to Moral Foundations theory; conservatives and liberals are swayed not by different facts; but by different framing of the facts.

      E.g. to convince a conservative, you frame things in terms of loyalty and patriotism; to convince a liberal, in terms of "fairness".

    3. Don't use facts.

      Experts on persuasion generally state that facts are the weakest way to persuade someone. Emotions etc... are far more effective.

      If you don't believe experts on persuasion because they weren't persuasive enough, here's a fact for you: psychologists confirmed that finding.

    4. Stop using personal attacks, or things that seem like personal attacks.

      "Donald Trump's racism" - to anyone who voted for Trump for reasons other than being racist, this mainly sounds like you are accusing THEM of supporting racism. This sounds cathartic and profound among your circle of Trump opponents - but has absolutely the opposite effect when talking to a Trump voter.


    But what about whataboutism?

    Well, it really depends on (1) what your goal is and (2) what your argument is. We'll cover goal-based discourse in the next section, but let's examine your arguments - make sure that they are both valid AND persuasive.

    For example, you used an example of "Donald Trump racism".

    • First off, note the last bullet point in the last section. No matter whether you have a valid argument or not, take care to not frame it in a way that will appear to the other person as an attack on them, in the latter case they'll at best tune you out and at worst will be even more antagonistic to your point of view.

    • Second, make sure you even have a valid argument. Have you done research outside your own political bubble to confirm that there's actually such a thing as "Donald Trump racism" (outside of a logical fallacy of "some racists support Trump, therefore Trump must be racist")?

    • Third, make sure you're speaking the same language and you're not succumbing to "Intentionality fallacy". In this specific example, 90+% chances are that you as Trump opponent are using a modern progressive definition of "racism" (anything that doesn't explicitly promote welfare of specific minority races, usually in Marxist "equality of outcome" context); whereas your Trump supporting opponent likely uses the pre-postmodernist, formal definition of "racism" (viewing one race as better than another, and expressing negative attitudes based on that view). You might like to think that you own the discourse... which you don't if your goal is to convince someone else.

      Also, chances are, you are committing another fallacy, that of confusing negative attitude about things OTHER than race, that just happen to be correlated with race (Just because a large majority of illegal aliens in USA are Hispanic, accusing someone of being anti-Hispanic racist just because they oppose illegal immigration is at best, a logical fallacy they will ignore or point out; at worst, likely to cause them to oppose you even more due to first point).

    • And finally, you need to first decide what is your goal? - and adjust your approach to the best way to achieving that goal.

      Is your goal to make someone not vote for Trump? Then you need to find out first WHY they want to vote for Trump. Chances are, they have far more important reasons to vote for someone than a single issue, no matter how important that one issue is to you personally. So you need to first listen to the person you're discussing with; and then argue on the points they care about. If they care about economy and jobs, start with "Hillary's economic plan will bring more jobs than Trump's". OK, you may be wrong about that but at least you're now discussing the point the other person actually cares about; and therefore is more likely to think deeper about; instead of automatically rebut as "this is just an attack on my candidate whom I like because of jobs".


    But what about whataboutism? you didn't address how I can handle that

    I go back to asking what your goal is. Is it to convince someone of specific point? Or to convince them to vote a different way? Or to do something specific? Or to simply acknowledge that you're right and they are wrong?

    Let's say you're theoretically right (Trump's immigration policies are awful despite being, for example, far far softer than, say Mexico's own immigration policies).

    • If it's to convince them of a specific point (or to take specific action):

      Don't use partisan talking points.

      What does Trump's view on immigration have to do with convincing someone that allowing illegal aliens the path to citizenship is a good idea? (and yes, they likely view the issue EXACTLY the way I just framed it, not the way you framed it). So, don't argue with them about Trump, in the first place. Argue the merits of the policy - first, ask what THEIR reasons to think a specific way are; then try to convince them on the merits to your viewpoint, using the ideas earlier in my answer.

      How is this important in the context of whataboutism?

      Because when you argue policy; there's no reason, or way, to do a "what about" response.

      You: "Border wall is bad, for reasons X, Y and Z"

      Them: "But Hillary Clinton supported border wall"

      You: "So, Hillary was wrong too. Again, border wall is bad, for reasons X, Y and Z"

    • If it's to convince them to vote a different way

      Then, explain how voting that way is bad for the person you're arguing with. As noted above, if they care about economy, arguing about Trump's real-or-made-up racism is not going to change their mind.

      How is this important in the context of whataboutism?

      Because if you argue about points they don't care about, the backfire effect will take place and they won't care to listen to your points. Whataboutism isn't the root cause of the issue here, it's just a randomly used somewhat effective tactic of rejecting your arguments - but only one of many possible tactics.


    • Bonus round: not all uses of whataboutism are invalid

      One last point to make: as Alexander O'Mara noted, "whataboutism" is a colloquial term that basically seems to frequently descend into "you're a hypocrite" rebuttal.

      On one hand, that kind of rebuttal is often is symptomatic of "Appeal to Hypocrisy" logical fallacy.

      On the other hand, sometimes a sober self-examination would reveal that the argument being made may, indeed, at its core, be hypocritical; and as such, "Appeal to Hypocrisy" in that situation isn't really a fallacy at all, but indeed a fully logical rebuttal. To address that, check your hypocritical privilege.

      An example would be:

      You: Donald Trump isn't fit to be President because he behaved disrespectfully towards women, and cheated on his wives, and people who do so are unfit for Presidency.

      Opponent: So did an accused rapist and sexual harasser Bill Clinton. Have you voted for Bill Clinton, twice? Have you publicly castigated John Edwards or JFK? Then you clearly don't believe either of your own two arguments, and are just using them as a convenient excuse to attack Trump as opposed to a sincerely held belief. Why should I subscribe to your belief when even you don't hold it sincerely?

      Importantly here, the rebuttal is NOT "your point is wrong" (which indeed would be a H.fallacy). It is "your point is irrelevant to the discussion, since it's not a sincerely held belief for either one of us".

    I like the combination of "overwhelming evidence" and "don't use facts". I understand the dissonance there, but it's still kind of funny.

    Not making a comment on the accuracy of the link, but might it not be better to link to a less partisan site re immigration policy? American Thinker seems to be a generally right-wing site, and the article quotes Breitbart news and Town Hall, both generally right-wing media outlets.

    @mnbvc - Do you have specific fact in that article you wish to dispite? If not, let's not descend into fallacies like "appeal to motive" (or is it more of genetic fallacy? or bulverism?)

    @mnbvc The answer does not depend on the link, so I don't see any problem with leaving it as is.

    I would downvote, if I could, for the following reason: this answer tries to address "how to convince people". As far as I'm concerned best way to convince people to do what I want is to trick them or coerce them - neither is something I'd like to ever do and is not what politics should be about.

    Just adding to your excellent answer, that often the fallacy is not "tu quoque" but "Bulverism". I.e. the original argument is deflected entirely and assumed to be false without evidence or further discussion, in favour of leading the discussion towards inquiring the motives or moral cause behind it being made in the first place. E.g. "Trump is `[good / bad label X]`". Opponent: "You're only oblivious to the fact that he's not `[label X]` because you are `[bad label Y]`". The big difference between this and "tu quoque" is that in tu quoque the original argument is not implicitly falsified.

    Love how you called out how the question itself is the politics version of the XY problem.

    @JaredSmith - ironically, i typically detest XY answers on StackOverflow/SE.

    Double bonus round, similar to the first but important in the difference for _why_ it's used: In the section where you start "Well, it really depends on", you mention having to listen to the issue the other person actually cares about and argue that instead of your own single issue. Given the example in the question, I'd say the person using the "what about" is doing exactly that, switching their argument to the single issue that other person cares about.

    *sigh* Interesting answer, and probably true to modern political "debate", and other forms of advertisement/entertainment. But does it answer the question?

    @Izkata - fancy seeing you here! Welcome to Politics.SE!

    @TomášZato - the implicit assumption is that the person asking the question wants to convince people - otherwise, why are they even bothering to have the discussion they are having in the first place? They either want to convince people (cue my answer); to troll (don't care to help them) or to genuinely learn someone else's point of view (in which case their entire approach as outlined in the question is wrong and unhelpful to that goal - again, covered in the answer).

    It's a depressing state of affairs in human conduct when in any case `emotions > facts`. Reveals some fundamental flaws in democracy itself.

    @Magisch - eh? What does that have to do with democracy? Or "state of affairs"? It's a permanent fact of human cognition, always was that way and likely always will be. It's not some new and special "evil Trump" thing - it was the same way back when Ugh won tribal leadership over Ehg due to more emotional grunting and promising better hunts if chosen.

    @user4012 By that I mean it raises serious doubts about the validity of democracy as a form of governance if the decisions are eventually made by the public based on emotions and not facts. The ideal form of human government needs to be 100% or as close to 100% as possible fact based.

    @Magisch - the ideal form is a benigh dictatorship by a benevolent error-free onminscent Artificial Intelligence :) But I'll stick with Churchill.... "democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"

    Re _"... **just happen to be** correlated with race.."_: that critique is valid where history is a vacuum; but history is generally not a vacuum in politics. Bigoted lawmakers intentionally connive at proxy virtual bigotry -- *i.e.* strategically outlawing, taxing, fining or impeding resources and customs peculiar or especially common to their victims, in the name of some public good or moral panic. Then whenever opponents connect the cause, (*e.g.*: the proponent's shameful opinions and history), and its effect, (old vinegar in new bottles), they don the halo of mere correlation and smile.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM

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