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Whataboutism?

December 8, 2019

Here we are two weeks into the Christmas season, trying to get some holiday cheer.  Almost two centuries ago, Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has this upbeat assessment of the Christmas spirit:

"I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

            And yet this year at the same time that we are trying to make peace, events on the national stage keep relentlessly shredding American culture.  How many of us got through Thanksgiving without a major political spat in between the turkey and the pumpkin pie?

            What I want to talk about this morning is a technique of argument which is being used more and more these days, and not just on one side or the other. Why do I use one of my last sermons to talk about this feature of our secular culture instead of decorations and carols and snowflakes and the feel-good aspects of the season?  Because I think it helps if you can recognize a flim-flam when you see it.  And this argument technique is a flim flam.

            We call it whataboutism, because it often arises with the phrase “what about.”  Let’s say you and I are roommates in a college suite, and I bring a complaint that you have allowed your dishes to pile up in the sink for three days without washing them.  Your response might be, “well, what about your newspapers all over the sitting area?  Some of them go back two weeks!”  Now both accumulated newspapers and accumulated dirty dishes are sins of a sort in a roommate relationship, and they are even the same type of offense, but one doesn’t really excuse the other.  As a lawyer would analyze it, it isn’t a defense to a charge of letting dishes pile up that the complainer has let papers pile up.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

            The most important thing I want to say this morning is that everyone listening to a political argument, or any other kind of argument, should remember that there have been rules about argument at least since the ancient Greeks.  The study is called rhetoric, and it used to be required learning in schools.

            A helpful academic website named TBS identifies several types of fallacy, that is, arguments which might seem to make sense but don’t really prove anything.[1]  For example there is the slippery slope fallacy.  Let’s say I make an argument that the health care system would work better if the government took over all health care.  You may say, well, that’s socialism, and socialism didn’t work so well in the Soviet Union, now did it.  The reason that is a fallacy is that nationalizing one sector of the economy does not mean that all sectors would be nationalized.

            The same article cites many other types of fallacy: straw man, circular logic, hasty generalization, false dilemmas, appeals to ignorance, red herrings.

            But what about whataboutism?  Is it a fallacy?  Wikipedia and this website say yes, it is a fallacy called tu quoque.  Tu quoque is Latin for “you also,” or more familiarly, “you’re another.”

            The TBS website has this to say on this fallacy:

“The ‘tu quoque,’ Latin for ‘you too,’ is also called the “appeal to hypocrisy” because it distracts from the argument by pointing out hypocrisy in the opponent. This tactic doesn’t solve the problem, or prove one’s point, because even hypocrites can tell the truth. Focusing on the other person’s hypocrisy is a diversionary tactic. In this way, using the tu quoque typically deflects criticism away from yourself by accusing the other person of the same problem or something comparable. If Jack says, ‘Maybe I committed a little adultery, but so did you Jason!’ Jack is trying to diminish his responsibility or defend his actions by distributing blame to other people. But no one else’s guilt excuses his own guilt. No matter who else is guilty, Jack is still an adulterer.”

            So whatabouttism is in logic an appeal to hypocrisy, an accusation of hypocrisy to try to deflect a criticism.

            Now the notion of hypocrisy has ancient roots.  I read a part of the Sermon on the Mount which has to do with removing the speck in another person’s eye.  But the passage starts with Jesus saying “judge not that you be not judged.”  He then goes on to say that you can’t see the speck from your neighbor’s eye while you have a log in your own eye, and therefore you can’t take out that speck.  Jesus sums his wisdom in the line, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.”

            There is a wordplay going on in this passage which can be appreciated in the Greek.   The word for “judge” is Krino, whose past participle is krites, which is in our words critic and critical.  But it is also in hypocrite.  “Hypo” is Greek for “underneath” or “below” and “crite” in this context means a representation.  So a hypocrite is a person who makes a representation from below.  This is puzzling until you realize that in Greek theater, all the actors wore masks, and they had to speak from behind the masks.  A hypocrite was thus a word for actor, one who spoke from behind the mask, and then it became anyone who put in a false face for the public.

            In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, I think Jesus is making two points: one, that you can’t see another’s blindness while you have a blindness of your own, and two, if you don’t want to be judged yourself, don’t judge others.

            Let’s face it, hypocrisy is an integral part of life.   We all have values, but we cannot live up to them absolutely.  I am against climate change, and want us to do everything we can to slow or reverse it, individually and as a society.  But I still drive a car, take trips by airplane and heat my house with fuel oil. 

            So the reason that tu quoque or the appeal to hypocrisy is a fallacy is that everyone is a hypocrite to some extent and if hypocrisy undermined every argument, no one would ever be able to make one.  The TBS website has short videos discussing the details of each fallacy, and the one for this fallacy acknowledges that generally hypocrisy does not affect the validity of the argument, but it might in one exceptional case.  Where a person has claimed to be an authority, or has used his authority to support the argument, then exposing him as a hypocrite undermines his appeal to his own authority.  The example is, suppose a person is extolling the virtues of a vegan diet and makes the claim that it is actually quite easy to shift from a meat diet to a vegan one.  If it is revealed that the person making that claim sneaks out for a hamburger every other day, it tends to logically weaken the claim that going vegan is easy.  But notice that the claim is based on human behavior, and the revealed hypocrisy is also human behavior, inconsistent with the claim.  Not all arguments are about human behavior.

            There are conflicting accounts of the origins of the term whataboutism, but it seems to have originated in Soviet propaganda in the 1960s.  American criticisms of the excesses of the Soviet state were always met with the response, “but what about race relations in the United States?” The Wikipedia article on the term has this history:

“Journalist Luke Harding described Russian whataboutism as "practically a national ideology".[22] Journalist Julia Ioffe wrote that "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union" was aware of the technique, citing the Soviet rejoinder to criticism, And you are lynching Negroes, as a "classic" example of the tactic.[23] Writing for Bloomberg News, Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition",[24] while The New Yorker described the technique as "a strategy of false moral equivalences".[25] Jill Dougherty called whataboutism a "sacred Russian tactic",[26][27] and compared it to accusing the pot of calling the kettle black.[28]”

            From the propaganda arm of the Soviet Union the technique of whataboutism has spread across the world.  The wikipedia article on it cites examples by President Trump and Nikki Haley in the US, but also the governments of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.  Vladimir Putin of post-Soviet Russia is said to be especially skillful with this technique.

            The political comedian John Oliver has been very critical of President Trump and conservative media for relying on whataboutism in response to almost any criticism coming from more progressive voices.  He calls whataboutism one of the three most significant rhetorical weapons used by the right.

            But I am sure that in American politics, the use of this technique is not limited to the right side of the dial. Certainly in the last two weeks the pro-impeachment forces have been calling out the hypocrisy of the President’s defenders on one issue or another.

            Recently former Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized the timing of the impeachment process, saying that the House would probably be voting articles of impeachment near Christmas.  Rachel Maddow seized on this and pointed out that when Gingrich was Speaker, the House voted out articles of impeachment against President Clinton at the very moment in 1998 that Clinton was lighting the national Christmas tree.    

            But is that little zinger what we’ve been calling whataboutism?  The reason whataboutism is a logical fallacy is that (1) it brings in countercriticisms that have nothing to do with the original criticism and (2) it deflects attention from the original criticism and thus does nothing to answer it. Here Gingrich’s original criticism was how cruel the Democratic leadership was being to consider bringing articles of impeachment around the holiday, but Rachel’s counter-example was not at all unrelated, it was completely on point.  Inasmuch as Gringrich had gone out on a limb to criticize this aspect of the impeachment proceedings, to show that he himself had done the very thing for which he was now criticizing the current leadership strikes me as fair.

            The larger picture is that use of the technique of whataboutism is a way of avoiding accountability.  If criticisms are deflected, the party criticized does not have to ask whether there might be something to the criticisms.  We talk past each other.

            The liberal ideal of truth is that truth is not given from on high or from some ultimate authority, but arises from the dialogue among various points of view.  But that dialogue presumes people are actually talking to one another.  When we’re talking past each other, or trying to shout each other down, dialogue is impossible.

            WWJD.  What would Jesus do?  He says judge not that you be not judged.  Maybe he’d say we should all go home and do nothing because we are all tainted with some form of hypocrisy.  But I don’t think so.  In my sermon before Thanksgiving I quoted from a passage that is in the 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel about how to deal with wayward members of the church.  Jesus advocated confronting the member on his behavior, and if he didn’t respond, to bring two or three other members, and then to convene the whole church.  In other words, he said some issues are important enough to actively seek dialogue with someone with whom you disagree.  And that will necessarily involve judgment.

            There was a telling exchange yesterday between  Speaker of the House Pelosi and James Rosen, a reporter for  conservative media.  The Speaker was leaving the podium when the reporter shouted “Do you hate President Trump?”  She could have ignored him because the conference was over.  Instead, she strode back to the  podium.  She ticked off the policy disagreements she had with President Trump, but said those are matters for the election.  The impeachment inquiry, however, “is about the Constitution of the United States and the facts that lead to the president’s violation of his oath of office.“

            She continued, “And as a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is a heart full of love and always pray for the president. And I still pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time.”

            Rosen’s question was a form of whatboutism.  In effect, he was saying, all this talk about the Constitution is beside the point, because you’re really acting on your hatred of Donald Trump.  Classic diversionary tactics, and the Speaker was having none of it, and was willing to put a religious aura on her actions.

            It is telling that she referred to President Trump’s violation of his oath of office.  The wording of the oath of office is specified in the Constitution; it requires a President to preserve, protect and defend that Constitution.  It may seem like a formality, but at one time in American history it was much more. 

            When Lincoln was faced with the southern states seceding from the Union, he realized that there was nothing in the Constitution which explicitly said they could not leave the union.  The Constitution sets forth ways in which a state can join, but is silent on how or whether states can leave.  Yet Lincoln was proposing to use military force against the seceding states.  What part of the Constitution gave him the right to do that?

            He finally decided that his ability to use armed force to preserve the Union was grounded in the presidential oath of office.  Preserve, protect and defend.  The Civil War was not always popular in the North and many would have gladly let the slaveholding states go their way peaceably.  In the end, almost a million Americans died in the struggle over preservation of the union.

            If the impeachment struggle means anything it is about violation of that oath of office.  That is what the fuss is about.  There is no other about, no matter how much sand is thrown up.

            As a lawyer, I know all to well how it feels to be defending a case whether the other side has the law and the evidence on their side.  You look for some way to change the subject.  In my death penalty case, I once filed a motion and researched it and actually argued to the court that the scene of the crime was not in the State of South Carolina because St. Helena’s Island, where it was located had not been properly brought into the state by the 1787 treaty which set the boundaries between South Carolina and Georgia.

            My prescription for this time is not to get so sucked in to the drama in Washington that you miss out on the joy of the season, but if you do tune in from time to time, pay especial note if somebody drops the magic phrase “but what about...” and then listen closely to see if what follows has anything at all to do with the subject under discussion. 

            We will not cure hypocrisy, my friends.  We cannot live perfect lives or lives perfectly aligned with the values we espouse.  We are imperfect creatures, but that imperfection does not mean we should not have opinions or voice them.  Whataboutism, which claims to be a way of calling out hypocrisy, is just a way of not dealing with the subject at hand. 

Amen.

 

Reading for Whatboutism

 

Matthew 7 (NRSV) (Sermon on the Mount)

 

1 "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.

 

           

 

 

 

[1]https://thebestschools.org/magazine/15-logical-fallacies-know/#tuquoque

 

 

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