How to respond to Whataboutism?
August 17, 2017 10:01 AM   Subscribe

In the wake of Charlottesville, the right is ramping up its use of whataboutism. I'm actually finding that it's an oddly difficult rhetorical move to effectively counter, and I'd like to hear some potential strategies.

I can't even count the times I've seen people (even left-leaning people) on various social media saying "Yeah, well, how come we never hear about the violence Antifa has done? What about the bombing of the North Carolina RNC building?" etc etc etc. (I'm not even going to get into the "What about Black Lives Matter?!" bullshit because that's a different kettle of fish and even stupider.) As I noted, I find it an oddly difficult thing to counter, because all you can really say is, "No, stop changing the subject" and they tend to come back with "See, you don't want to talk about Antifa because you know I'm right!!"or going on about hypocrisy. I've also tried posting the Wikipedia link to whataboutism, but for obvious reasons (well, it was obvious to everyone but me, I guess), that doesn't have much effect. And as we've seen with anti-vaxxers, among others, citing actual facts doesn't seem to help much.

I find it really upsetting to be not able to respond adequately because even apart from its being a logical fallacy, letting it pass is letting the other side set the terms of the debate, and that's partly how we got here in the first place.

So, what am I missing? Is there an effective way to respond to this? Or is it better to just give up and focus on other things?
posted by holborne to Law & Government (27 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I guess what you are missing is that these people don't want to sort things out, they want to manoeuvre you into a corner where they can say gotcha. So it's not about the content, it's about the tactical move.
Your tactical move would be to not engage with people like that, because there's nothing that can be won.
posted by Namlit at 10:06 AM on August 17, 2017 [27 favorites]

Whatabouting is a classic derail and should be treated as such.

Generally, the whatabouts pop up when you are making a strong point which they can't defend, so just say, "I don't support violence of any kind except in self-defense or defense of others, but I am talking about Nazis and white nationalists advocating violence against minorities [or whatever facts you were telling the whatabouter]. I know you don't support that."

There's also a good bit at Slate (shocking, I know) with firsthand accounts, several from clergy, of antifa in Charlottesville defending peaceful protesters against imminent violence.

On preview, though, Namlit is probably right that you are wasting your time.
posted by radicalawyer at 10:11 AM on August 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

There are a ton of websites devoted to listing and explaining logical fallacies. This one might apply, but look for others. Someone who has stupid political views has been challenging my anti-Nazi posts on fb. I calmly and politely point out the logical fallacies the person is employing and re-state my views that white supremacism is wrong and vile, etc. I try to be civil and respectful, and ask others to be civil and respectful, because other people with better and worse comments will chime in.

Humans are social and are influenced by what others think. This is true even of people who say they aren't. I may not convince this person of anything, but I might help keep him from getting worse. And, lots of people participate on social media, so it may be read by 10 other people. My goal is to stay calm, stay within reason and logic (no ad hominem attacks, despite how satisfying they might be), and hope to do my tiny bit to sway opinion. I'll go maybe 3-5 rounds of discussion, then I'm done, because it's so fucking stressful to argue with people who will not recognize their racism, even when it's blatant. It's not my intention to win, it's my intention to be a voice for what I think is right.

It all sounds pretty self-righteous, and I guess it is, so I try to use some humor.
posted by theora55 at 10:26 AM on August 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

As Namlit said, it may not be worth your time.

Emotional communication might work: “When you ask about (irrelevant topic), I feel you're trying to evade personal responsibility for this situation. Let's get back to (subject at hand), please.”

You may have to broken-record it a bit, then disengage once you tire of it. Whataboutery is a sign that they're losing.
posted by scruss at 10:31 AM on August 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

"I denounce any violence Antifa has committed. I denounce the property damage at the North Carolina RNC office, which may or may not have been due to Antifa. Now can we talk about Nazis and white supremacists committing terrorist attacks, where people were murdered in Charleston and Charlottesville?"
posted by cnc at 10:34 AM on August 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

My rule is that if you can't say Nazis are bad without any kind of qualifying or whataboutism, you are an asshole and we can't be friends. I've unfriended about 5 people over this. It's my line in the sand.
posted by COD at 10:39 AM on August 17, 2017 [27 favorites]

I think the order of priorities for addressing this is two-fold: first, briefly and blandly contradict the assertion; secondly, bring it back to the subject.
  • So something like "I'm not really sure that's accurate, but anyway, we were talking about [Charlottesville]".
  • If they push back against that, that's when you say "well, if that's what happened, then of course I condemn it, but let's get back to the subject".
  • If there's pushback on that, then you drop both subjects with a "well, we'd probably better talk about something we don't disagree about so much.".

posted by ambrosen at 10:42 AM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've actually tried to counter some of that with sass on Twitter (note: I have no idea if it convinces anyone, and may be a bit immature but I don't care): in back-and-forths about history, if someone brings up the claim that "omg the Democrats founded the KKK" or "it was Democrats blocking the Civil Rigths movement in the past" (claims which do actually have a kernel of truth), I would say, "okay, yes, but we all have dumb ideas when we're young. However, we grew up and out of them. .....Will you?"

Something like that maybe - acknowledging what they're talking about, but then questioning what its connection is to what the current topic of discussion is, or otherwise turning the onus back on them. (come to think of it, I tried that today:

("No one says anything about alt-left violence! I bet you wouldn't protest that!"
"...Well, yes, at such a time when they DO commit violence, I would. However, the alt-right were the only ones who committed violence in Charlottesville, which is what we're talking about rihgt now.")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:45 AM on August 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think there is some potential for success with the use of Socratic irony. Instead of telling them why the red herring they are offering is irrelevant, confess ignorance of it and ask them to explain why it is relevant. Since it typically isn't relevant, that's going to be difficult for them to accomplish, and the attempt to do so can expose the weakness of their own position.

So in the antifa/RNC bombing example you are giving, it could go something like this:

"You're right--I didn't hear about that! Did an antifa demonstrator kill somebody with a bomb in North Carolina?"

It won't always work, but it has the value of shifting the labor to them, and can often reveal pretty clearly when someone is arguing in bad faith.
posted by layceepee at 10:48 AM on August 17, 2017 [11 favorites]

Whataboutism is always a one-way street. It’s only ever used to defend their side. So you can point out that they don’t ever use it when something bad from your side is brought up. In terms of Trump, I just point out that he’s the guy who said he was going to be different from all who came before him, and now they’re just accepting that he’s exactly the same. It also helps to point out that if whataboutism makes everything OK then Hillary is forgiven for everything because Trump also did it to some extent (not that she did, but you get my drift).
posted by mattholomew at 11:04 AM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Nobody here is trying to defend antifa. Why are you trying to defend Nazis?"
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:13 AM on August 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

Whataboutism isn't a real debate tactic. It's a way for people who still have some scrap of shame and awareness that Nazi sympathizing is a violation of social norms to express, without saying it outright, that they don't actually care about police killing black people or sending tanks into their neighborhoods, Nazis marching around synagogues or murdering protesters, etc. If you probe these people, force them into a logical corner, or let them wind themselves up and speak from the heart, they will start to talk about how protesters SHOULD be run down with cars if they're blocking roads, how BLM and black people are terrible, that the Jews are paying fake protesters, or whatever fascist opinion. Whataboutism means, "I don't care. I consider your people to be acceptable collateral damage." The ONLY thing I've seen that gives these people pause is using personal examples. "My friend is in the hospital" style, things they can't dismiss as "fake news" that force them to acknowledge that someone important to a person they care about has been really, truly hurt by this shit. That's there for people who really matter to you; it won't work on people who don't love you, because the entire point of whataboutism is that they don't actually care.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 11:21 AM on August 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

"What about x?"
"What about it?"
posted by bunderful at 11:32 AM on August 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Statistics help. If the game they're playing is "For every instance of right-wing terrorism you remember off the top of my head, I've got an instance of anti-right-wing terrorism I can remember off the top of mine," then you'll probably surrender or get bored or run out of examples before they do. But if you look at the numbers, right-wing terrorism is far more common.

There's also a strategic decision to make here. If you're willing to say "Political violence is always wrong" and generally count yourself as liberal or progressive rather than far-left, then you've got an easy path: just straight-up disavow far-left violence. It's not like most black bloc dudes vote Democratic anyway, and it's not like the Democratic party encourages them. You can in all honestly say "Those guys aren't part of my political coalition, I don't support them, and they don't support me or the candidates I vote for." Trump supporters, at this point, can't really honestly say the same.

And on the other hand, if you think political violence is sometimes valid, then you need to find an argument against fascism other than "it's violent." But at that point you might as well just own your position. "Hey, look, I'll admit I'm not any kind of pacifist. I think sometimes people need to fight for what they believe in. My problem with the neo-Nazis is that they believe in some really disgusting shit." They may counter with "Ok, but what about revolutionary communists? They believe some stuff that scares me too!" But quite honestly for most fringe left beliefs it's reasonable to say "Yup, that's scary all right. But I find the possibility of genocide scarier, and the Nazis are arguing for genocide."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:22 PM on August 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

"It sounds like you're itching to defend Nazis. Why?"
posted by bunji at 12:42 PM on August 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

"Oh bless your heart, didn't your mama teach you that when you run out of valid arguments you're supposed to sit quietly while the grown folks talk?"
posted by teleri025 at 1:20 PM on August 17, 2017

What about the bombing of the North Carolina RNC building?

Clinton condemned it immediately without weaseling about the firebombers being good guys or having a point, and a group of Democrats immediately set up a gofundme to help rebuild, which raised almost $13,000 in less than an hour. [And if you want to talk about things we don't hear about, let's look together at all the individual hate crimes in the wave of reported hate crimes since Trump began his campaign. We can peruse the SPLC's website together. Or we can focus, at least for a while, on the major event that is right in front of us.]

how come we never hear about the violence Antifa has done?

That's definitely something worth talking about. However, I think these are two separate discussions we need to have. One is, is violence ever acceptable, and what should your reaction be when people who support a cause that you yourself support commit violence. The other discussion is what should the reaction be when the leader of the US supports a movement that says there is no room in America for anyone who is not both white and Christian; when that leader was elected after an entire campaign based on dogwhistles ("take America back" from whom?) and explicit statements to that effect; when the fact of his election means that apparently all that racial and religious hatred simply doesn't truly bother about half of the people in the country; and when a country whose identity has always been tied to the values of freedom of religion, strength from diversity, and being a beacon of light in the world suddenly has a leader who doesn't even pretend to possess those values and instead viciously attacks everyone who says those values matter. You're talking about violence in general and how it should be dealt with, which is a worthwhile question; but the questions I am asking, and the questions that have people so deeply and so seriously involved here, are what values are actually precious to America, whether it is a country that truly aims to give an equal embrace to all of its citizens or not, and what Trump means for that. [Or whatever specific issue you want to focus on.] If we can talk about that first, and have a serious discussion, then I will be glad to talk with you later about the rest.

All this assumes that someone on the listening end might actually be interested in thinking about your points rather than just reacting to them, which of course isn't a given.
posted by trig at 1:25 PM on August 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not sure if this link will stay up, but I couldn't help but see bunji's comment as asked by Clippy.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:31 PM on August 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

"Please don't change the subject," is what I use.
posted by rhizome at 2:29 PM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I find the most effective thing is to lean into it without getting sucked /into/ it, as it were. So, for example:

"Yeah, well, how come we never hear about the violence Antifa has done?"

"Oh, goodness, that is a question! I definitely want to get back to that - let's finish this first and then you can give me all of your examples!"

"What about the bombing of the North Carolina RNC building?"

"Oh yes, that was tragic! After we're done talking about X, remind me I have a thing about that!"

Essentially, you're deflating the "no one wants to talk about it", by saying "we will definitely talk about it, but we're finishing the subject we're on first." You're essentially - in relationship terms it would be 'acknowledging their bid', so they feel heard and like they're going to get a chance to talk about the thing that's important to them, but you will get to finish your statement first.

The temptation is to have flames on the side of your face and get all distracted, but that's the point, so not letting yourself getting derailed and agreeing to talk about one of their things for every one of your things, you get the actual conversation you want to have done.
posted by corb at 3:35 PM on August 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

I saw someone post a reply to a defense of Trump's lack of condemnation for Nazis that went something like:

"Hello. You are receiving this message because you recently posted on Facebook in defense of Donald Trump. I no longer provide personalized responses to this type of post because I have found that Trump supporters are incapable of engaging in a productive discussion. I wish you the best in your ongoing battle with reality. Best regards, a logical person."

I wish I knew who the original person was, because they deserve credit.

This response was killer because it points out to them that you see what they are doing, you are calling them out on it, but you are also refusing to engage in their game of whataboutism. The language is so brilliantly generic. For the sort of people who treat Facebook debates as a game in which you win points, that sort of thing drives them mad, and is much more satisfying than merely refusing to engage by staying silent. You could modify to your tastes (if you want to make it broader than Trump).
posted by basalganglia at 4:56 PM on August 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

When they whatabout, raise your eyebrows in surprise and exclaim, "that doesn't mean it's ok!", or "that doesn't mean [what the rightwing did] is ok!"

What this does is shift the issue: it's not about your hypocrisy anymore, it's about them thinking it's ok to do something bad because someone else did it.

And you being surprised that they're dumb enough to think that, of course.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 6:08 PM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

If it's online (eg. Facebook), sometimes a simple link to the "you're not wrong Walter" scene from The Big Lebowski can be useful if they are technically correct but morally wrong (eg. one of my Facebook friends who just posted a meme with a photo of a statue of FDR and a line about how he okayed Japanese internment camps).
posted by eviemath at 7:11 PM on August 17, 2017

"There are people openly advocating genocide, and you're worried about broken windows?"

Getting people to denounce antifa is a wedge tactic. Don't fall for it. Keep the focus on the nazis.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 9:07 PM on August 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yes. Getting drawn off into being defensive and arguing points they want you to argue is a losing strategy. Acknowledge their feelings and get back to your strongest points. Something like:

Yes, I know it's confusing and dangerous and scary out there. And I don't know a lot of things. But here's what I do know. I do know that a mob of literal swastika waving, heil Hitlering nazis came armed and in force to Charlottesville. They came to oppose the right of Charlottesville to decide democratically what to do with their own statues. That's not something any American should support.

If a bunch of armed Nazis came marching into your town to oppose the decisions of your lawfully elected government what would you do? What would a real American do? Cower and hide?
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:22 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I, like you, have a seen a steady stream of "whataboutism" with some increasingly ridiculous examples ("Are we gonna tear down the pyramids, too?" complete with someone pointing out that the latest thinking is that the pyramids weren't built by slaves).

I teach at the college level and in that environment it's very, very easy to get drawn into argument. You could say it's at the core of the activity we are doing, really, which is to engage students in critical thinking about a discipline. One thing I try to do in those situations in the classroom is to tell students that the discussion is not about me. They are free to think I am stupid or an idiot; I have zero means to stop them from thinking this. I even tell them that they are totally free to tell other students in the class that I am stupid in some situation where I can't hear them. Again, how could I stop them? I then remind them that my views on the subject are formed from professional experience in my discipline and lots of time reading a wide variety of informed opinion on my discipline. So, I tell students very calmly and sincerely that they can call me stupid if they like (they never do, as far as I know), but that it is my intent to come to a reasoned viewpoint about an issue.

So, for "whataboutists" on the Internet, my new strategy is going to be to say "If you would like to call me a hypocrite, please do so directly. I am more interested in discussing what is the best thing to do for our country." or "If you would like to say that I advocate for [negative thing X implied by their ridiculous example], then please do so directly. I will rebut that with reasoned argument if I think it's necessary."

In the classroom, I do admittedly have a stronger hand, but I find moving your rhetorical opponent to have to tell the truth about their more subtly implied statements takes a huge amount of wind out of the sails of people who are ultimately being defensive from an unthought-out or unearned tribal position.

Hope that helps. We're all doing our best out there.
posted by Slothrop at 7:29 AM on August 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Keep in mind that in public discussions (ie Facebook, email lists, or internet discussion boards) your primary audience is generally not the person you are going back and forth with, but rather the (many, many more) who are reading the discussion and might be inclined to sympathize with one side or the other.

Point is, you may never change the opinion of that person who keeps posting the "what-about" type responses but by remaining level-headed, making your points with logic and evidence, and pointing out that the other person is changing the subject and completely failing to respond to your points, you can be quite persuasive to the 3rd party readers even if you are never going to convince the person you are arguing with--who may simply be a lost cause.

I point this out for two reasons, in addition to the obvious ones:

- If you are thinking about how you can use your conversation to "defeat" the person you are arguing with, and get him/her to concede, your approach may be different, and less productive, than if you are aiming your comments more to the majority of readers who are less settled in their opinions and less polarized. Aim to persuade the persuadable, rather than "defeat your opponent".

- People change their minds as much due to social context as logic, evidence, and arguments. Point being, even if you won't ever be able to persuade a certain person based solely on logic, arguments, and evidence, if you take more the tack of getting many more of your mutual friends on board with your thinking, that is the long-term road to success in moving people's opinions.

Your mutual friends/family members who are reading a discussion or argument of this type are not just "bystanders" but in some ways the most important participants in the conversation, even though they may not be saying anything.
posted by flug at 10:17 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older How to convert a pdf to an image   |   Thank god we didn't meet before we were 30 Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.