It’s become ubiquitous, since January 2017. Every time another horror is unleashed upon the American nation, in the name of the president of little brain and less compassion, his faithful attendants dutifully beat history’s bushes to find something similar that they can throw out as a stumbling block to sanity.
“You dare to say it’s wrong to separate children from their parents at the border? Well, what about when American citizens break the law? They don’t get to see their kids either!”
And then they poke each other in the arm and giggle, thinking that they are terribly clever, and have stopped all further discussion in it’s tracks.
Problem is – the explanation they are using – the ‘what about’ – is a variant of something called the tu quoque, a well known logical fallacy. It is the proverbial ‘red herring,’ the ‘pot calling the kettle black, ‘ a strategy of false moral equivalences”. It is the defending of the indefensible. This tactic is meant to discredit an opponent and an argument, by basically saying that their complaint is hypocritical. It is used to derail a point while making it appear that the one defending the atrocity is the more knowledgeable, and the one purer of heart.
Another tactic of ‘whataboutery‘ is to defend doing nothing whatsoever, and maintain the status quo, is by implying that there’s no point in – say, strengthening environmental protections, because some other country has no regulations at all in regards to polluting the environment.
Whataboutism says a wrong can’t be a wrong, because somewhere, at some time, another wrong occurred, and that, therefore, the two wrongs combined, make a right. If nothing can be deemed wrong, as long as we can think of examples of things that are worse, then there is no point in ever correcting any negative actions or impulses
So where did this type of argumentative defence come from? Well, it is actually used primarily for propaganda purposes, and was honed and perfected by Russian operatives during the Cold War, in order to confuse and ‘turn’ American operatives.
“When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Soviet response would be “What about…” followed by an event in the Western World. … The tactic saw a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia, relating to human rights violations committed by, and criticisms of, the Russian government. The technique received new attention during Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. Usage of the tactic extended to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.“ (wikipedia)
It’s by no means that recent of a development. As long as you’ve had people with power harming people, you’ve had apologists defending those people’s actions.
It’s just rather alarming that the Trump administration has made it such an integral part of rationalizing actions that would be clearly considered human rights violations and treasonous actions under any other president.
This need for the Trump administration to defend the indefensible has lead many a pseudo intellectual to follow the same path, essentially tearing the fabric of reality apart in an attempt to make it fit within the parameters they have now been given.
KellyAnne Conway is probably the best example of someone who has so mastered this concept and defence that she almost … ALMOST … sounds like she has a rational and verifiable point every now and again. The trouble is, a picking apart of her sped up excuses and misdirection generally exposes the myriad of holes in her argument.
Consider one of the earliest examples of her flim flamming baffle gab, the famous “Bowling Green Massacre” allusion, said with a straight face in February of 2017, with the full power of the government behind her.
When Conway defended the president’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, she told MSNBC that two Iraqis who came to the US and had been radicalized “were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green Massacre.”
While she eventually admitted that she ‘misspoke’ in alluding to a non-existent event, on two more occasions she alluded again to a massacre that never actually happened. Her intent was to stir up fear and paranoia, with the end goal being an attempt to scare American citizens into an acceptance of a Muslim travel ban.
” On 29 January, speaking to Cosmopolitan.com, she was even more specific about the non-existent event: “[T]wo Iraqi nationals came to this country, joined Isis, traveled back to the Middle East to get trained and refine their terrorism skills, and come back here, and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre of taking innocent soldiers’ lives away.”
And on the same day, Conway was captured on video telling TMZ “There were two Iraqis who came here, got radicalized, joined Isis, and then were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green attack on our brave soldiers.”
Conway and Trump stragegist Stephen Miller are most likely the masterminds behind the promulgation of this typically Soviet response to criticism. it is hardly likely that the entire House, Congress, and president suddenly and spontaneously seized upon this very Russian form of talking point without having been carefully coached in how to use it to their best (Republican) advantage.
The ‘what about-ers’ are sneaky; they want to take the spotlight off the problem at hand, and change the obvious villain in the piece to someone other than the one they are championing, and in the process, make themselves look not only terribly clever for connecting some little known or potentially false dots, but also to appear virtuous and pious for directing your attention to some lesser known atrocity.
That the massacre/slavery/explosion may have happened a hundred years ago, and under entirely different circumstances is immaterial, because they’ve resurrected that moment and are demanding you defend it now, today – or give up your criticism of their actions .. now, today..
Acting like dealing with a current problem just adds to the enormous stack of problems needing to be dealt with is, at the core, just a way of saying that one is too busy to get involved in this new problem being addressed. It’s an attempt to find a way to avoid getting involved, due to already being overloaded with too many other philosophical problems.
Sadly, the end result of whataboutery as a tactic highlighting the misdeeds of others, is, in the end, an admission of complete moral failure, or as Cardinal Cahal Daly noted, “one of the commonest forms of evasion of personal moral responsibility.” It’s a highlighting of the truth that only people who know themselves to be guilty of something “can find comfort in finding others to be just as bad or worse. ” (Merold Westphal, philosopher)
It also has to be noted that there can be a terrible backlash for those who can always find a way to defend the offences of others, as those excuses may actually be used to discredit one’s own actions.
“No American politician in living memory has advanced the idea that the entire world, including the United States, was rotten to the core.” Masha Gessen, The New York Times.
In one of the most shocking moments of the U.S. presidential campaign in 2016, then candidate Trump responded to a question about his feelings on the treatment of journalists, teachers and dissidents by Turkish President Erdogan by saying that the United States had a lot of problems dealing with it’s own civil liberties, and so, had little right to be a ‘good messenger’ to other countries. And in one of his many defences of Russia’s Putin, Trump said,
For Trump and his minions … America is just another shit hole in a world of shit holes where everyone is potentially a murdering criminal to be feared.
I’m not really sure how that belief or attitude is supposed to make America that ‘great’ of a country, now or ever.