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What About Whataboutism is Hurting American Democracy?

In response to a critique, we are seeing a tendency across the political spectrum to answer with insistence on the greater immorality of those raising the concern - “WHAT ABOUT that [awful thing]”? Here’s why that’s so destructive.

In his Sermon on the Mount, the Savior offered this timeless warning about the human tendency to judge and find faults in others while ignoring faults in ourselves. 

Here is the NIV translation, which has more vivid and relatable imagery for the modern reader:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

In this parable, Jesus is warning of three related dangers. First of all, he warned us against looking to others and finding faults rather than examining our own faults, or a lack of introspection. Second, he warned about the danger of hypocrisy. Third he warned against harshness in judgment.  In the Savior’s parable, these three lessons are synergistic and mutually reinforcing.

By accusing someone else of having a beam in their eye, the individual engaging in whataboutism avoids any need for introspection or objective analysis.

But I want to focus on what seems to me to be a modern-day version of the Mote and the Beam fallacy, the tendency to engage in whataboutism.  Whataboutism is a type of rhetorical fallacy that relies on discrediting or pointing out hypocrisy rather than engaging arguments on the merits. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,  it is “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counteraccusation or raising a different issue.” This term entered into popular usage during the Cold War when criticism of Communist Russia was often deflected by directing attention towards flaws in America or other Western Democracies. Soviet apologists used this technique to divert attention away from the Gulags and mass execution by focusing attention on American racism or sexism. 

At a superficial level, whataboutism seems like the inverse of the mote and beam fallacy. After all, one is exposing hypocrisy and pointing out the beam in another’s eyes. But beyond this superficial difference, it is clear that whataboutism is at the very least a close cousin of the Mote and the Beam Fallacy. The key similarity is that whataboutism allows someone to avoid introspection by finding fault in an external source. By accusing someone else of having a beam in their eye, the individual engaging in whataboutism avoids any need for introspection or objective analysis.   And whataboutism accordingly tends to result in harsh and close-minded judgments and hypocrisy. It is a sort of defense mechanism that projects outward rather than looking inward. 

Whataboutism is destructive in any context. For instance, in a marriage a spouse might rely on whataboutism to deflect criticism and focus on the perceived failings of his spouse. But it has been particularly destructive in the political sphere over the past few years.  Indeed, it seems to me that whataboutism is at the root of much of the rot and partisanship that we see in political discourse today. 

I am far from the only one to advance this argument. Claire Fallon observed in Huffington Post that: “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.”

I will illustrate with a timely example, but it is just one example and I could have chosen from many others. On January 6, 2021, violent protestors who objected to the election results stormed the United States Capitol. Frankly, this was a deplorable and shameful event. We should all be able to unite in criticism of the actions of this mob. We should be able to find common ground and work together to push back against this extremism. 

But almost immediately the whataboutism on both sides began. My friends on the right immediately began calling out the perceived hypocrisy of the fact that those who had supported and defended the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer were now criticizing protests and calling for police intervention. A related critique came from the suggestion of coverage bias, arguing that the media’s reaction would be very different if the shoe were on the other foot. On the other side, my progressive friends bemoaned the fact that those who called for law and order in turbulent summer months were now subdued in their criticism of rioters on the political right. And they quickly argued that the relatively subdued police response would be very difficult if the protesters were persons of color.

I am not suggesting that all of these criticisms are completely meritless. Most of them probably have some merit to them. That is assumed in the story of the motes and beams. We all have our motes and our beams. We are all inconsistent and flawed and at times hypocritical. And pointing out inconsistencies can be important when done with a spirit of loving correction. This kind of comparison can also be valuable in ensuring that public norms are consistently and uniformly applied. 

But I am nevertheless deeply disturbed by how quickly those on both sides tend to respond with these fault-finding arguments. Whataboutism absolves the speaker of any need to carefully engage with the merits of an argument, It is a lot easier to find some hypocrisy in the world and to point it out. In fact, the act of avoiding responsibility and failing to engage in introspection then provides ammunition for whataboutism arguments in the opposite direction. It is a vicious cycle. And when we are done we are left blinded by rage and do not make any progress. To the contrary, whataboutism actually excuses all kinds of horrific actions taken based on the excuse that the “other”side is worse.

I am suggesting that we need to carefully check our natural tendency to engage in whataboutism and fault finding.

As journalist Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR argued, “Whataboutism flattens moral nuances into a black-and-white worldview. But in this worldview, it’s very difficult to be the good guy; idealism is the ultimate naïveté, and anyone who dares to criticize another can be ‘unmasked’ as a hypocrite. This creates a useful moral equivalency, if nobody is perfect, there’s license to do all sorts of imperfect things.”

I am suggesting that we need to carefully check our natural tendency to engage in whataboutism and fault finding. If our first instinct in an argument is to point out hypocrisy in others, we should ask ourselves what purpose that argument will serve. If we are making it merely to tear down someone else, then we need to stop. Similarly, if we find ourselves relying on this crutch as a tool to avoid holding ourselves accountable, that also needs to stop immediately.  We should ask ourselves what hard truths are we avoiding grappling with or what insights are we forsaking when we refuse to turn inward and instead focus outward on the faults of others. 

As disciples of Christ we have a head start. We know that the tendency to whataboutism is a serious problem.  Fortunately, Jesus Christ’s teachings offer a virtuous cycle that counters the vicious cycle of whataboutism. When we focus on our own flaws and imperfections, we will be less concerned with the faults in others. And we do not need to accuse others of hypocrisy or inconsistency. Instead, we will quickly acknowledge our shortcomings and strive to improve. And the same is true for all of our friends and neighbors, who will similarly be more concerned with their own faults and work to improve themselves. 

If we want to heal our nation’s political discourse and social fabric, I believe we need to take accountability for the weaknesses and shortcomings in our positions. We need to improve ourselves and become more christlike. We need to be the gracious and conciliatory peacemakers that Christ calls us to be. 

And we need to start now. 

About the author

Daniel Ortner

Daniel Ortner is a public interest attorney focusing on the first amendment and the administrative state. He has clerked for the Utah Supreme Court and the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. He has a J.D. from BYU
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