WHAT we debate is important, or at least we believe it is. If we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t waste the time or energy doing it. But HOW we debate is just as important. If truth matters, and I believe it does, then logical argumentation matters. I recently upset some folks when I suggested that social media sites require users to demonstrate basic logical argumentation skills and the ability to identify fake news. Perhaps that sounds harsh, but I’ve seen the damage that the lack of those skills can cause. When it comes to online debates, logical fallacies abound. In this post we are going to explore one particular form of fallacy that has been especially prevalent recently.
Ok, so after that extended introduction, the fallacy I want to discuss here is whataboutism. If you have participated in or witnessed any debate, especially any political debate, I am certain you have seen this fallacy in action. You’ve probably even been guilty of it yourself. I’m sure I have. So how does it work? Great question. As the name suggests, foundation of the fallacy is the question, “But what about…?” For example, you bring up a legitimate concern about presidential candidate X. Instead of addressing your concern directly, I say, “Well, what about Candidate Y.” In essence, whataboutism is just a deflection; a way to avoid addressing one real issue by deflecting to another issue, real or otherwise. I saw this ALL. THE. TIME. during the election. You probably did too.
Within my circle of evangelical Christian friends, the most common occurrence of the whataboutism fallacy BY FAR has to do with the issue of abortion. If anyone anywhere brings up any issue related to social justice, you can be sure that some evangelical Christian is going to come running up and say, “But what about abortion?” This has happened to me more times than I can count in the last few months alone. I bring up systemic racism or police brutality, “but what about abortion?” I mention the Christian responsibility to care for immigrants and refugees, “but what about all of the babies that are killed right here?” The effect ends up being that anyone who wants to talk about any issue other than abortion is just a heartless monster. In my experience, too many folks use abortion whataboutism as a trump card to avoid taking any other issues seriously. Don’t get me wrong, abortion is an important issue; it’s just not the ONLY important issue.
Abortion isn’t the only common whataboutism deflection. Some of these are probably familiar to you. Someone wants to talk about women’s rights in America, someone else says, “Well what about women’s rights in the Middle East?” Someone wants to talk about hunger and homelessness in Africa, someone else says “Well what about all the hungry and homeless people in America?” You get the picture.
So please, in the name of logic, don’t use this fallacy. Your issue may be very, very important, but don’t let it be an excuse to deflect from another important issue. And don’t let other people use this fallacy, either. If some says, “But what about…” to you, you can say, “Yes, I agree, that’s also an important issue, but that’s not what we’re talking about now. Please don’t deflect from the issue at hand.” If all else fails, you can direct them to this post.
One final note on fallacies in general. While logical fallacies are very real errors in logical argumentation, I’ve noticed that it has become fashionable to identify (or, often, misidentify) logical fallacies in order to avoid actually engaging the topic at hand. This itself is a fallacy known as the fallacy fallacy. Original, right? Point is, you should know what logical fallacies are and avoid using them and even call them out, but don’t fall into the fallacy fallacy.
This is a wonderful post, Thomas! You’re more deeply considering what it takes to change a person’s heart than most of the posters on Facebook… as well you should, being a minister and all.
I am no stranger to logical argumentation. I professionally taught dialectic, and mentored students at the rhetoric level in how to make and defend a thesis. We were taught how to make theological arguments in our exegesis papers at the School of Theology, but we were never taught there how to defend a theological argument. We were never taught the fundamentals of rhetorical debate, rhetorical argumentation.
I have wanted to teach you some of these fundamentals, but neither the School of Theology nor regular Facebook are appropriate places to do it. I tried to teach you a little bit of rhetoric at the beginning of the summer, but the subject matter in hand was too provocative for references to rhetorical skill to sink in.
Rhetorical argumentation is not the polite logical-point-and-logical-counter-point of caricature (and of Republican delusion). It is the artful lunge-parry-counter-thrust of fencing. Logical argumentation endeavors to change a person’s mind, rhetorical argumentation aspires to change a person’s heart. The intent of rhetorical debate is not to “answer” the opponent’s argument, but rather to destroy it. Universities don’t teach that stuff anymore. They teach the student’s how to be snowflakes, how to melt under the heat of rhetorical argumentation. Contemporary students sink to the lowest form of rhetorical argument, the temper tantrum of the two year old, because they have not been taught any better form of rhetoric.
A logical system is a set of rules whose function is to define “proof.” Logical argumentation was given precedence over rhetorical argumentation during the Enlightenment of the 17th century (because the ultimate rhetoric, the warfare of the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War became too dreadful, rhetoric took another big hit in World Wars One and Two, leading to postmodernism). Logical argumentation has still not lost its cachet, but Godel put it back into its proper place in 1931 with the publication of his Incompleteness Theorems which “proved” that for any logical system there will exist statements within the language of the system that the system can neither prove nor disprove. No logical system can resolve within itself all ambiguities.
The weakness of logical argumentation is this: every logical system is based on a series of assumptions (guesses we have to make when we are required to take a decision in the face of incomplete information) which are held to be intuitively self-obvious. A logical system cannot defend one or more of it’s basic assumptions without recursion, that is, without resulting in tautology, circular reasoning, tying itself into verbal knots that cannot be undone.
The most effective way to defeat any logical argument is to identify one of its basic assumptions and to attack at that point. It works every time. I taught my student’s how to win any logical argument they ever got into.
Every year my brother Kurt would take the student body of The Summit Academy on a day-long field trip down to Bloomington to watch an opera at IU. The Summit Academy didn’t have a prom, so the students took advantage of the opera to dress up and sit “together.” They pretended they weren’t “dating,” and the faculty pretended we didn’t see it (but we actually saw EVERYTHING; there are a LOT of good stories behind THAT statement)!
During the self-structured time of the afternoon, some of the rhetoric boys went to The Game Preserve to buy miniature figures, but others LOVED to go to that free-speech area… where was it?… in the park on the square?… and some of the rhetoric girls also… to argue with the communists who were holding forth there. IT WAS A JOY TO BEHOLD! Our students were running circles around the other speakers in the park, and those other speakers didn’t even know what was hitting them! Those other speakers had been trained in logical argumentation, but not in rhetoric.
I also taught them how to lose any argument they ever got into, by uttering the words “You are wrong.” When you say those words to your opponent you have conceded arguing, and their heart is shut like a steel trap. In the context of Facebook arguing, those words are “What you are doing is unacceptable! STOP NOW!” And believe it or not, I have read those identical words with exactly the same emphasis from a number of different Facebook correspondents! Those words seem to be trending on Facebook! 🙂
Our father was a newspaper editor. He thought, spoke, and wrote in editorial voice, which is rhetorical. He taught us by example the over all importance of exercising well-formed judgment, and he taught us by precept as well as example how to analyze the purposes and techniques of political argumentation, which is rhetorical. Logical argumentation has an important place in rhetoric, but l