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.