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The war against “whataboutism”

by Greg Krehbiel on 5 January 2018

If somebody says something stupid, and you try to show that it’s stupid by applying the same reasoning to another situation, that’s going to be called “whataboutism” — which is a party foul in the sick, twisted, illogical mind of the internet.

2018-01-05  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 31

  1. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 3:34 pm

    A: “Trump admits to engaging in sexual assault and even advocates it.”

    B: “But what about Bill Clinton?”

    A: “Let us suppose that Clinton is an out-and-out rapist. How does that exonerate Trump?”

    Is A being illogical here? How so?

  2. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    5 January 2018 @ 3:38 pm

    Perhaps you missed the first five words of my post.

  3. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 3:43 pm

    You need to study logic. It is the form of the argument that is at stake here, not the alleged stupidity of the content.

  4. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 3:46 pm

    A: X is bad.

    B: But Y why is bad too. So what about that?

    A: Let us suppose that Y is bad. How does that justify X?

  5. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    5 January 2018 @ 3:52 pm

    It’s more like this.

    Person 1: Everybody should be able to do anything they want with their own bodies.

    Person 2: What about somebody who’s driving a car with passengers who wants to drive off a cliff?

    Person 1: That’s “whataboutism.”

    And you need to study rhetoric.

    The point of saying “Trump admits to engaging in sexual assault and even advocates it” doesn’t end there. The statement includes loads of other, hidden assertions, such as “therefore he is disqualified to be president,” etc. That’s why “What about Bill Clinton?” is perfectly relevant. It addresses the hidden assertions.

    Now, from a Mr. Spock perspective it might be better to ask the person to clarify their hidden assertions, but everybody knows that’s what’s going on.

  6. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 3:55 pm

    Actually I had an experience recently where such an exchange took place (between an American and an anti-American). I am paraphrasing:

    Anti: Recently I met this guy who had a big flag of the Soviet Union hanging in his room?

    Amer: Imagine that! What does it say about someone who is displaying that flag?

    Anti: What about the Conferdate flag? What does it say about someone who displays it?

    Amer: Let’s suppose that the confederate flag represents evil. How does that justify displaying the flag of the Soviet Union?

  7. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 4:01 pm

    I have definitely seen whataboutism as a fallacious way of arguing. From both a logical and rhetorical perspective. What you are calling “whataboutism” is more a kind of reductio ad absurdum by the use of analogy.

    Nor do I think that “What about Bill Clinton?”, especially now, addresses anything. It is just a red herring.

  8. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    5 January 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    “What about Bill Clinton” has caused many on the left to re-evaluate their support of Bill Clinton. It’s not a red herring at all.

    The whole point of a “what about?” question is whether a person is willing to be consistent when they propose some standard. Or, in the alternative, to get them to clarify their standard. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask.

  9. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    I am speaking of “What about?” only the context of the argument. Strictly speaking, Clinton’s alleged misbehavior does not in any sense justify Trump’s. It is a accordingly fallacious to attempt to justify Trump by pointing out the evils of Trump. Of course I realize that people are not usually rational. If I point out a flaw in your character, you might respond by pointing out a flaw in my character. Of course the flaw in my character in no way eliminates the one in yours. And of course your fallacious way of reasoning could have some good effects. You might draw my attention to something I need to work on. Still, that style of arguing is fallacious.

  10. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 4:15 pm

    *by pointing out the evils of Clinton

  11. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    5 January 2018 @ 4:22 pm

    Clinton’s misbehavior doesn’t justify Trump’s misbehavior, but that’s not the point! That’s what you’re missing.

    The argument is, Trump is bad, therefore something should or shouldn’t happen.

    Bringing up Clinton is not meant to justify Trump, but to question the legitimacy of the proposed consequence.

    To illustrate …

    Illegitimate use of “what about.”

    Preacher: You shouldn’t swear.
    Parishioner: But you swear.

    Legitimate use of “what about.”

    Foul-mouthed preacher: This candidate can’t be a preacher because he swears.
    Candidate: But you swear, and you’re a preacher.

  12. Robin R.
    5 January 2018 @ 4:35 pm

    But I did try very hard to argue that Clinton’s bad behavior does not justify Trump’s. It may not be the point that some are making, but it was MY POINT. Not every point someone makes has be put in the left box or the right box.

    I said time and time again, “Let’s suppose that Clinton is a total rapist and should not have been president. Now let’s leave that case aside and consider Trump without being distracted by this misleading comparison”. And I completely stick to my guns on that – with little effect of course.

    At least you admit that there is a fallacious form of “what about”. I’m fixin’ to call someone out about that in the near future.

  13. William
    5 January 2018 @ 5:15 pm

    The problem with whataboutism in it’s current form is that it’s typically used as a diversionary tactic or means to shut down a line of discussion. So, person A makes a credible assertion. Person B, instead of dealing directly with the assertion, responds by only bringing up an analogous subject that’s intended to move the conversation from the initial assertion (with no intent of addressing it) to something more favorable to their perspective. Typically, Person B doesn’t want to directly address the initial assertion because it would not reflect well on or require them to concede to something that would be damaging to their argument.

  14. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    7 January 2018 @ 9:53 am

    It seems to me this discussion is about topics like Logic, truth, consistency, and principles. In my experience, in my humble occasion, this style of decision-making is more common among conservatives than liberals. And so liberals attack and score points against conservatives by pointing out their inconsistencies. But these sorts of attacks do not work against liberals, in my humble opinion, since I believe they make decisions differently, e.g. based on “fairness” and anticipated outcomes.

    A couple quick examples. When Pres. Obama nominated Eric Holder, he said that it was Eric Holder’s job to enforce the law as it is written. In the same speech, he also said that there is a difference between what the law is and what the law should be, and it was Eric Holder’s responsibility to close that gap. those two statements are in conflict with each other. But liberals don’t care about such things.

    Another example would be Harry Reid just making up things about Mitt Romney and his taxes. When Henry was confronted about this, he said, “so what? It worked.”

    Another example would be demanding that something be enacted because 51% or 52% of Americans want it, but also pushing policies the majority of people do not want because it is more fair or it is the right thing to do.

  15. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    8 January 2018 @ 2:51 pm

    Yes, liberals are very inconsistent. But I’ll bet liberals can come up with examples of where conservatives are inconsistent.

  16. smitemouth
    8 January 2018 @ 3:15 pm

    We’ll see what Sessions does about marijuana this week. “States rights! States rights!” “Marijuana?” “Oh, we don’t like that…” States rights—except for things we don’t like.”

  17. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    8 January 2018 @ 3:25 pm

    That’s a good example. People complain about states’ rights when they like what the states are doing, but when they don’t they talk about the rule of law.

    I think most talk about the rule of law is overly simplistic. It’s not as if we have a law, and it’s enforced. We have millions of laws, and prosecutors pick which ones they want to enforce. Then they make plea deals, and stuff like that.

    It’s hardly some straight-forward, objective, logical process.

    Also — and this has nothing to do with marijuana — I think the executive branch has the right to say they’re not going to enforce some law, and the legislative and judicial branches have the right to push back. Otherwise, how are we going to get rid of stupid laws?

  18. William
    9 January 2018 @ 1:36 am

    QUOTE: Yes, liberals are very inconsistent. But I’ll bet liberals can come up with examples of where conservatives are inconsistent.

    Exactly! All sides do this…it’s not the exclusive domain of liberals.

    Despite not being liberal, I recall good ole Mitch McConnell and crew advocating in 2010 to have the Democrats wait for Scott Brown to be sworn in before holding a key vote on the new ACA legislation. Interestingly enough, they did. Fast forward, the same Mitch McConnell advocated for moving forward on the 2017 tax cut vote before newly elected Democrat Doug Jones could be seated in the Senate.

    Oh wait, wasn’t it the same Mitch McConnell that stated in 2015 that making legislation should be done in a bipartisan manner by regular order. Seems that wasn’t done on two MAJOR bills (healthcare and tax cut) in 2017 (which have a significant impact on citizens and government spending).

    Hmm…now that I think of it, wasn’t it McConnell again that said in 2016, “one of my proudest moments was when I told Obama, ‘You will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy,'”. Yet, in 2017, he said, “Apparently there’s yet a new standard now, which is not to confirm a Supreme Court nominee at all. I think that’s something the American people simply will not tolerate.” Say it ain’t so!

    Let’s see, Trump has had a number of inconsistencies since the launch of his presidential campaign and into his presidency. Yet, since it’s not clear if he’s a real conservative (or just playing one on TV), it’s not necessary to point them out.

    That said, it’s seems increasingly government is less about “rule of law” or creating/administering standards for the good of citizens and more about political gain for those who are in power. It doesn’t seem to matter if their actions are inconsistent, as long as they get what they want in the end. I can understand the motivation for why both sides do this. Yet, I don’t understand why American citizens seem to tolerate this from any of them.

  19. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 7:59 am

    It is simple how American citizens tolerate such behavior. One simply overlooks the inconsistencies that are obviously on parade in one’s own party while highlighting those of the other party. The comment by Dave in the current discussion is a perfect example of that. Nothing comes more natural to people than irrationality.

  20. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    9 January 2018 @ 8:42 am

    The fact that “both sides do it” does not preclude the possibility that one side does it more. It’s my impression that Dave is right that the left is less interested in consistency. Both sides have their failings, but it seems that the political left is more subject to this than the political right. But … who is the right person to ask about that? Who can make a fair judgment on the point?

  21. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 9:28 am

    One’s own side is always purer and more decent than the other side.

  22. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    9 January 2018 @ 9:29 am

    @ Robin R.: certainly my post focus on inconsistencies among liberals while traveling during inconsistencies among conservatives.

    What I was trying to say is, since conservatives (in my opinion) are much more prone to claim to make policy decisions on principle, they are more susceptible to charges of inconsistency than liberals.

  23. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 9:34 am

    They both have their “principles” and have no problem compromising them opportunistically. It is nonsense to say that one party is more principled than the other.

  24. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    9 January 2018 @ 9:37 am

    Why is that nonsense? It’s certainly possible that one party is more principled than another. You can’t simply reject that possibility.

  25. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 9:44 am

    “Nonsense” in the sense of patently false from an empirical standpoint. But if you don’t like that term applied in this context, let us just say that it is utter BS to say that one party is more principled than the other, as long as we are talking about the two mainstream parties. The libertarians and the greens are no doubt more principled because they have no chance of winning.

  26. smitemouth
    9 January 2018 @ 9:45 am

    You can’t say that a party that nominated Trump is principled. You can’t say that (white) evangelicals who say “character matters” overwhelmingly voted for and supported Trump are principled–given his 3 wives, affairs, personal Viet Nam avoiding STDS, casinos, strip clubs, nothing to ask forgiveness for, multiple bankruptcies, blah, blah, blah.

  27. William
    9 January 2018 @ 12:17 pm

    Indeed, both sides are opportunitists. We’ve seen enough examples to know both will sacrifice whatever principles they claim to possess if it means gaining power or winning.

    Yet, if I’m understanding correctly, Dave makes a point. It always seemed Republicans made “principle” (values/morals) a hallmark of their party platform. Given this, they likely should get criticized more harshly.

    To smitemouth’s point, it’s an “interesting” thing for an allegedly more principled party to support and justify the actions (sometimes ignore) of candidates like Trump and Moore. That said, it seems they might get another turn at bat with Sheriff Arpiao now running for Senate in Arizona. We’ll see what happens.

  28. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 7:55 pm

    @Dave and William: “Dave makes a point. It always seemed Republicans made “principle” (values/morals) a hallmark of their party platform.” Principles are not necessarily to be equated with “good principles” or “true” ones. You obviously approve of Republican (“conservative”) principles and accordingly identify them with good or true principles. My comments here, however, are value-neutral. Nazi Germany was very rigorously based on principles (e.g. giving absolute priority to the “Aryan race”). Though I don’t want to get into a long discussion about what the principles of Republicans and Democrats are, I suspect that the former would emphasize adhering to long-standing traditions (“values/morals” in William’s terms), whereas the latter would highlight equality (as stated in the Declaration of Independence). Again, in neither case do they adhere strictly to their principles and are indeed more or less tied in giving them little more than lip service.

  29. William
    9 January 2018 @ 8:45 pm

    @Robin, I’m not clear on your point. I suspect we might be making different points. My agreement or disagreement with Republican principles wasn’t a part of the point I was making. Neither was whether they are good or true. My observation was that it seemed to be a point of pride for Republicans that have been a principled party. Given that, they likely should be judged accordingly, especially when they are inconsistent with them. Additionally, my point was that both liberals and conservatives have been inconsistent abiding by their principles.

  30. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 8:50 pm

    We fully agree, except that I would say that Republicans do not make it a point of pride that they are a principled party any more than Democrats do. They may use different formulations of this, but they both say very loud and clear that they are promoting certain principles.

  31. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 8:56 pm

    But of course the Republicans like to think of themselves having that point of pride. And that is where the bias creeps in.

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