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While this uses examples that could be seen as supporting one side or the other, it is intended as a politically neutral question, to the extent that that is possible

This has come up more and more in political discussions I've been having recently, mostly to do with the American election. Basically, whenever a point is brought up, it's not really addressed, and is countered with something that the other candidate has done, or a slur against the other candidate.

E.g. If Donald Trump's racism is brought up, a response I've heard is that Hillary Clinton is also racist. Another one I've heard is attacking Obama's policies on illegal immigration in response to an attack on Donald Trump's policies (e.g. his "wall").

These are just examples, and the accuracy, or not, of the counterpoint is not the issue, the issue is that the counterpoint doesn't address, or attempt to defend against the point made. This makes it very difficult to have a level-headed political discussion without it degenerating into "Donald Trump did this", "So did Hillary Clinton" and vice-versa.

So my question is this:

How can a meaningful political discussion be had with someone who uses Whataboutism extensively?

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    This isn't really a political question as much as a debate technique question. Would probably be best asked in 'debating.se' if such a site existed (actually, that'd be an interesting site!) – user1530 Feb 28 '17 at 18:05
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    Old strategy in Soviet propaganda: And you are lynching negroes. – gerrit Mar 1 '17 at 12:45
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    Assuming the "whataboutist" is not a monologist, and would actually like to persuade you, there's always Socratic irony. – agc Mar 1 '17 at 14:05
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    @KeithMcClary I assume that's irony. The problem with whataboutism is not that the response is factually incorrect (it usually has at least a core of truth), but that it's a red herring fallacy. – gerrit Mar 2 '17 at 11:19
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    @gerrit In rational scientific discussions it is normal to ask whether your reasoning and methods apply in analogous situations and then explore the logical consequences (i.e., "whataboutism"). This is part of the scientific method and not considered a "red herring fallacy". In political discussions some people seem to think they are allowed to believe six contradictory things before breakfast - no logical consistency required. – Keith McClary Mar 3 '17 at 5:21

17 Answers 17

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Note: this is a pretty long answer; and the specific points regarding whataboutism are at the last section, so you may want to skip there first if that's all you care about.

How can a level-headed political discussion be had with someone who uses Whataboutism extensively?

Ultimately, by not having a level-headed political discussion.

OK, this wording was a bit ironic, but in reality, many observers note that people in general are not often moved by facts - especially when said facts contradict their core political beliefs (the cognitive psychology terms for that are "selective bias"/"biased assimilation" and even worse, "Backfire effect" when the views are strengthened).

In short, human brains are built in by evolution to find arguments to disprove any facts provided that contradict one's deeply held core beliefs; political ones chiefly among them. The exact evolutionary psychology reasoning behind this is somewhat off-topic so I won't go into details.


But seriously, I would like to have such a discussion.

So be it, Jedi....

The four general approaches to convincing people I would recommend are:

  1. Overwhelming evidence.

    This was discussed on "You're not so smart" podcast covering Backfire effect, in essence, there's a threshold at which that cognitive system breaks a dam, so to speak, and starts incorporating conflicting facts.

    But one, or two, or three, facts, would not be enough.

  2. Use proper framing.

    According to Moral Foundations theory; conservatives and liberals are swayed not by different facts; but by different framing of the facts.

    E.g. to convince a conservative, you frame things in terms of loyalty and patriotism; to convince a liberal, in terms of "fairness".

  3. Don't use facts.

    Experts on persuasion generally state that facts are the weakest way to persuade someone. Emotions etc... are far more effective.

    If you don't believe experts on persuasion because they weren't persuasive enough, here's a fact for you: psychologists confirmed that finding.

  4. Stop using personal attacks, or things that seem like personal attacks.

    "Donald Trump's racism" - to anyone who voted for Trump for reasons other than being racist, this mainly sounds like you are accusing THEM of supporting racism. This sounds cathartic and profound among your circle of Trump opponents - but has absolutely the opposite effect when talking to a Trump voter.


But what about whataboutism?

Well, it really depends on (1) what your goal is and (2) what your argument is. We'll cover goal-based discourse in the next section, but let's examine your arguments - make sure that they are both valid AND persuasive.

For example, you used an example of "Donald Trump racism".

  • First off, note the last bullet point in the last section. No matter whether you have a valid argument or not, take care to not frame it in a way that will appear to the other person as an attack on them, in the latter case they'll at best tune you out and at worst will be even more antagonistic to your point of view.

  • Second, make sure you even have a valid argument. Have you done research outside your own political bubble to confirm that there's actually such a thing as "Donald Trump racism" (outside of a logical fallacy of "some racists support Trump, therefore Trump must be racist")?

  • Third, make sure you're speaking the same language and you're not succumbing to "Intentionality fallacy". In this specific example, 90+% chances are that you as Trump opponent are using a modern progressive definition of "racism" (anything that doesn't explicitly promote welfare of specific minority races, usually in Marxist "equality of outcome" context); whereas your Trump supporting opponent likely uses the pre-postmodernist, formal definition of "racism" (viewing one race as better than another, and expressing negative attitudes based on that view). You might like to think that you own the discourse... which you don't if your goal is to convince someone else.

    Also, chances are, you are committing another fallacy, that of confusing negative attitude about things OTHER than race, that just happen to be correlated with race (Just because a large majority of illegal aliens in USA are Hispanic, accusing someone of being anti-Hispanic racist just because they oppose illegal immigration is at best, a logical fallacy they will ignore or point out; at worst, likely to cause them to oppose you even more due to first point).

  • And finally, you need to first decide what is your goal? - and adjust your approach to the best way to achieving that goal.

    Is your goal to make someone not vote for Trump? Then you need to find out first WHY they want to vote for Trump. Chances are, they have far more important reasons to vote for someone than a single issue, no matter how important that one issue is to you personally. So you need to first listen to the person you're discussing with; and then argue on the points they care about. If they care about economy and jobs, start with "Hillary's economic plan will bring more jobs than Trump's". OK, you may be wrong about that but at least you're now discussing the point the other person actually cares about; and therefore is more likely to think deeper about; instead of automatically rebut as "this is just an attack on my candidate whom I like because of jobs".


But what about whataboutism? you didn't address how I can handle that

I go back to asking what your goal is. Is it to convince someone of specific point? Or to convince them to vote a different way? Or to do something specific? Or to simply acknowledge that you're right and they are wrong?

Let's say you're theoretically right (Trump's immigration policies are awful despite being, for example, far far softer than, say Mexico's own immigration policies).

  • If it's to convince them of a specific point (or to take specific action):

    Don't use partisan talking points.

    What does Trump's view on immigration have to do with convincing someone that allowing illegal aliens the path to citizenship is a good idea? (and yes, they likely view the issue EXACTLY the way I just framed it, not the way you framed it). So, don't argue with them about Trump, in the first place. Argue the merits of the policy - first, ask what THEIR reasons to think a specific way are; then try to convince them on the merits to your viewpoint, using the ideas earlier in my answer.

    How is this important in the context of whataboutism?

    Because when you argue policy; there's no reason, or way, to do a "what about" response.

    You: "Border wall is bad, for reasons X, Y and Z"

    Them: "But Hillary Clinton supported border wall"

    You: "So, Hillary was wrong too. Again, border wall is bad, for reasons X, Y and Z"

  • If it's to convince them to vote a different way

    Then, explain how voting that way is bad for the person you're arguing with. As noted above, if they care about economy, arguing about Trump's real-or-made-up racism is not going to change their mind.

    How is this important in the context of whataboutism?

    Because if you argue about points they don't care about, the backfire effect will take place and they won't care to listen to your points. Whataboutism isn't the root cause of the issue here, it's just a randomly used somewhat effective tactic of rejecting your arguments - but only one of many possible tactics.


  • Bonus round: not all uses of whataboutism are invalid

    One last point to make: as Alexander O'Mara noted, "whataboutism" is a colloquial term that basically seems to frequently descend into "you're a hypocrite" rebuttal.

    On one hand, that kind of rebuttal is often is symptomatic of "Appeal to Hypocrisy" logical fallacy.

    On the other hand, sometimes a sober self-examination would reveal that the argument being made may, indeed, at its core, be hypocritical; and as such, "Appeal to Hypocrisy" in that situation isn't really a fallacy at all, but indeed a fully logical rebuttal. To address that, check your hypocritical privilege.

    An example would be:

    You: Donald Trump isn't fit to be President because he behaved disrespectfully towards women, and cheated on his wives, and people who do so are unfit for Presidency.

    Opponent: So did an accused rapist and sexual harasser Bill Clinton. Have you voted for Bill Clinton, twice? Have you publicly castigated John Edwards or JFK? Then you clearly don't believe either of your own two arguments, and are just using them as a convenient excuse to attack Trump as opposed to a sincerely held belief. Why should I subscribe to your belief when even you don't hold it sincerely?

    Importantly here, the rebuttal is NOT "your point is wrong" (which indeed would be a H.fallacy). It is "your point is irrelevant to the discussion, since it's not a sincerely held belief for either one of us".

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    I like the combination of "overwhelming evidence" and "don't use facts". I understand the dissonance there, but it's still kind of funny. – user1530 Feb 28 '17 at 18:34
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    Not making a comment on the accuracy of the link, but might it not be better to link to a less partisan site re immigration policy? American Thinker seems to be a generally right-wing site, and the article quotes Breitbart news and Town Hall, both generally right-wing media outlets. – penalosa Feb 28 '17 at 19:14
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    @mnbvc - Do you have specific fact in that article you wish to dispite? If not, let's not descend into fallacies like "appeal to motive" (or is it more of genetic fallacy? or bulverism?) – user4012 Feb 28 '17 at 20:12
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    Love how you called out how the question itself is the politics version of the XY problem. – Jared Smith Mar 1 '17 at 16:38
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    @Magisch - the ideal form is a benigh dictatorship by a benevolent error-free onminscent Artificial Intelligence :) But I'll stick with Churchill.... "democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time" – user4012 Mar 6 '17 at 18:50
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If Donald Trump's racism is brought up

and

How can a level-headed political discussion be had

are fundamentally incompatible. Whether Donald Trump is a racist is irrelevant to anything that could be considered a "level-headed political discussion". This is especially true if one of you supports Trump's policies and the other doesn't. Level-headed political discussions should be based in policy, not personal attacks.

Note for example that Lyndon Johnson was much more openly racist than Trump. He was also the single person most responsible for passage of the Voting Rights Act. Should we reject the Voting Rights Act because it was supported by a racist? Or should we evaluate it on policy?

This makes it very difficult to have a level-headed political discussion without it degenerating into "Donald Trump did this", "So did Hillary Clinton" and vice-versa.

It sounds like you are trying to contest the points. Why bother? Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is going to run again. Go ahead and throw them under the bus. Agree with the person: "Yes, and just as it was wrong when Obama/Clinton did it, it's still wrong now." That gets you off the horse race arguments and back to policy.

Look for points of agreement. It helps to occasionally agree with the other person. It's easier to ask a real question and start a real discussion from a point of agreement than a point of contention.

If you fall into a discussion where you know the result, bail early. "Well, we're never going to agree on this--let's talk about the weather."

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    "Level-headed political discussions should be based in policy, not personal attacks." - and if policies are racist (or can rationally be interpreted as such), then what? – alephzero Feb 28 '17 at 20:39
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    @alephzero - that's simple. Prove that the policies are racist, using common discourse (and not ideological definition of racism your political side made up). If something is unfair to a specific race, call it "unfair to a specific race", not "racist", which implies deliberate and intentional negativity to a specific race. If something happens to have a disparate impact on specific race, say that, instead of implying that it was designed so it would have disparate impact. – user4012 Feb 28 '17 at 20:47
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    Then concentrate on the bad policy impacts. How it disadvantages one race over others and why it's not fair. But don't start with it's racist and immediately move to it's wrong. It leaves too many points for disagreement. When you say "can rationally be interpreted as such", what I hear is, "I'm going to say that when I don't like what you say." Note that some people (e.g. Dr. Ben Carson) think that abortion is racist, because a disproportionate number of the terminated pregnancies are of fetuses that would otherwise become black babies. – Brythan Feb 28 '17 at 20:48
  • If something has a disparate impact on specific races, there's room to argue about fairness and neutrality. If something was designed to hurt people of a certain race, then fairness and neutrality become farces. – prosfilaes Mar 2 '17 at 0:38
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    Excellent point in the comments. For example, minimum wage laws have a disparate impact on unskilled workers, doing them out of a job. Those unskilled workers who still manage to get hired may (will) get paid more, but fewer unskilled workers overall will get jobs at all. Unskilled workers include uneducated inner-city youth of both races, but an argument can be made that there are more such black-skinned unskilled workers than white-skinned. (There, see? I didn't even use the word "racist" anywhere.) – Wildcard Mar 2 '17 at 11:20
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To make this less emotional, let's fictionalize the situation.

  • There is an election in your country where Bob Bobson and Alice Alison run for president.
  • You don't like Alice Alison, because she strangles kittens every day.
  • You make this argument to an Alice Alison supporter: "Alison would be a bad president because she is cruel to animals".

Now there are four possible forms of Whataboutism responses:

  • The irrelevant one
  • The relevant one.
  • The derailment to a different person
  • The derailment to a different topic

First the irrelevant one where one points out a very minor hypocrisis:

"Butwhatabout that one time when Bob Bobson stepped on a kitten?"

In that case point out the difference in scale. "While there once was an incident where Bobson stepped on a kitten and then apologized for it, this stands in no comparison to Alison who proudly boasts how she strangles an innocent kitten every day and how much she enjoys it. In this regard she is clearly much worse than Bobson".

Second, the relevant one where one points out the hypocrisis for the direct alternative:

"Butwhatabout Bob Bobson who also strangles kittens every day?"

I'm sorry, but in this case you lost your argument. You can not say that Alice Alison is a worse president than Bob Bobson for a reason which applies to both candidates equally. Acknowledge that it's an argument against both alternatives and pick a different argument.

Now for the derailment to a different person:

"Butwhatabout ex-president Charles Charlton who also strangled kittens every day?"

Here your opponent tries to derail the debate. Point out that you are debating whether to vote for Bob Bobson or Alice Alison. Charles Charlton does not stand for election, so whatever he did is irrelevant to the debate.

A counter-counter to this might be an ad-hominem argument against you in the form of "Why didn't you speak out against Charlton who did the same thing?" which can easily be diffuse by doing this here and now: "I believe that strangling kittens was wrong when Charlton did it and I think it is still wrong that Alison does it. We need to end this streak of kitten-strangling presidents!"

What you should do next to keep the debate constructive is to try to steer it into a debate about whether or not kitten strangling is something a president should be doing. You could say that kittens have a right to live. Your opponent could say that there is a cat overpopulation which hurts everyone, including the kittens. You could propose more ethical methods of cat population control. They could dismiss them as too expensive. Now you have a constructive debate about policy.

And lastly, the derailment to a different topic:

"Butwhatabout Bob Bobson who wants to outlaw cinnamon buns?"

In this situation your opponent basically admitted that they have no argument against the kitten argument. So they now want to talk about a different aspect of the Alison vs. Bobson question. That's only fair. If you expect them to listen to your attacks against their favorite candidate, you have to listen to theirs against yours, too. But for the record you might want to confirm that they concede their point: "I will gladly discuss bakery policy with you, but before we change the subject: Do you agree with my point that Alice Alison's animal cruelty is one reason against voting for her?". They can now either say "Yes" and thereby acknowledge their defeat on this topic or say "No" and bring a proper argument why kitten strangling isn't an inappropriate past time activity for a president.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Philipp Mar 2 '17 at 9:33
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    It's somehow humorous that this answer needed its comments cleaned up, out of all the much more hot-buttony answers here. :) – Wildcard Mar 2 '17 at 11:23
  • If you didn't have so much rep, I'd give you bounty for this. Because you cut to the chase in an elegant way. @Wildcard: looking at the chat transcript, there were minor quibbles or puns. – Fizz Oct 15 at 1:03
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I think the answers are unfairly dismissive of the person asking "what about". If you are trying to establish that I am racist and I say "yeah? what about david duke?" then you might say my response is irrelevant and unhelpful to the discussion. In a case of ranked comparisons such as an election, we can easily see how the response would be relevant. Saying "The other candidate is racist, also" can be taken to mean that on that point of racism the comparison is a wash, or almost so. So you need to rank on other factors. Since the validity of saying "what about" seems to depend on the context, perhaps you and your interlocutor are talking past each other. Is "Donald Trump is racist" all you intend to establish, in which case "whatabout so and so" may be irrelevant, or is it just the first part of an argument, "Donald Trump is racist and therefore we should ..." And of course even if you don't add the conclusion explicitly, your interlocutor may be aware of it, and his "what about" response may be directed at that implicit conclusion.

I can think of a related, but perhaps distinct situation where "what about so and so" would make sense. It is to suss out a contradiction in your position. You assert X and I assert "Y is another example of X and you support Y". Suppose in the last paragraph that "Supporting a racist is bad" is the principle at issue between the interlocutors. Suppose there is no confusion as to what 'racist' or 'bad' means. Then isn't your support of Hillary, if presumed racist, relevant to your assertion of that principle?

As another illustration. Suppose someone says "gay marriage must not be allowed; marriage is for producing children." And someone replies, "what about the sterile or post menopausal heterosexual couples"? In this case X=='gay couples can't produce children, therefore shouldnt be married', Y=='sterile or post menopausal couples', and the underlying principle being contradicted is 'marriage is restricted to unions that produce children'. Another illustration. X=="Our company cannot support paying for contraceptives since it contradicts our religious values", and someone replies "What about [Y==your investment in these funds which benefit from contraception sales]" and the underlying principle being contradicted is something like "Our religion prohibits us from any activity supportive of contraception use".

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    My answer tries to not be dismissive, but you definitely do a much better job of highligting the problems inherent with dismissing the "what about" response. – user4012 Feb 28 '17 at 22:01
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I've had decent success with teaching the logic fallacies people hold onto. It can be tough though, repeating fallacious talking points is easier that applying logic to an argument.

Whataboutism is essentially a technique of using the tu quoque logic fallacy, or an appeal to hypocrisy, to avoid engaging with the criticism. To defeat the logic fallacy, first you need to understand it.

tu quoque

You avoided having to engage with criticism by turning it back on the accuser - you answered criticism with criticism.

Pronounced too-kwo-kwee. Literally translating as 'you too' this fallacy is also known as the appeal to hypocrisy. It is commonly employed as an effective red herring because it takes the heat off someone having to defend their argument, and instead shifts the focus back on to the person making the criticism.

Example: Nicole identified that Hannah had committed a logical fallacy, but instead of addressing the substance of her claim, Hannah accused Nicole of committing a fallacy earlier on in the conversation.

It's essentially a red herring, used to avoid trying to justify the actions on their own merit. Objective truth shouldn't seek to argue that "other people are doing X, so it must be OK."

Whataboutism can be a bit confusing, so I think it is important to note that not every counterpoint prefixed with "what about" is a whataboutism. For example, someone may argue "We should kill the world bees, so that nobody ever gets stung by one" to which one might counter, "But what about pollination? We need bees for our food supply!" This is not an example of whataboutism, because it directly engages with the topic, instead of deflecting into an attack.

Some may also argue, as one answer here does, that if the person making the point is actually being hypocritical, the whataboutism is a valid response, and somehow not fallacious. This is simply not true. That's actually the very thing whataboutism is, avoiding engaging with the criticism and instead deflecting into an attack on the one making the criticism. This is highly fallacious, because truth is not dependent on the purity of those standing for it.

True whataboutism is only about the fallacious tu quoque attack. There is no non-fallacious form of whataboutism. If it's not fallacious, it's just a counterpoint.

Also, once past the logic fallacies, remember to give them a chance to formulate a well-reasoned argument, once you get past the logic fallacies. Just because fallacies were used to argue it, doesn't make it wrong.

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    I'd be curious to know what someone found wrong with this answer? – Alexander O'Mara Feb 28 '17 at 19:47
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    I didn't DV but you basically answered "how" question with a theoretical "why" asnwer that doesn't help with the "how" at all. Not only that, but your answer itself contains a fallacy, in that sometime, appeal to hypocrisy is a valid point and not a fallacy in the first place. – user4012 Feb 28 '17 at 20:13
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    @user4012 The how is to teach and further understanding, to move past the logic fallacy. Is this not clear? "appeal to hypocricy is a valid point" Citation please. – Alexander O'Mara Feb 28 '17 at 20:14
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    @AlexanderO'Mara Read both user4012's and Hasse1987's answers (particularly Hasse1987 which is specifically about when it can be valid) – Izkata Mar 1 '17 at 19:29
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    Some whatabout is tu quoque fallacy. Some whatabout is a reasonable challenge to fairness. This post assumes all the former. Pretty much everyone across the political spectrum believes in some form of "whataboutism". – clay Mar 3 '17 at 20:51
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Certainly, the "whataboutism" depends on the context. It can be used to deflect and avoid directly dealing with issues, or it can be a question about whether the person raising the issue is legitimately raising the issue, or is suddenly "finding Jesus" now that their favored candidate is no longer in office.

Example - Obama is accused of taking too many vacations by conservatives. A defender of Obama might ask "What about Bush?" The query isn't to say "Obama is taking too many vacations, but Bush did it so it's okay." It's more to say "'Too many' - compared to what? It's not out of line with what other presidents have done, it's much less than Bush, and were you concerned or outraged as you are now when Bush was doing it?"

It can also be used to illustrate when broad, unsupported generalizations are being made, in search of detail. "Obama has been bad for the economy." Again, "compared to what?" is a pretty decent context for exploring what is meant by "bad."

So, if the whataboutism is questioning your motivations, then you answer honestly - "Yes, I cared about it and spoke out forcefully then, too." "I didn't know about it, but I would have cared, because that was also wrong," or "You are engaging in false equivalence, they are not the same issue because....."

If it's deflecting, then you don't allow them to change the subject - "We can talk about that next, if you want, I'm asking about THIS. Please answer and don't change the subject until we've finished with this."

See obstruction of appointees and judges - when Clinton was president to when Bush was president to when Obama was president to now for a prime example of an accusation that gets recycled, often with convenient amnesia every time a new party is in office.

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"How can a level-headed political discussion be had with someone who uses Whataboutism extensively?"

First, ask yourself seriously "What is my goal in this conversation?". If it's to 'win' the discussion or change the other person's mind, or even to make them stop 'whatabouting' you may be on a fool's errand.

There is, however, another goal you can almost always achieve: gaining a better understanding of how the other person sees the issues and why they see it that way.

It's not necessary that you end up agreeing with them. However, you do need to listen closely enough (and remain calm enough) to be able to paraphrase (not parrot) what they've said back to them and get an unqualified 'Yes' when you ask "Did I state your viewpoint accurately? If not, what did I miss?"

In the specific context of 'what about this?' you can ask (without sarcasm) "Well, what about it? How is that important for you in terms of this discussion?". The important thing is to really pay attention to their answers.

Paradoxically, this is often the most persuasive thing you can do. They're much more likely to want to listen to your take on things if you first establish that you want to understand theirs.

There is a risk, though. If you listen sincerely there's a chance you might find their viewpoint convincing enough to alter your own. My own attitude is that I want to understand the world as accurately as I possibly can, so perhaps it's not such a risk after all.

  • One reasonable "goal" to a political discussion is evolve the viewpoints of both parties. One side can say, "whatabout scenario xyz" and the other side maybe didn't consider that, and can revise their viewpoint accordingly. Or the other side can have a well thought answer and address the whatabout scenario with logical consistency. – clay Mar 3 '17 at 21:18
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I voted in the last election, but I did not vote for Hillary Clinton. I live in a pretty liberal area, so that made for an entertaining conversation starter where I'm from on multiple occasions. It gets even more interesting when I add that I didn't vote for Donald Trump either; I left the presidential ballot blank (meaning I only did downballot votes). This inevitably leads to the very discussions you are referring to. The typical conversation looks something like

Them: How could you not vote for Clinton? Trump is so bad!

Me: I did not vote for Clinton because I have problems with XYZ

Them: But Trump also is terrible on XYZ! He is so much worse! He < insert generic crazy thing Trump did here>

Me: Yep. I agree. Trump is worse. But I'm not voting for the lesser of two evils. I'm voting for the policies that I believe are best.

And I believe that is the key. Political policies are ultimately not about the people, its about the ideas. People will cycle in and out of office, but ideas on taxes, foreign policy, corruption, agricultural subsidies, or whatever else you can think of are what ultimately matter.

So what I have found effective is to show people that you can have two bad things at the same time and you shouldn't be bogged down by this. Steer the discussion to policy details and not candidates. What is ultimately important is policies not people.

Its also worth noting that this isn't a perfect argument (and there will never be one). 'Whataboutism' does have validity. Ultimately its all about the policies, but today its about the people. So if Bob is mean, but Jack was also mean, that realistically does need to factor in your calculus. The great thing about a democracy though: you get to decide how much it factors into your own calculus.

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    This is a decent answer. I do want to point out, though, that 'voting for the lesser of two evils' can very much be all about voting on policy. – user1530 Feb 28 '17 at 18:08
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    Are you saying you supported zero policies of both candidates? I'd find that hard to believe. What I'm saying is that the lesser of two evils is exactly how politics works. No one will ever get their ideal candidate. There will always be flaws in every candidate. One (hopefully) weighs the policy pros and cons of both candidates and (hopefully) chooses the one they feel has fewer cons (or more pros) than the opponent. (I will admit that not everyone does this...a lot of people just vote for a personality) – user1530 Feb 28 '17 at 18:13
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    Who the candidate is is relevant, though. They're not some nameless, featureless cog in a policy-enacting machine. How they behave, what motivates them, the people they surround themselves with, etc. is extremely relevant, especially for the office of POTUS. Actual people have to actually deal with this person and his actual, real behavior. – zibadawa timmy Feb 28 '17 at 18:14
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    @blip. You're right, I do support some policies of the candidates, but when I weight all the policies the cons outweigh the pros. To make it an extreme example, would you vote for Stalin, Hitler or abstain? Both Hitler and Stalin made the trains run on time, and I support on time trains, but still not voting for either. – David Grinberg Feb 28 '17 at 18:18
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    Not a bad answer, but I don't know if this really addresses the examples. One example argument is trying to justify Trump's policy, using Obama's policy. – Alexander O'Mara Feb 28 '17 at 18:20
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To address specific scenarios:


You: I advocate for the freedom of migration and the right of foreigners to live in the US. Trump argues against this and he's wrong.

Whatabout: whatabout Obama's deportatations?

Here the "whatabout" is unreasonable. Trump is clearly advocating against the neutral principle of the right of foreigners to live in the US, so on one hand it doesn't matter what other presidents did. Secondly, Obama absolutely advocated for more rights of foreigners to immigrate. Even if he wasn't 100% perfect and still did some deportations, so what, he was clearly more in favor of the rights of foreigners to immigrate.

Someone could argue that nations have no obligation to grant foreigners entry or membership and are allowed to prioritize the interests of incubment citizens. That's not whataboutism, that's a direct challenge to your neutral principle of freedom of migration. And you can debate that principle.


You: I advocate for the freedom of migration and the right of foreigners to live in the US. Trump argues against this and he's wrong.

Whatabout: whatabout Japan or Mexico or Israel or Saudi Arabia that also block peaceful foreigners who want to live in their country?

You can either explain why some countries are morally allowed deny membership to foreigners and other countries like the US are not. Or you can agree, and advocate global right to freedom of movement, and support international pressures on all countries to support that, including but not limited to the US. Either way, you should choose a logically consistent position, and the whatabout is a reasonable inquiry into that.


You: Trump's travel ban was wrong.

Whatabout: whatabout Obama's similar travel bans?

You either have to explain why Obama's travel bans were different or say, ok, the specific travel bans Trump did didn't break precedent, but his overall position on immigration and his rhetoric absolutely does and his intentions for future policy are the real danger.


You: Trump's criticism of the free press is wrong.

Whatabout: Whatabout Obama's frequent criticisms of Fox News.

Here, you either have to explain why Obama's criticisms of Fox News were different and less offensive than Trump's criticisms of the media. Or you can take the two wrongs don't make a right position and say that Obama was totally wrong for criticizing Fox News, but that doesn't make Trump's criticisms any better.


Bottom line: whatabout challenges to fair play aren't inherently right or wrong. They are sometimes used as a distraction of confusion tactic and should be criticized or dismissed as such. But other times, a whatabout is a reaonable inquiry into the fairness of a principle or moral rule. And if you are seriously discussing, you should consider the inquiry and develop a logically consistent stance.

3

I have found that the best response is, “So you agree that the [topic] is wrong.”

A Tu Quoque fallacy (which is what this is) always bites the person employing it on their Trump, because the attempt is to paint some other person—presumably one you prefer—as equally corrupt. But that necessarily means that your opponent must agree that the form of corruption is bad.

Example: Donald Trump is a sexual predator. Opponent: Bill Clinton was too, why don’t you talk about him? Response: So we both agree that being a sexual predator is abhorrent.

Once you redirect back to the topic, your opponent has no recourse AND they have inadvertently affirmed the issue being debated (that Trump is a sexual predator and sexual predation is abhorrent).

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    The opponent will then say "no, being a sexual predator is not wrong for a politician because many politicians are sexual predators". This is of course not just one but two logical fallacies (assuming that something isn't morally wrong because it is common and assuming that one other example is enough to indicate a trend), but it doesn't get you further in refuting your opponent's point. – Philipp Jan 4 '18 at 14:49
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    Also, see the very last part of my answer. A (very valid, and quite effective) rebuttals is "No, 'we' - or specifically, 'you' - don't agree on that, because you supported sexual predators like Bill Clinton, so you clearly never thought they were abhorrent until it became politically convenient". The ball is then in your court to explain why it's not just your excuse to attack Trump (which is rather difficult to do convincingly unless you have a proven track record of criticizing Clinton's sexually predatorial ways prior to 2015). – user4012 Jan 4 '18 at 17:06
  • @Philipp Re "The opponent will say... not wrong for ...": interesting. That might be a Europe thing, since nobody (but a comedian or a gadfly) in the US would say that. – agc Sep 5 '18 at 14:02
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Whataboutism always emerges if certain values have been disqualified by the parties having that discussion. E.g. both don't act according to those values but try to use them against their "opponents" because they know they should act accordingly. So there is always a certain dishonesty on both sides when people fall into this infinite feedback loop of Whataboutism.

The only way around this is if one party has the strength to speak out that dishonesty. However, you can only do so for yourself. This is in fact a partial defeat and if the only reason of that argument was to come out on top, there is no reasonable way to speak out in the first place.

So, a discussion that only seeks to defeat the other party will never have a chance to be constructive, because all people have their inconsistency that can be used against them.

2

When I face whataboutism, I try to blur the lines. Whataboutism is most powerful in the presence of binary classifiers such as "racist." If you are either "racist" or "not racist," with no other classifications permitted in the conversation, then whataboutism is tremendously powerful. No politician is remotely perfect, so it becomes easy to argue that they all belong in the same bucket.

However, if you consider a gradient or metric, whataboutism gets less powerful. If you can meaningfully talk about "how racist" someone is, and meaningfully compare it to "how racist" someone else is, whataboutism loses its power. This approach permits announcing weakness in the form of, "yes I have some level of X, but this other person has a greater level of X, so we should focus on that."

The trade off, of course, is that the loss of nice easy binary classifications means it's harder to "win" an argument. It's almost guaranteed that both sides will disagree about the correct way to measure these flaws, forcing both parties to really explore their own process for defining such metrics. It's far more likely that the result of the debate will be a draw where both sides have to walk away thinking about the world differently. I would argue this is why we seek such unimpeachable characters for positions of power. We like the idea that those people on power can "win" for us. If they have any flaws, whataboutism can force them into a blurry position where the concept of "winning" is less clear.

The alternative solution is to use carefully defined words which apply to your opponent but not to you. However, these are notoriously difficult to create for important topics, so there will always be topics where you either have to accept blurry lines or deal with whataboutism.

1

How can a level-headed political discussion be had with someone who uses Whataboutism extensively?

This is like asking how you can tango with someone who's trying to stab you all the time - you can't. Your opponent just doesn't have an interest in level-headed political discussion; he's just interested in scoring cheap shots, and there's nothing you can do about it. And, by the way, scoring cheap shots is a strategy that wins - if A and B are on television and A tries to have a level-headed political discussion that goes nowhere because B is scoring cheap shots left and right, by the end of 20 minutes B will be a winner and A will be a loser. Of course, they will both look like idiots, but B will have won and A will have lost.

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    Some "whatabout" comments are totally reasonable inquiries into the fairness of an institution or principle. – clay Mar 3 '17 at 20:46
  • @clay What about Trump's comments about women? Are they fair? – DepressedDaniel Mar 3 '17 at 22:31
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    Your "whatabout" comment is a reasonable question and invokes a reasonable discussion. Is that an argument in favor of some "whatabouts"? – clay Mar 3 '17 at 23:18
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You say, "We're talking about Y, not X. Now back to Y." And if they keep trying to derail the debate you keep politely but firmly- even doggedly- pulling it back. That's really it. The important thing to remember is that you don't actually have to make any concessions to "what about such-and-such" arguments, or even address them at all, unless you choose to do so. (That is especially a pitfall for the typical liberal type who is often terribly, terribly anxious to be seen as fair and open minded). Keep control.

And yes, I am talking in terms of tactics not because winning is everything but because your hypothetical opponent probably thinks so- else, as others have pointed out, he or she wouldn't be doing this in the first place. Sometimes, by keeping your cool and being polite- but not giving any ground you don't have to- you can get things to a point where the other person is willing to have something approaching a "meaningful discussion". It has been known to happen. Sometimes. Really.

But if it still all goes down in flames- well, you did your best. It takes two people to have a meaningful discussion, after all.

(Final tip: when seeking advice in these matters, do beware of stealth-apologists "helpfully" citing their own political views as sterling examples of "balance". Cough, cough...)

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    Some "whatabout" challenges have merit, others do not. This tactic does not consider whether a "whatabout" challenge has merit, it's just a simple redirection and tactic of conversation control. – clay Mar 3 '17 at 21:23
  • Exactly. This is a tactic- or rather a counter-tactic- to use when your opponent is derailing the discussion order to avoid addressing your argument. If the challenge has merit, on the other hand then you're probably already having a "meaning discussion". But as I said to begin with, I'm not talking about that, I'm talking about tactics. – A thing of beauty Mar 4 '17 at 7:33
0

Short answer: You can't have a level-headed political discussion with someone who uses Whataboutism extensively.

You have to throw out ordinary norms of debating and civility and call in "guerrilla tactics" that operate at a different level that rational point by point engagement with the other person. You can use these tactics to try to convince someone of your point. You will not prevail in having a level headed discussion.

  1. If you opponent won't commit to answering the questions asked, you shouldn't either when it is to your disadvantage. Decide the message you want to get across and make sure that you do as much as possible.

  2. Stay on message. Make a big deal of the fact that the other guy "doesn't deny" whatever horrible thing you said about him. Don't shut up until you get an answer or the horse is dead.

  3. Be teflon. Act like the accusations against you don't matter. If you and your supporters don't act like it matters, often it won't.

  4. Dispel accusations swiftly even if you have to do so in a manner that isn't thorough and complete. Look for end runs around the accusation like "If I'm soft on guns, why can I assemble an AK-15 in 5 minutes while blindfolded." Another great response to this kind of thing I've seen is the response "I'm talking about the budget and my opponent is talking about bestiality. Which matters more to you?"

  5. Focus on emotional aspects from the perspective of the person you want to convince.

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    Your suggestions aren't for level headed discussion as the OP asked for but rather how to convince someone of your point. There's a big difference. – JonK Feb 28 '17 at 18:22
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    The employment of Whatsaboutism pretty definitionally something that arises where cooperative level headed discussion has broken down. In the absence of very strong norms of respect for a facilitator who calls out the practice, it is the only way you can really have any kind of discussion. By the time you see it, the level headed discussion goal is already out of the barn. – ohwilleke Feb 28 '17 at 18:41
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    Often times it's knee jerk reaction from people who are used to arguing about which side is worse. You can have a good discussion if you just don't let it devolve into that. – JonK Feb 28 '17 at 18:45
  • I think it has more to do with political culture and political identity. Level headed political discussion is itself not a culturally neutral concept. – ohwilleke Feb 28 '17 at 18:47
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    Some "whatabout" comments are totally reasonable inquiries into the fairness of an institution or principle. – clay Mar 3 '17 at 20:46
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There are several good responses here that go to the real root of the fallacy, for example Alexander O'Mara's response. However in cases like this, I often use a simple counter argument with good effectiveness.

When confronted with a negative property, i.e. "Donald Trump is a racist", the response is some other negative property, i.e. "Hillary Clinton is also a racist", the implication being that since both things are bad, the first one doesn't matter.

The counter I have often find effective is this:

Just because something is bad, that is no good reason for making it worse.

It does not go at the root problem as well as some of the other counter arguments stated here, but it is very easy to understand, so it is often more effective.

0

I do bits and pieces of what has already been proposed.

In my opinion there are two kinds of whataboutism: valid and invalid. Valid requires some argument to rebut, but fielding invalid whataboutisms are easy.

Whataboutisms are used to deflect criticizing something that someone holds dear to themselves. So there is an inherent sense of emotion going on that becomes harder to deal with rationally.

In the case of a valid one, someone else gave a great example about bees and pollination - I agree that this is a valid use of whataboutism. In the realm of software, you can say "well, what about this?" and it's related, a related system, a potential flaw in the code. It is being applied correctly and requires a rational diligent rebuttal.

In the case of an invalid one, like primarily right wing people burning Nike shoes deflecting with the left supporting sweat shops. This one has several possible rebuttals, but the patterns are always the same, in my opinion.

  • "Why are you defending the crappy thing you did by talking about a crappy thing possibly under my umbrella?"

e.g. You're burning shoes and your defense of that is that I approve of sweat shops? I do not approve of sweat shops, but you approve of burning shoes. Cool deflection, bro. Also, you owned the shoes, so you supported sweatshops, too. We both had similar stances on that as Nike owners, prior to this debacle. Sadly, a lot of people buy Nikes (regardless of right/left) that have heard of their sweatshop problems. That's like saying "I burn shoes, but you're human being." We're both human beings. We're were both human beings before you started burning your shoes, so this is a confusing stone to throw because it also hits your own glass house. "I'm sorry officer, my minor speeding isn't an issue because of all those unarmed black people you guys shoot." That's not how it works. I don't get out of my speeding ticket because some police do bad things. Also an easy path here is that you could say that The Left (or whatever) is not a Hive Mind and people are capable of independent thought apart from the group.

  • "I agree with you, sweatshops are bad, but burning shoes you already paid for is still moronic."

e.g. Agree with the 'moral' theme of their unrelated counter-point (this counter point usually comes from emotions). Don't agree with the specific point. In this case, "I agree that people are being crazy about Nike right now. I wish we could all look at this problem more rationally."

  • "I don't do/support that."

e.g. Immediately falsify their counter-point (not always possible). If the police pull you over for speeding and you "whatabout" unarmed black men being shot, hopefully the police will quickly say, "I don't do that, nice try. Here's your ticket." Obviously in this case, if you are a cop that has shot an unarmed black men, you can't honestly argue this point, so don't.

  • Counter-troll them.

e.g. Whataboutism applied invalidly is almost always used to troll someone. Historically speaking, that's what it has been used for. Troll them back. They may quit it. You will have mixed results here. Remember, it's about morality. Burning shoes? What about those sweatshops, liberal? Oh, you're into child human rights now, what about helping out with those disgusting and immoral Baby Jails? This is a messy path to go down, but if they start getting flustered you might point out that it's best to defend your points rather than say your crappy thing is ok because something else crappier is going on. Make them defend shoe burning without pointing the finger. If I made a really good cookie, I should defend it on other merits than all the other cookie manufacturers suck.

Conclusion:

It has become easier for me to fight whataboutisms using one or more of these in a given conversation. Some of these could escalate emotions during an already emotional irrational conversation. That's always a risk when you're in the realm of unethical and irrational arguments, which it almost certainly becomes, once someone busts out an invalid whataboutism.

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