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How to "Escape" Confrontations -- Whataboutism (Logical Fallacy) -- The Many Benefits of Avoiding It

Updated: Apr 1

A man looking at you from a computer with question.

Ms. Tamara Moskal's Summary

"Whataboutism" is a logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent's argument by introducing a similar but irrelevant issue to the discussion. Recognizing this weak defense and communicating purposefully is essential. Developing mental resilience to criticism and accusations is vital to engage in constructive dialogue effectively. We should approach a discussion as a challenge, not an attack.
If we are wrong, we must admit it and try to fix our flaws to improve. A fallacy derived from whateboutism can be false equivalence. It occurs when two things are presented as equivalent but differ significantly. The controversy concerning the death penalty in Israel illustrates this fallacy. Exchanging ideas productively requires overcoming sensitivities; a logical approach is critical to a moral society.

Introduction: Why Fallacies Are Important to Consider and Avoid

For those new to philosophy, a logical fallacy is an error in one's reasoning, a flaw in our thinking. Philosophy equips us to identify these fallacies, both in ourselves and others, ultimately preventing us from reaching incorrect conclusions. The point of avoiding incorrect conclusions is to improve our understanding of reality, and avoiding falling into delusions that can have practical implications, such as:

  • A perspective on reality that does not match reality.

  • Being more suspectible to deception by those who use these fallacies against us or to manipulate us.

The logic is straightforward: The fewer fallacies we have, the more likely we are to reach sound conclusions, and reduce our delusional thoughts towards reality.

Imagine trying to understand reality with faulty thinking as our tool. How can we expect to recognize truth if our very ability to reason is compromised? Experience is valuable, of course, but true understanding hinges on the ability to think rationally, and understanding is a skill that can be improved.

Consider this analogy: experience might allow you to fix a flat tire based on trial and error. But with a basic understanding of mechanics, you can not only fix the flat, but also prevent future ones.

Philosophy offers a similar toolkit for navigating the complexities of thought.

Onward: Dismantling the "What About" Tactic

Let's delve into a tactic commonly employed in arguments: "whataboutism." This strategy, built from the simple phrase "what about," involves deflecting a question by introducing a similar but irrelevant issue to the discussion at hand.

The fallacy lies in avoiding the original question by pointing fingers at a supposed hypocrisy. It's a weak defense, essentially accusing the other party of the same issue you face.

Here's why it's problematic:

  • Distraction: Whataboutism steers the conversation away from the core issue, preventing a meaningful resolution.

  • Hypocrisy Defense: It can be used to deflect blame, but true accountability involves addressing the problem directly. When normalized, whataboutism justifies enabling the very things we condemn as a way to "protect ourselves" from accusations.

  • Fighting Instead of Discussing: Discussion can be used to create a meaningful exchange of ideas that could also synthesize new ideas. However, the need to deflect questions instead of addressing them could lead to a heated fight between two opponents instead of a peaceful exchange.

Consider a noisy neighbor. If you complain, they might deflect by claiming you're noisy too. This doesn't solve the problem; it creates an excuse to avoid responsibility.

This tactic has a long history, with roots in the Latin phrase "tu quoque" (you also) and its Hebrew equivalent "Gam Ata" (so do you). These expressions highlight the fallacy's core issue: it's a weak defense mechanism built on hypocrisy.

Whataboutism, also known as deflection, is a frustrating tactic that hinders productive dialogue.

By recognizing it and focusing on direct, honest communication, we can navigate conversations with greater clarity and purpose. Doing so can even maintain our peace with other people, and avoid further stress or outright reduce it.

Why Dodging the Issue Makes Us Weaker Thinkers

If we don't like someone or even their own actions, why bother following their example? Wouldn't we want to be better than them, instead? If someone hit you and you hit them back, just because they hit you, whataboutism's logic is not only a fallacy but immoral. It can enable physical violence even if we dislike it ourselves.

A good thinker avoids distractions and tackles the relevant question head-on. In contentist theory, one of the reasons emotions are weakness is because a lack of resilience makes us be over-defensive and over-protective, seeing others as a threat that "attacks" us. This is not mentally healthy nor a logical perspective. And as agreed, whataboutism is a defense mechanism. It may solve petty fights, but it won't solve the root problem: The need to get mentally stronger to not see people, their words and their accusations, as a threat on us.

Not all questions deserve our time, but dodging valid inquiries simply due to discomfort hinders progress towards a practical resolution. Getting into verbal fights with people is impractical because that's how you burn your "bridges" with them. And that can involve anyone, from family to friends.

As such, we better overcome our anxieties, examine our emotional weaknesses, and try to solve them, before even exchanging ideas with other people. Once we work on ourselve we can better manage with other people, leading to greater peace.

Politicians often employ whataboutism to avoid addressing pressing issues. These "political answers" are essentially non-answers, a tactic to dodge accountability and potential future criticism. It's unsettling to see such a tactic normalized by figures in power, as it is not the professional way to face, specifically, questions that rightfully criticize you.

Confronting Issues Head-On: A Sign of Strength and Progress

To avoid this fallacy, address the issue directly. Don't shift blame. A courageous approach is key. Courage will allow you to view a discussion as a challenge, and not as an "attack" that seeks to make you feel "canceled". Thus, a more ethical approach can actually make your thinking more logical, which further highlights the connection between ethics and logic.

Of course, you can address an issue pretentiousness after providing a proper response. It's not about silencing your voice, but ensuring "whataboutism" doesn't derail the conversation after you've already provided a logical answer.

Also, remember that sometimes we are proven wrong, and in many cases it's not actually that bad as our emotions may tell us. If we want to improve ourselves we need to admit we aren't always right, that we have flaws that can be fixed, and that's okay. If anything, we can use accusations not for derailing discussions, but to understand our faults and think of ways to fix them.

This is called subverting our own expectations. Train on this and you can turn anything into a desired opportunity!

Bonus: The False Equivalence of Capital Punishment

The death penalty sparks heated debate. Some argue that a state taking a life makes it no different from a murderer. Let's explore this reasoning, which can actually stem from whataboutism.

The argument that a state executing a murderer makes it a murderer itself commits the fallacy of false equivalence. This fallacy occurs when two things are presented as equivalent despite significant differences.

It stems from whataboutism when it occurs from deflecting the other person's arguement, in a way that's not even a proper deflection (AKA, claiming that the other person did the exact same thing).

Arguably, the more fallacies we commit, the worse our understanding of the other person can become, thus worsening our relationship with them. How come? It has the potential, for example, to view them in a more negative way than they actually are, leading to a disappropriate understanding of them (Leading to aimless rivalries with people).

Here's why the comparison, in this case, is flawed:

  • Legality: The state acts within a legal framework, with due process and potential for appeals. Murder is a deliberate, illegal act that won't necessarily have any potential for appeals (especially if the murderer is a paid hitman).

  • Motivation: Executions aim to deliver justice and deter "particularly serious types of murder". Murder is driven by malice or other negative emotions, or financial gain, as realistically presented by Murder Inc., a former crime enforcement division in the U.S who killed for pay.

  • Context: Those who support political representatives that advocate for capital punishment, indirectly support capital punishment. However, they won't necessarily support murder, nor murder themselves. This shows that altough the same deed of taking a life is the same, it's context-dependent. When something is context dependent, it proves that it's not always wise to deal in absolutes.

As such, the execution of Adolf Eichmann in Israel doesn't negate their right to punish future murderers in such a way. While he claims he was a "mere instrument" in the Nazis machine, it is possible that he enjoyed his job, and not simply followed orders.

A nation with a history of violence may need to address that act before supporting capital punishment in general. That's because answering violence with violence is not always the right nor logical answer (as presented by whataboutism, which enables the very thing we condemn).

Conclusion: Sharpening Your Thinking for a Just Society

Philosophy equips us with the tools to think critically and have more productive conversations. By recognizing fallacies like "whataboutism" and false equivalence, we can avoid misleading arguments and reach sounder conclusions.

The death penalty debate exemplifies this. Understanding the differences between state-sanctioned executions and murder helps us move beyond false equivalences and have a more nuanced conversations regarding ethics. In the larger scale, such conversations, when recorded and distributed, influence other people's thoughts as well.

As such, as a branch in philosophy, ethics hold a vast potential that could influence the life of many. Having a brighter understanding of logic in general can therefore improve that influence for the greater good.

Ultimately, we have the potential to create a just society through learning from each other and from developing our moral reasoning, which stems from logic and thus not exist in a vacuum.

This requires a thoughtful approach, and while some of you may disagree, it also requires overcoming our emotional weaknesses. Looking at the larger context, and considering long-term results, can help us understand not only the individual but also the collective importance of overcoming our sensitivities. The development of an "emotioncracy", after all, can deter us from having a practical exchange of ideas, and thus, deter us from understanding the truth.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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