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Imagine you’re back in elementary school, and you’ve just observed a boy, Tom, hit the boy sitting next to him, Billy, in the arm.
The teacher at the front of the class sees Tom hit Billy and scolds him for it.
“Tom, we don’t hit other people,” the teacher says. Tom gets in trouble with the teacher. The teacher explains why hitting is not appropriate and asks Tom to apologize.
Tom says sorry and Billy accepts his apology.
A few hours later, the teacher turns around in class to see Billy hitting Tom in the arm.
Obviously, Billy has not let go of the issue, even though Tom was already disciplined and spoken to about his behavior.
Immediately, Billy gets in trouble. He gets scolded by the teacher for hitting his classmate and disciplined in the same way as Tom.
“Billy, we don’t hit people,” says the teacher. The teacher explains to Billy why it’s inappropriate to hit.
Billy just says, “But what about Tom?! He hit me earlier.”
The teacher explains to Billy that Tom’s behavior was already dealt with and Tom apologized. That just because Tom hit Billy doesn’t mean Billy is warranted in hitting Tom back.
This is What-About-Ism.
And What-About-Ism is everywhere.
To better define What-About-Ism, Merriam Webster defines it as essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse.
According to Merriam Webster:
“The tactic behind whataboutism has been around for a long time. Rhetoricians generally consider it to be a form of tu quoque, which means “you too” in Latin and involves charging your accuser with whatever it is you’ve just been accused of rather than refuting the truth of the accusation made against you. Tu quoque is considered to be a logical fallacy, because whether or not the original accuser is likewise guilty of an offense has no bearing on the truth value of the original accusation.”
What-About-Ism adds a twist to tu quoque by directing its energies into establishing an equivalence between two or more disparate actions, thereby defaming the accuser with the insinuation that their priorities are backward.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
You’ve heard What-About-Ism, especially in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The eye-roll worthy comments from white supremacists who, when faced with the truth about brutal murders of black lives instead of acknowledging it, just say, “Well, what about the white men killed by cops?”
Angry yet? If you’re not, then you’re not paying attention.
From a political standpoint, this kind of behavior exists on both sides, but it appears to be even more present with the GOP than Democrats. Merriam Webster acknowledges its rise amidst the Trump administration.
There are some real dangers to constantly using What-About-Ism to counter any argument, deflect from any question you don’t want to answer, and dismiss any important issue that needs to be acknowledged, addressed, and changed for good.
Here are some examples of What-About-Ism in the political field.
What-About-Ism is when Face the Nation’s Margaret Brenner asks Governor of South Dakota Kristi Noem why her state is the eighth highest in the United States for coronavirus deaths and instead of answering the question, Noem says, “Well, we peaked earlier, and what about how Andrew Cuomo handled COVID-19 in New York?”
What-About-Ism is when Trump incites an insurrection and then he, the GOP, and his followers go, “What’s wrong with us marching on the Capitol when people marched for BLM?”
What-About-Ism is when Dr. Fauci stresses the importance of masking up during coronavirus and everyone is like, “Well, what about the time you told us not to wear masks because we needed to preserve them for healthcare workers on the front line?”
What-About-Ism is Biden wanting to forgive students loans and a bunch of people who paid theirs off already saying, “Not fair, what about all of us who paid already? Do I get reimbursed?”
These are just a few examples of What-About-Ism on the political side, and after reading this, I’m sure you’ll be able to see other instances more clearly when you watch the news.
Politics aside, What-About-Ism is a common day occurrence. We use it in our everyday lives without even realizing we do. I know I have, and it’s something I’m consciously working to stop doing. Because being a better ally and a better person means acknowledging that you may be wrong, doing so vulnerably, and being willing to be transparent and honest about your willingness to change that egotistical part of yourself.
And it’s hard-ass work admitting you have toxic traits or aren’t always kind. But trying to be a better person, that doesn’t go unnoticed.
By the way, that in no way applies to people still trying to justify systematic racism, violence, oppression, and hate. Any attempt to downplay those very real issues with conservative-backed news sites are ones we should and will be fighting back against. They don’t deserve an argument, nor do they deserve any temporary buy-in. Those ideas need to change, period.
So, outside politics, here is a more common day occurrence with What-About-Ism that most everyone can relate to.
Let’s say your boyfriend, girlfriend, brother, sister, parent, aunt, or whoever hurts your feelings. Instead of them acknowledging they may have actually hurt your feelings, they bring up a time you hurt them in the past (which may be something they’ve been holding onto for years). Instead of acknowledging that they may have hurt you, they deflect with an unresolved hurt they never addressed with you. Each of those opportunities should be addressed, as they happened so you can both change for the better.
That is how we get through this. By addressing things the instance in which they happen.
There are real dangers of constantly using What-About-Ism in essentially any argument. And it is most commonly used to deflect from the issue or prevent people from being truly honest and transparent in their answer.
What-About-Ism is a Master at Not Acknowledging the Issue
When someone asks a question about an important issue that needs clarity, and the first reaction is, “Well, what about,” rather than a simple answer to the question, whether well-liked or not—that is What-About-Ism.
Not acknowledging the issue doesn’t make it go away. Not answering the question to acknowledge that there is or isn’t a solution to the issue doesn’t make it all go away. You have to answer the question honestly, even if it doesn’t make you look great. Otherwise, how will anyone ever possibly trust each other?
It seems people are more worried about facing possible scrutiny for speaking the truth than they are about dismissing a problem that consistently hurts others.
What-About-Ism is Dismissive and Degrading
Just the other day, I reposted an image of the Black lives murdered by cops compared to the white lives only arrested. And one of my followers, instead of acknowledging this was an actual issue, told me my view was too narrow and mainstream, that as an English grad I should do some research by educating myself, via a known conservative website, about the number of white lives claimed by cops.
I am not responding well to that What-About-Ism very well.
Dismissing a problem with another problem is What-About-Ism. All it does is further oppress. It lacks accountability and it is degrading to the obvious being presented to us. We know cops kill white people. That’s not what this is about. It is about black lives and the constant discrimination they face.
And I can’t believe we still even have to say that out loud.
When we degrade very real issues happening to people who deserve love, safety, and happiness, we keep those issues alive.
If you see a post and say, “Yes, this is an issue, but what about…” you’re still projecting What-About-Ism. Admitting the problem and then talking about another problem in the same context is What-About-Ism.
Stop dismissing and downplaying minor and major issues with What-About-Ism.
What-About-Ism Glaringly Shows How Big Your Pride and Ego Are
Nothing is more frustrating than someone who is so determined to be right, they will discount any feeling or fact you put in front of them. They’d rather be “right” forever than feel a moment of shame and embarrassment for acknowledging some of their traits aren’t so healthy.
How many times have you been in a work setting and told your boss, “I’m stressed and overwhelmed by your management style,” and they just look back at you and go, “No, you’re not. I’m doing everything perfectly fine, and what about you’re work ethic? It’s probably your own fault you’re overwhelmed.”
When someone tells you how you’ve made them feel, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong.
Just because it’s not happening to you, or you don’t want to accept it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Let go of your ego when it comes to What-About-Ism. Accept that there are truths outside of what you think you know and feel. Accept the chance that you might be wrong here.
I think most people would gladly accept someone who is willing to be vulnerable enough to admit they are wrong and say, “You’re right. This is a problem, and I’m going to help fix it,” rather than the more immature and dismissive response of, “Nu-uh.”
My Suggestions for People Combating What-About-Ism
We all have carried out our own instances of What-About-Ism. And I will say it again. I have done it too. And I’m sure if you search your thoughts now, you can recall some instances. I can recall a lot myself.
It’s okay. Forgive yourself. I have. The first step of acknowledging you have a problem is taking ownership of it.
If you’re aware this is a part of you, then work toward catching yourself when you do it. Change the behavior. That’s how this gets better.
Now, I’m no expert by any means, but I’ll tell you what I do whenever I am faced with an instance of What-About-Ism.
If someone does project their What-About-Ism on you and are resistant to change, let them go. It’s not worth your energy.
If someone presents me with information that counters an issue, I will look into it and decide if it’s still where my heart lies. From there, I will tell them “thank you” for their perspective but this is still not what I believe and I’m going to continue to go this way. But I absolutely do not entertain any argument that continues to oppress others.
If someone tells me I have hurt their feelings or been unfair, I will look at it and admittedly say, “I’m really sorry I’ve made you feel this way; it won’t happen again.” I will examine that part of myself and change it.
Simple. And what it takes is willingness.
Willingness to not be an asshole.
We can all do it.