And What About You?

Graphic by Anirudh Bhattacharya

Merold Westphal, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Yale has said that only the people who know themselves to be guilty of something, can find comfort in finding others to be just as bad, or worse. Whataboutism is an informal fallacy in which one avoids accusation by merely accusing someone else while ignoring the original argument. It is a social conundrum which surrounds us all and has been pervasive for a long time.  For example, siblings often resort to playing the blame game when in trouble and counter arguments with specious accusations such as “Why didn’t you say anything when my sister did it?” This is what whataboutery is all about;  attempts to twist criticism back on the initial critic. 

This rhetorical tactic is seen in the world of politics wherein opposing parties lacking evidence and explanation, resort to this practice and slam the other party on an issue that is not related to the subject matter being discussed in the slightest of ways. Some believe that the practice itself stems from the Soviet  Union government which, rather than dealing with their own  problem in uncovering the truth or finding solutions to crimes violating human rights, would do nothing. Instead, they would point fingers at other countries like the USA and raise questions about racism. This gambit has been adopted by politicians across the world to deflect attention from their own deeds to accuse others of some disparate offenses. Thus implying that the criticism directed at them is null and void, as no one is completely blameless.

This common psychological defense mechanism is used almost daily by politicians. When the Trump administration is questioned about violent protests at the Capitol, they cling to things from the past and raise questions about Hilary’s emails or Obama’s birth certificate. This is something we see in India very often. When a group questions the party in power on their shortcomings, such as handling of the pandemic and availability of resources; or lack thereof, the ruling party and its supporters reply by stating the facts and figures of states that are run by the opposition government rather than finding the solution collectively.

Another example that comes to mind is the recent farmers protest in India. From an unbiased point of view about the argument, one thing we can all agree upon is that it received worldwide attention. This was made possible by the efforts of the community directly affected by it. When the social media was flooded by comments from internationally well known figures in support of the protests, the argument that many raised was, ‘There are so many other important issues in India that need attention, why don’t you ever show your concern towards these?’

I am of the belief that no cause is big or small and everyone has a right to voice their opinion. But I also think that there is a time and place to raise your concern so that it gets heard and gains the widespread attention that it deserves. A person demanding to talk about  the problems associated with child marriage at a forum to discuss maternal health is robbing the primary topic of the attention that it deserves. Both the topics are equally important and are entitled to extensive attention, but in moments like these, neither gets the opportunity to be discussed and find a solution. Instead, both causes lose momentum in the arguments and become a lost cause. The same thing happens every so often in our surroundings everyday, for instance during a healthy debate, when one party finds itself in a pickle of a situation wherein they have to either accept their flaws or lack evidence to prove their claim as wrong; choose to divert the attention to perhaps an equally important subject which wasn’t primarily in the agenda. This way, both the problems lose the essence of the need of finding a solution and we are left without answers and in a situation worse than we started.

This doesn’t happen because we care about one problem more than the other, but because of a lack of systemic approach to problem solving. One cause could be being presumptuous that if a person isn’t discussing a certain matter, he or she must not be affected by it or doesn’t care enough to talk about it. To address the problem, we need to introspect and find the solutions.

To me personally, whataboutism takes an even uglier turn when it is practiced in the arena of healthcare. When there was a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and ventilators during the recent deadly second wave of COVID-19, the hospitals started pointing fingers and created a state of collective paranoia among citizens. The cost of medicines even for common ailments has been skyrocketing in recent years and the invariable counter argument is ‘Why don’t you talk about the advancements we have made in saving lives’ or ‘The cost of conventional medical treatment of the majority of diseases is much higher’. This is a problem not limited to modern medical practice. Whenever there is slander directed towards trendy yoga gurus who practice healing  by vedic energy or meditation, their response is that allopathic medicines have side effects and do more harm than good. While some may agree that certain medicines do have adverse effects and some can cause serious complications, they also fight a much greater evil; life-threatening conditions which may or may not be cured by vedic practices.  

In conclusion, I think whataboutism is a Brahmastra which could right any wrong or at least attempt to prove that mistakes or shortcomings aren’t a problem as long as someone else has also done the same thing. With Whataboutism, everyone and everything is right. 

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