What about “whataboutism”?

Yesterday, Scott recommended a column by William Voegeli called “About ‘Whataboutism.'” I read that column and join Scott in recommending it.

In our current discourse, whataboutism is used by Democrats/leftists to counter conservatives who, when discussing questionable actions by Donald Trump or violent conduct by a pro-Trump mob (for example), point to similar behavior by others that Democrats/leftists did not condemn. Those of us who point to the double standard are accused of whataboutism.

The charge is an evasion — an attempt to duck the fact that Democrats are employing a double standard. Accepting the evasion means accepting unprincipled discourse, which is what the left desires. They insist on an exemption from normal rules of argument.

Whataboutism is essentially a demand that similar situations and similarly situated people be treated similarly. Thus, if not abused, whataboutism is an essential element of justice.

In law, if a Black plaintiff who was fired for being tardy twice for work points to a white co-worker who was tardy twice but not fired, his allegations make out of prima facie case of discrimination. His argument boils down to whataboutism, but it can’t be dismissed on that basis.

If a dissenting Supreme Court Justice points to a ruling in a similar case that supports his position, rather than the majority’s, his argument can’t be dismissed as whataboutism. The similar case must be distinguished. Otherwise, the dissent has the better of the argument.

As I suggested above, it’s possible to abuse whataboutism. The most obvious abuse occurs when the situations being compared aren’t really similar. If, in connection with a riot, I ask “what about that peaceful protest?” my argument can be dismissed — not because I’m engaging in whataboutism, but because I’m not comparing similar events.

It’s also an abuse of whataboutism to employ it as a defense of bad conduct. If I argue that the storming of the Capitol building was okay because other rioters have stormed state houses or court buildings, I am abusing whataboutism.

But the conservatives I’ve seen point to other riots aren’t making this argument. They condemn all storming of public buildings, and rioting in general, whether by extremists on the left or extremists on the right.

And the point they are making is that Democrats who condemn only rioting by extremists on the right, or who condemn that rioting much more harshly, are unprincipled. When Democrats counter this point with charges of whataboutism, they effectively acknowledge their hypocrisy and lack of principle.

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