Friday, May 29, 2015

What about whataboutism?

"Whataboutism" is a type of argument, often in the context of politics, that goes like this: person A says something (X) is very bad, and in response person B says "but what about Y" where Y is something different that (usually) is also very bad. The term was apparently coined during the Cold War, when apologists for the Soviet Union would respond to any criticism by counter-criticism of the United States. Another version of whataboutism is the "fallacy of relative privation", typified by the following hypothetical conversation: when dinner is delayed, Person A says "I'm hungry" and B replies "but there are children starving in Africa".

Whataboutism is a special case of the popular fallacy "two wrongs make a right" which, as an argument tactic, is rather pathetic. After all if X is bad, then the fact that Y is also bad does not make X any better. Sometimes the intended implication is different: "you say X is bad, but you've never said Y is bad. This proves you are dishonest and therefore your views on X are not respectable". In this form, whataboutism is recast as an ad hominem attack: A is a crook, therefore anything A says need not be believed. This is also illogical, for A may be a crook and yet what he/she says on a specific occasion may be true.

Although whataboutism and ad hominem arguments come up all the time (and I'm sure I unconsciously use them myself on occasion), they seem to be particularly popular among the right-wing trolls who have positioned themselves all over social media these days. I would not bother to blog about trolls but it disturbs me when (a few) friends and colleagues take such arguments seriously. When the BBC documentary on a gangrape in India, "India's Daughters" was recently released (and swiftly banned) a significant section of the Indian middle-class said, in effect, "but what about rape in Western countries?". It takes hardly a moment to accept that whatever happens in any other country, India's record on the safety of women is dismal. I could not understand why the film was treated not as an opportunity to reflect on ways to improve the situation, but as an occasion to counter-attack people who (whatever their other faults) are not responsible for rape in India. As I fully expected, months after this controversy erupted it's business as usual. The documentary has been seen by everyone who wants to see it (basically because nothing is banned on the internet), but its possible role in stimulating discussion and action on women's issues has effectively been diminished.

To be fair one shouldn't entirely blame right-wingers. A meme circulating on social media these days points out that a TV channel (CNN-IBN) which praised the first-year's performance of the current government is owned by Mr Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries. It concludes with a photo of Mr Ambani having a friendly chat with the Prime Minister. This is pure and simple ad hominem (or "ad channelem", if you prefer), the implication being that the channel chose to praise the government because of its owner's vested interests. By itself, this meme leaves us no wiser whether the first year of this government has indeed been a success or not. I have to say, though, that (perhaps because of my own political sympathies), I'm inclined to consider an ad hominem attack against a TV channel as less illogical than one against an individual.

The point in any case is that such arguments deflect the original discussion entirely away from the topic at hand, and on to generalities and personalities. This is their purpose. For many people, any mention of India's poor record on various things (women's safety, human rights, the environment, the treatment of minorities) induces guilt and shame above everything else. This in turn creates the urge to deflect the discussion and all the illogical arguments come in handy. What I've never understood is why anyone would feel personally guilty or ashamed of their country's poor record on issues unless they personally have a poor record on the same issues. It speaks of a level of identification which I personally cannot aspire to (thankfully).

Let me conclude with a telling joke that surely deserves an Indian version. This is from Wikipedia.

In a 1962 version, an American and a Soviet car salesman argue which country makes better cars. Finally, the American asks: "How many decades does it take an average Soviet man to earn enough money to buy a Soviet car?" After a thoughtful pause, the Soviet replies: "And you are lynching Negroes!