We’ve all been there. We’ve seen it happen. You’ll be happily pointing out the errors in someone’s argument or having a general debate on whether George Lucas should be flayed for making the Star Wars prequels when your opposition trots out a time honoured tactic for diverting the subject. You’ll be making valid points, whilst possibly adding them to some convoluted scoring system that you’ve created in your head until you reach the point when you’ve “won”, when they pull out the “whatabout” card.
Let’s say you’re discussing one of my favourite topics: equality for homosexuals. Last month I had the joy of retweeting wingnuts who had a biblical perspective on a dinky little place called Memories Pizza, who stated that they would refuse to cater for a same sex marriage. No one asked them to, but they felt the need to make their stand regardless. Personally I think a marriage with pizza provided would be all kinds of awesome, but that’s beside the point.
So you’re cheerfully pointing out that yes, businesses have to abide by the law even when it comes to something as stupid as catering pizza when they throw “yeah, but what about ISIS throwing gays off buildings in Syria” at you. This is a whataboutism and you need to avoid it at your peril.
The technical term for a whataboutism is the Fallacy of Relative Privation, which is used in an attempt to try and dismiss your argument. Sure, things might not be good for the queers in America, but they’re not getting hurled from buildings. Okay, so misogyny is bad, but women aren’t even allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. There are children starving in Africa!
It’s an attempt to make you falter and if they whip that bad boy out you’re probably using good tactics. One subject has nothing to do with the other. The fact that ISIS have thrown people from buildings simply for suspected homosexuality has nothing to do with the catering concerns of Christians in California (yes, I know the pizza place was in Indiana, but I like alliteration).
You are actually allowed to be opposed to multiple things at the same time. People being stoned to death or thrown off buildings does not invalidate your argument. It does not make misogyny the lesser of two evils and therefore acceptable. The fact that there are starving children in the world is a horrible thing that should be ended, but has nothing to do with whatever you’re opposing.
A whataboutism is nothing more than an attempt to divert the topic, to shift it by saying “that’s bad, but this is worse” and in no way invalidates your argument. If you volunteer at an animal sanctuary your actions aren’t invalidated by the fact that people are sleeping on the streets. It doesn’t mean that you approve of the latter because you support the former.
Beware of the whataboutism, learn to spot it and cut it out of the conversation as quickly as you can, or you’ll just end up trying to justify your position as worthy when it doesn’t need to be.