journalism, philosophy, politics

What about whataboutism?

Like a lot of bullying tools, “whataboutism” is powerful because there’s a bit of logic to it, however twisted it may be.

In fact, on the meta level, it’s easy to use whataboutism to fight complaints about whataboutism. Most people use it in some form at some point.

The key difference to me is this: Are you using bringing up an opposing side because you’re making a decision between two things (say, candidates) or because you’re trying to deflect criticism instead of dealing with it?

In other words, if we’re talking about an election with only two viable candidates, and you tell me Candidate X embezzled money but I know Candidate Y murdered somebody, I’ll have to point that out. (I hope it never gets to that point!)

And in some cases, what appears to be “whataboutism” is actually making a case to give one entity the higher ground. For example — if a Trump voter criticizes the Clinton Foundation, it seems fair to point to the Trump Foundation, especially if you go on to note that the Clinton Foundation actually does some good.

Let’s say the Charlottesville situation had been reversed, and an “antifa” demonstrator had killed someone. Surely someone would use that incident to claim there’s no difference between the “left” and “right” in this situation. (Aside to media: Can you quit using “left” and “right” in describing this sort of thing? CBS did it for Boston, which was ridiculous — I’m sure a lot of registered Republicans were among the “left” crowd in this case and were quite offended by the assumption that the supremacists were the “right.”)

But the counterargument would be this:

  1. The majority of the counterprotesters were not violent.
  2. Most likely, the bulk of the nation’s lawmakers and thought leaders would denounce the killer without the equivocation Trump used in his half-hearted denunciation of a considerable chunk of the people who still support him.
  3. What’s the overall intent of the counterprotest? It’s to stand up against racism. What’s the overall intent of the original protest? To promote it. Not equivalent.

A Facebook friend made this sort of point in answering Trump’s “whatabout” on Washington and Jefferson owning slaves. Washington and Jefferson don’t have monuments because they supported racism. They have monuments for their actual accomplishments. Monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are for their service to an abhorrent cause.


Historical footnote — I did not know this:

In May 1985 the U.S. State Department funded a conference at the Madison Hotel on the fallacy of “moral equivalence,” a philosophical cousin of whataboutism. The goal was to tamp down comparisons of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other instances. The actions may be comparable, the State Department implied, but the intentions were not.

Source: Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump – The Washington Post



Gay rights, gun rights, polygamy and the slippery slope fallacy

In logic class, I was taught that the “slippery slope” argument was a fallacy.

And logically, it is. It’s essentially if x then y, with no supporting arguments.

From a practical standpoint, it’s true that one argument can open the door for another argument to be considered. Arguing about Obamacare, for example, might open the door to arguments on the single-payer system. (Even though Obama himself slammed that door in his interview with Marc Maron.)

And so we hear a lot about the “slippery slope” in politics. You hear it a lot in gun arguments. “Oh, if we register our guns, then the government will start rounding them all up.” (Those arguments also inevitably invoke Hitler.)

But with gun laws, we’ve already seen that we can block the slippery slope. The USA has some restrictions on the right to bear arms. I can’t take the Metro down to Northrop Grumman and purchase a fully loaded A-10 Thunderbolt, yet such limitations mean little to owners of hunting rifles. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was amended in 1968, which is bad news for grenade owners but hasn’t eliminated handguns for the country.

So with gay marriage, we’ve already seen the slippery slope question: What about polygamy? Naturally, Politico came out and trolled everyone with that argument, though I don’t know of a serious movement to legalize it.

You may not want polygamy – neither do I – but what you can’t do is argue that you can’t allow gay marriage because polygamy inevitably follows. As we’ve seen in gun rights, the next step on the slope isn’t inevitable.

What you have to do is much harder. You have to create the intellectual and legal argument against polygamy itself. 

And if you’ve taken any philosophy classes, you know that it’s difficult to make such arguments against actions that don’t have obvious victims. You can argue against pedophilia and bestiality using a “consent” argument. It’s much more difficult to argue against something that takes place among consenting adults. Today’s fashionable libertarianism would say people should be able to define a family however they want. I’ve been pondering polygamy for a while, and the only argument I can find about harm to society is that it would lead to fewer guys marrying more women, leaving a lot of guys out in the cold. And there’s nothing more dangerous to society than guys that can’t get laid.

(Remember the urban legends about how Bin Laden was radicalized? American women laughed at him, and off he went. That’s surely a joke, but I think there’s some truth to the notion that people who are content with their love lives are a little less prone to irrational violence.)

But seriously – the fact that I haven’t come up with a good argument against polygamy doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I’m sure someone smarter than me can come up with it.

And if we’re going with slippery slopes, consider this – putting “under God” on our currency, as we did in the 1950s, is the first step toward sharia law, Christian style.

comedy, cynicism, philosophy

Cracked’s logical fallacies and why we argue

Cue Palin (not that one) and Cleese:

An argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

It is NOT!

It is!

Not at all!

As a philosophy major who basically stunk at philosophy classes other than logic, I’ve often wanted to round up common fallacies and ridiculous argument tactics that have proliferated in the Web/Twitter/Facebook era., the startlingly intellectual offspring of a magazine that long was to Mad magazine what Mad TV was to Saturday Night Live, compiled such a list:

5 Logical Fallacies That Make You Wrong More Than You Think |

Naturally, it’s imperfect.

For one thing, fallacies are usually mistakes in logic. Most of the five “fallacies” listed here simply tell us why human beings are incapable of admitting they’re wrong. That may explain why they take a giant misguided leap in logic, but it doesn’t describe the leap in logic itself.

That’s nit-picky, though. The bigger problem is that it’s horribly cynical.

Yes, it’s still somewhat accurate. But the optimists among us have to think it’s too generalized. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be optimists, would we? (There! Refute that argument!)

And it’s also too relativist. We don’t all share the same predilection toward intellectual dishonesty. Some people are truly open-minded and willing to concede a bit of ground. Some people have made peace with the idea that lying is a good way to further their political aims.

It’s still a great read. It’s a reminder of traits that most of us share at least to some extent. And we need to fight them within ourselves. They’re really difficult to beat out of others.