Not too long ago, I was involved in a Twitter war with a friend of mine over the rise of neo-Nazis. The argument was not even about neo-Nazis, it was about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Because he — along with a shocking number of people — thought the BLM movement was a domestic terrorist group, he believes it was hypocritical for supporters to demonize the neo-Nazi movement.
After an hour of trying to convince my friend that BLM was the exact opposite of a terrorist group, I realized that, unintentionally or not, he had derailed the conversation from something that needs to be talked about to something completely unrelated.
This is not the first time that I have encountered this strategy, better known as “whataboutism,” or “the practice of answering a criticism or difficult question by attacking someone with a similar criticism or question directed at them,” according to Cambridge Dictionary.
This kind of argument has started to gain popularity over the last few months, especially among conservatives, but why? It is a weird and pointless argument to be using, and it just avoids a conversation that needs to be had.
Even though the whataboutism argument has been around for a while, especially in Russian propaganda, it started to gain traction during the 2016 presidential election when President Trump began using it to defend his actions.
During the second debate, shortly after his audio tape leaked, he invited a group of women who claimed that President Clinton assaulted them to sit in the audience, not to discuss these accusations, but to get the focus off the scandal.
And that is not the only time he has used this argument. He has repeatedly used it on his Twitter account to attack anyone that opposes him in order to distract the media. Another example, that happened after the election, was when the media started reporting that Senator Jeff Sessions and the Russian ambassador were in contact with each other.
Trump's whataboutism claim was that President Obama secretly conversed with the Russians, and that that suddenly made it okay to have secret conversations off the record that could have led to his presidency. What President Obama did or did not do can and should be talked about, but at another time.
Why whataboutism is invalid
It seems like in the wake of Trump saving his own butt, those who lean toward the right have adopted this strategy. But it basically says that since someone that you supported has done something similar in the past, you have no right to complain about what someone that I support has done.
But that removes the possibility of having a meaningful discussion about something that could be impacting our country. The tactic of whataboutism is just a cowardly way of backing out of a conversation because you do not have anything insightful to say, while also not wanting to admit that you are wrong.
If you want to talk about how some BLM members have repeatedly used violence to promote their anti-cop perspective, if President Clinton sexually assaulted women or if President Obama had connections to the Russian government, then we can talk about that as a separate issue.
That being said, neo-Nazis are still a terrorist group. Sexual assault is still a bad thing. And if Russia intervened in the election, that needs to be discussed. Mentioning these topics during a related conversation does not invalidate the other things being discussed. From now on, if someone uses whataboutism to deflect, we should say “We can talk about that later, but for now, let’s talk about the topic at hand.”