Sunday, June 7, 2020

On Whataboutism—Its Form and Fallacies

Preliminary Note

I’d like to start by framing a (logically valid) syllogism for an argument that goes around the internet:

  • If [X] Then [Y]
  • Not [Y]
  • Therefore [Not X]

Standing alone with X and Y, it’s a valid form known as modus tollens, and it’s true as long as the premises are free of fallacies. So, when it’s used, it sounds credible. But if the premises are fallacious, then the argument is invalid and the point argued is not proven. So, every time you see an “If you really cared about X, you’d care about Y” argument, be careful that the premises in the argument are true.


One of the tiresome things I see on the internet is one of the slogans used in objecting to a high-ranking member of the Church speaking about the issue of injustice, or a company making a symbolic protest (not to morally equate the two): “But what about…? Why didn’t you do anything about…?” The term for this tactic is Whataboutism, and both sides in a faction war are guilty of using it. Whataboutism involves several linked fallacies—which we need to look at—to assert that the person who is concerned with one issue is not really sincere because he or she is not giving other concerns the same weight. Sometimes that accusation might be just, but often it’s used to change the issue in a way that benefits the person who uses it.

Before I begin, let me say that this is not an exhaustive list of fallacies. As I write this, each fallacy I discuss reminds me of two more. So, either I have to limit myself to the most pressing ones, or this becomes a huge tome of an article. I’ve opted for the first option.

Also, remember, we are talking about human beings here, not programmed machines. We all have blind spots. The people who are angry over an issue and those who question the sincerity of that anger might be quite sincere about their concern even if one of them should happen to be wrong. We do need to show compassion to the real concerns people have, even if we end up having to charitably correct some of them.

The Red Herring Fallacy

First, we have the Red Herring fallacy. This fallacy involves a diversion from the topic at hand. If we’re talking about Topic X, invoking Topic Y is irrelevant, and intended to divert the argument. If we talk about X, the relevance of Y needs to be established. We often see this tactic employed when the New Pro-Life Movement (NPLM) and the Original Pro-Life Movement (OPLM) brawl on social media. When the topic is abortion, members of the NPLM cite other moral issues. When the topic is on another moral issue, members of the OPLM invoke abortion. But, when the issue is intended to be abortion, the invocation of another topic is a distraction. Meanwhile, if the issue is another moral issue, invoking abortion is a distraction. It’s only relevant to invoke these topics if the issue is a broader discussion. This is probably why both sides spill ink or bytes over who is “really pro-life” when neither side has reached an agreement on the definition of pro-life, and both sides are probably defining it with the intention to exclude their opponents.

In recent times, we’re seeing some critics of the protests invoke this fallacy. We see some ask, “Why didn’t you object when somebody was killed?” or “Why didn’t you get angry when a police officer was killed protecting people from looters?” When introduced with the intention to divert the issue of George Floyd, it is a red herring.

The Either-Or Fallacy

The second fallacy is the Either-Or fallacy. The assumption is that Either people always respond the same way to a type of thing, Or they’re insincere or hypocrites. Those people using the slogan then argue, they are not always responding in the same way, and from draw the conclusion they are insincere or hypocrites… and the internet brawls erupt. This dualistic thinking assumes there are two—and only two—options to choose from. But, if there are more than two options, like the possibility of “Neither A nor B” or “Option C” being intended by the person being challenged, the dichotomy is false. 

We see this from those who disagree with the George Floyd protests… especially when the Pope and Bishops speak out on it. They mention the lack of protests over previous incidents of police killings of African-Americans, or a lack of similar outrage over the deaths of police officers or non-black individuals, and argue that since they don’t show it, they’re not focused on justice. 

The False Analogy Fallacy

That ties into our third fallacy—the False Analogy. This one focuses on the perceived similarities between two events and claim that they should be treated identically. While sometimes it is a valid objection, it becomes a fallacy when the differences between the two events are greater than the similarities. So, in our current case if civil unrest, the argument assumes that to be trulyoutraged over an injustice requires holding an equal level of outrage for each similar incident.

But while the similarity invoked through whataboutism involve people being killed. The differences involve the identity of the killers, the motives for the killings, and the circumstances of the current level of anger. The similarity that the Whataboutismforgets is forgets that we are dealing with people, not machines that respond the same way to the same output. People get angrier over time. They might hope that this time the courts would respond in a way they think just, but eventually they get angry and become convinced there is no justice to be had. The fallacy forgets this and forgets that the protests in all these cases reached a critical mass after those involved assumed that they would get no justice for their grievances. 

So, when citing a police officer killed by rioters as a refutation, it overlooks the different levels of hope for justice or past history of injustice. Will the killers of police officers during the riots face justice? Probably, if they can identify and find those responsible.

The Straw Man Fallacy

The strawman is a fallacy that misrepresents the argument into a caricature that is easier to refute. Refuting the caricature gives the impression of refuting the actual argument. But the strawman is not the actual argument. One has to answer the actual concerns.

An example of this is to respond to the slogan “black lives matter” with the slogan “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter.” Now these counter slogans are true, but they are addressing something not argued in the first place. The “black lives matter” argument is not saying “ONLY black lives matter.” So, while saying in response, “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter,” is technically true (all human lives do matter), that’s not the intention of the slogan. The purpose is to say “black lives also matter” to people suspected of thinking some lives matter less than others. That’s the issue to respond to.

Equivocation and Amphiboly

The interpretation of that slogan can go wrong through the fallacies of equivocation and amphiboly. Equivocation occurs when we give a term with more than one meaning a meaning not intended by the author. Amphiboly occurs when we emphasize a term in a way that gives it a different meaning§ than the author intends. These can be deliberate or unintentional. 

So, in the slogan “black lives matter,” some critics of the bishops have committed the fallacy of equivocation to think that they were referring to the radical movement which coopted the term. When the bishops were emphasizing that African-Americans deserve the same treatment as others, some have accused them of promoting the values of the radical group.

As for the fallacy of amphiboly, some have taken the term “black lives matter” and turned it into “black lives matter,” implying that other lives don’t. Thus, outraged, they respond with “all lives matter,” thinking they are standing up for all human life, saying “but what about X?” But they put the emphasis on the wrong word. The original accent seems to have been “black lives matter,” meaning that we can’t treat them as unimportant. 

I confess I fell into these fallacies once upon a time. Out of a Catholic pro-life conviction, I thought that everybody should hold that “all lives matter” (and they should!), but I missed the point of the slogan, not realizing that it was calling to be treated as equal, not separate. It’s a reminder that we should never assume that our casual interpretation is correct without checking to make sure that is what was meant by the one who is making a statement.

Other Considerations

We can’t automatically assume bad will on the person we disagree with, of course. A misunderstanding can easily be sincere. There are all sorts of baggage attached to words, and if we’re unaware of our limitations, we can go wrong while thinking we’re doing the right thing. The person we disagree with might not be a racist or an antifa… even if it turns out the person is wrong. As Catholics, to avoid calumny and rash judgment, we have to avoid making assumptions or spreading negative reports about someone without verifying that our assumption is true. Under the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:2), we are required to do this regardless of whether or not the other reciprocates. So, even if others misinterpret or misrepresent us, we are not excused from treating them as we want to be treated.

And this obligation cuts both ways. If it’s wrong to misjudge the motives of the people speaking out for social justice, it’s wrong to misjudge of people who disagree with the tactics used. While individuals or groups involved in the disagreements might be wrong#, we can’t 


As I said in the beginning, I could have easily added many more examples of fallacies that are packed into the assumption of “whataboutism.” But these are included so the person who encounters (or uses) the arguments might see why they are flawed and should not use them. Since we who profess to be Christian must seek out the truth and live (charitably) in accordance with it. This means we can’t accuse people of things they’re not guilty of and we mustn’t repeat false accusations.

While it’s possible that a logically bad argument coincidentally winds up with a true conclusion@, it can’t prove the conclusion is true. So, being aware of the logical flaws with the whataboutism arguments helps us from assuming that bad arguments must be true and irrefutable.



(†) In logic, the fact that an argument is invalid or unsound doesn’t mean the conclusion is false. It means that the argument cannot prove the conclusion. So, debunking the argument of Person A doesn’t automatically prove that the conclusion is false. To do that, you need to respond with a valid argument with true premises that cannot be refuted. To use an analogy, in a criminal trial, the Prosecutor has to prove his case of guilt is sound. The Defense lawyer who refutes the Prosecutor’s argument hasn’t proven his client innocent. He’s just demonstrated that the Prosecutor’s argument isn’t proven.

(‡) Whether or not you, the reader, personally agrees with the justness of the anger or not, we all need to recognize that the anger is real and needs to be addressed justly.

(§) To understand this, take the following sentence: “I never said you took the money.” Read it aloud seven times, each time emphasizing a different word. See how every change of emphasis changes the meaning of the sentence? This is why, when I think there’s a danger of amphiboly, I try to italicize the word I think should be accented. Of course, I don’t always catch it.

(#) I am speaking in theory here. I am not pointing fingers at any specific person. The focus is to determine right and wrong so the reader might ponder how it might apply in their experience, not to score points against my political “foes.”

(@) For example, if a person believes that “all red things are poisonous” and, as a result, escapes eating a red object that happens to be poisonous, the conclusion was true in this case, even though the reasoning behind it was false.

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