What with the renewed interest in a Russian antagonist recently, it has become fashionable in some circles to dismiss criticism as use of a rhetorical device that has stood the long test of time: whataboutism.
Well, yes, tu quoque is a logical fallacy, and that would matter if public opinion were logical. But it is not, so it doesn’t. Whataboutism as a device works because it plays on the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict between one’s ideals and hypocritical behavior. The case of Thomas Jefferson, for example, writing that all men have the right to liberty while keeping slaves. The United States is particularly susceptible to this style of argument because of our founding in the Enlightenment and because we pretend to be a shining example to the world, a City upon a Hill. How can we on the one hand pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all while simultaneously denying it in practice? How do we reconcile our behavior with our ideals?
Whataboutism works because it’s true.
Whataboutism may draw a false moral equivalence between parties, without concern for shades of grey, but a decent respect for the opinions of mankind does make it unseemly to criticize others of a crime, e.g. torture, when one engages in that crime. Or at least makes the accusation more than a little ironic. Well, isn’t that just the pot calling the kettle black! The U.N. Human Rights Council is likely tired of hearing this. It would be something else entirely if we admitted our flaws, acknowledged them, and actually held ourselves to at least the same, if not a more stringent, standard than we hold others. “Let he who is without sin…” and all that.
We certainly aren’t without sin. No one is. One might take a moment for self-reflection. Or not. Many so-called patriots prefer denial and cannot admit fault. Brush the dirt under the rug of history while claiming the dirt doesn’t exist and, even if it did, it’s not dirt but soil. We don’t air our dirty laundry in public. This is the “my country, right or wrong” crowd: the reduction of civil society and the clash of nations to a team sport, and, strangely enough, the active embrace of the core argument advanced by the current crop of whataboutism.
Masha Gessen, in “In Praise of Hypocrisy,” writes,
Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how fascism invites people to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy” and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. Hypocrisy can be aspirational: Political actors claim that they are motivated by ideals perhaps to a greater extent than they really are; shedding the mask of hypocrisy asserts that greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.
[Vladimir Putin and Victor Orban] seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles….
Despair at how the world is shaped by power imbalances, and embrace a blunt conception of the Good Life:
They err in understanding a description of how the world works as a prescription for the way it should. Still ideals beyond power give us something to strive for in this dog-eat-dog world where only the murderous survive. Isn’t it odd that those who care so little for the public opinion that they have no qualms looting their country for their own personal aggrandizement are among those who are the most assiduous perpetrators of fraud, indirection, and deceit in hiding their wealth and the sources of it? Isn’t it odd that heroes must hide their feet of clay?
Perhaps there’s something to these ideals after all.