Yes, but What about That?

There’s nothing like social media, and particularly Facebook and Twitter, to see how people’s minds work. Or don’t.

If one can step back and not get triggered/incensed/murderous about what people choose to say in reply to someone’s tweet or post, one can learn a lot about how people process the world—and particularly how they cope with new and different ideas.

One of the least helpful ways that people respond to other people’s concerns is nicely put in a neologism I just came across: “whataboutery.” This cute term points to an ugly reality especially in online exchanges.

A friend shared a blog post from a British writer who is involved in extensive social services to women and to men—separately—and who notes, acidly, how when she writes about women’s needs, she invariably gets asked, “But what about men?”

Never, she adds, does she get the complementary reaction when she writes about her work with men. No one ever asks, “What about women’s needs?”

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that telling, galling observation about gender…and now move tangentially to the general issue of “whataboutery.”

This rhetorical device reached a darkly comical nadir over the last two years in the United States as every criticism of Donald Trump immediately produced the response, “What about Hillary (or Bill) Clinton?” Now it has become the stock in trade of trolls everywhere. No one can raise a point about anything challenging, let alone controversial, without someone firing back a “What about X?” riposte.

Sometimes, yes, “What about X?” is a pertinent reply. If a patently unbalanced point is being propounded, then “What about the other side of the issue?” is a valid and useful question. If data are being cherry-picked, then “What about these other facts?” contributes positively to the conversation.

Much of the time, however, one of two bad things happens with whataboutery. Either a valid point is swamped by someone referring to something else that is, yes, much worse/better/greater/lesser—a worry about loneliness among overworked professionals is drowned out by someone saying, “But what about starving children in the Sudan?”—or a discussion about A is shanghaied into a discussion about B: “Yes, you may be right about that problem with Christian schooling. But why are you ignoring the awful mess in the public schools