Whataboutisms, Exclusion and Silencing

Exclusion and silencing are specially pernicious forms of marginalisation. Among other reasons, this is because they are negative facts. They are constituted by an absence, a lack or an omission of something that should be there but isn’t. Their ontological and epistemological status is complicated by this negative status. It is commonly said that you cannot prove a negative and, even though there is some truth to this truism, it is usually used as a weapon against those who protests and fight against exclusion.

For the last couple of years I have been studying so-called “whataboutisms”, arguments of the form “What about…?” that attempt “to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position, without directly refuting or disproving the opponent’s initial argument” [as the Wikipedia defines them]. Take for example, the now common criticisms raised against the vast difference of attention given to civilian victims in places like Nize in comparison to those in Baghdad or Ankara. At The Independent, Henna Rhai wrote: “The terrorist atrocity in Nice has already generated the now regular tweets along the lines: you care about France, but where were you for Syria or Bangladesh?, or: Why are you silent on Somalia, Kashmir and Gaza?” This sort of arguments are usually disqualified as logical fallacies and/or propaganda techniques. In particular, they are part of the so-called fallacies of relevance, that is, fallacies that aim to derail argumentation by bringing in distracting contentious elements, irrelevant to the issue under discussion.

According to this traditional account, the key argumentative rule that whataboutisms seem to break is the rule of relevance, i.e., the rule that we must always stick to the topic (already under discussion).  But how can we expect people to abide by this rule when what they want to protest is precisely the fact that they and their concerns are never the topic?

A few weeks ago, members of the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted the Pride parade in Toronto, Canada. Many people dismissed their concerns, and criticised their actions as being out of place. In an Op Ed at the LA Times, for example, James Kirchick called it an “attempt… to divert attention to an extraneous cause.” In The Toronto Star, to give another example, Mark Jamieson wrote:

“Black Lives Matter (BLM) the status of honorary group. BLM has absolutely nothing to do with the gay, lesbian, transgendered community. They are an organization brought out of community concerns about violence directed toward the black community, notably at the hands of the police.

Historically, Pride has distanced itself from political issues not pertaining to members of the LGBT community… Why would Pride then recognize BLM in such a manner?”

BLM’s act can be seen as a kind of whataboutism, just as Jamieson and Kirchick’s responses illustrate the way whataboutisms are usually dismissed. For Jamieson, bringing up violence against Black people at a Pride parade is wrong, because it is both distracting and irrelevant. It is just not part of  what LGBT pride is about. But a reply like this misses the point of BLM’s actions, which was precisely to protest that their concerns were not being included among those of LGBT Pride. In other words, it seems at least pragmatically inconsistent to accuse those protesting of exclusion of irrelevance, when what they are protesting is precisely the very exclusion that makes them seem irrelevant.

Behind every whataboutism is a claim of exclusion. As such, they are easy to dismiss as irrelevant and distracting, since they are never already part of what is at issue.

So, when are whataboutisms actually an irrelevant disrupting red Herring and when are they rising genuine concerns of exclusion that need to be addressed? My hypothesis is that whataboutisms are justified when there is a good suspicion that there is an (implicit) reason behind the exclusion, i.e., when the exclusion is not a natural and undifferentiated effect of limited resources.

Consider another recent example. Earlier this month, the Movement for Black Lives released its political platform. Among the many points and issues covered in the long document was a critique of the U.S. support of Israel’s actions against Palestinian people. According to Emma Green at The Atlantic Monthly, this resulted in a strong backlash from Jewish groups.

[The Movement for Black Lives] platform drafters believed “the movement for Black lives must be tied to liberation movements around the world,” as they wrote in the platform. “Our freedom fight knows no borders, so that has to include unequivocal support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom and peace.”

While many Jewish leaders disagree with this framing of history and the current situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine, what seems to matter to them almost as much is being singled out. While the platform names a number of nations, claiming they’ve been victimized by the United States’ colonial-style foreign policy, it condemns only one foreign government: Israel. The platform does not express sympathy with the Kurds in Iraq or the Rohingya in Burma; it does not condemn Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers or Saudi Arabia’s oppression of Shiite Muslims.

I specially like this example because it clearly illustrates the logical structure of whataboutisms. We have a particular claim – concerning the Israel and Palestine conflict – backed up by a general statement – a general commitment to solidarity with  liberation movements around the world – that does not seem to be consistently applied across the board. What about Iraq? –asks Emma green – What about Burma or Saudi Arabia? Notice that the whataboutism is not a direct defence of Israel’s actions towards the Palestine people (and this is what traditional logicians have found problematic about arguments of this sort). Nevertheless, it still raises a fair question as to why the Movement for Black Lives singled out Israel as targets for their “fight for global freedom”.

Here I am taking a page from the epistemology of negative facts. As Jorge Morales has argued, what make it possible for us and other non-human animals to perceive the absence of something are expectations, i.e., we notice that something is not there, only when we expect it to be there. The relevant kind of expectation need not be something as strong as a belief (and it is seldom something conscious), yet it is something that is still normatively evaluable from an epistemological point of view. In other words, there is stuff we are justified in expecting, and there is stuff we are not. That something we are justified in expecting does not happen demands an explanation. Only then, it becomes more than a mere absence; it becomes an exclusion.

            When is an expectation justified, then? The question is not simple, but it is very likely that knowing that a possible event is likely justifies the expectation of such event. Consider, for example, Jamie Foxx’s infamous claim that there have been very little Oscar nominees of colour in the last couple of years because actors and actresses of colour have not given as good performances as those actually nominated. While it is true that in any list of nominees, some of those eligible will not receive a nomination, so whatever criteria is used to pick the nominees must explain both why some were in the list and others were absent, Mr. Foxx’s claim seems very implausible because it does not explain away the fact that the nominees were all white. The nominees whiteness is not something we could rationally expect from a list of the best people working within the American film industry, thus it is something that needs to be explained away. That is why, after Foxx’s statement, people actually calculated the probabilities, given the number of non-white people in the American film industry, that the best in their respective fields were all white, and found the probabilities to be very low. All things considered, the rational expectation would be for the list of nominees to show the same level of diversity as the industry itself. That this is not so is what makes this a case of exclusion, instead of one of mere absences, the kind of absences that could be explained away by an explanation like Jamie Foxx’s.

Thus, whataboutisms are justified when they point to an actual exclusion – not any absence, but a rationally unexpected one–that needs to be addressed.

This post appeared originally as “Whataboutisms” on the blog Discrimination and Disadvantage, on August 22nd, 2016. [http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2016/08/whataboutisms-guest-post-by-axel-arturo-barceló.html] The internet being what it is, the blog was unceremoniously deleted, just as many other blogs, web-based journals and magazines, and with them, much of what many of us has posted on the last two or three decades or so has also disappeared into aether. This is the first post I recover from my archived copies, and I might do the same with other posts. I might update some and post others, like this one, as they were originally written back then. My account of whataboutisms was finally published as:

“Whataboutisms and Inconsistency”, 2020, Argumentation, 34, 433–447 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-020-09515-1 Electronic ISSN 1572-8374 / Print ISSN 0920-427X

No part of this blog appears in the article.

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