A “whatabout” is a method of deflecting debate that increasingly seems to have consumed rational discourse. Use of the term means, “You have stumbled into an area of conflict where I can’t rebut you, so I will divert to a battleground where I have more weapons.”
When my wife, for instance, said, “I cannot believe you spent $500 on a signed, first-edition of ‘Thin Thighs in 30 Days,’ ” I, knowing I could not win that war, went whatabout.
“What about your spending?” I bellowed. “You dropped 20 times that much this year and I have the receipts to prove it!”
“On groceries,” she said wearily. “More specifically, on the thigh-swelling muck that you tearfully demand I buy.”
Clearly whataboutism won’t always work, nor should it, since it’s an intellectually bankrupt strategy. But it is, in our politics, deployed shamelessly on both sides of the aisle and nastily denounced when the other side does it.
On the political left, one of the great whatabouts is on immigration. To those who support President Donald Trump’s wall on the Southern border to keep out immigrants coming illegally, liberals often come back with “What about visa overstays? You know 66 percent of new immigrants here illegally overstay visas, and a wall won’t help with that!”
That’s a weak argument. A plan is not worthless because it addresses only part of a varied and complex problem. If you have water leaking into your house through the basement and the roof, you don’t refuse to patch the roof because it won’t help with the basement. And the two groups are not equal. People who sneak into the United States without any scrutiny are not the same as ones vetted by our government for visas who then overstay.
On the political right, the top issue-oriented whatabouts are on gun control. When gun-control advocates say they want to limit, for instance, military-style semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines, gun enthusiasts come back with, “What about handguns? You know the majority of people killed by guns in America are killed by handguns, right? Plus what about hunting rifles? And laws won’t stop criminals!”
But the fact that banning the rifles and magazines that make it easy to kill 30 people in 30 seconds won’t save people killed by pistols, or make all such guns and magazines disappear, is irrelevant, whether or not you agree with such a ban. If an army were coming to attack and there was a way to steal half of its assault weapons, you wouldn’t say, “Why bother? They’ll still have guns.”
The reasonable arguments for and against a wall on the U.S. Southern border address how it will affect the flow of unvetted people and contraband across the border. Such arguments consider whether that impact justifies the costs and downsides of the wall, understanding that it will not stop all illegal immigration or its ills (and blessings).
The reasonable arguments to be made for and against specific gun-control laws address whether they will reduce senseless killings. They consider whether such a reduction justifies the various costs and downsides of such bans and limits, understanding that it will not end all gun deaths or even all mass murders.
The whatabout is tribal, not logical. It says, “My side has a list of beliefs and your tribe has a list of opposite beliefs, and any defeat I deal you is a win for my team’s entire agenda.” As a debate strategy, it’s silly. As a way to determine which policies our nation ought to pursue, it’s catastrophic.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.