Op-Ed: Whataboutism distracts from justice

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 11:58am

Nobody’s perfect. It’s an age-old mantra that lets us find a bit of comfort in our shortcomings. Our mothers, friends, teachers and coaches have hammered this basic pillar of humanity into our brains. Imperfections, we are taught, are universal and part of what make us human.

It is a shame, then, that we have begun to view perfection more as a choice and less as a pipe dream. Human error, polluted by agendas, politicking and biases, has slowly warped into a tool that perpetuates division. What’s more disheartening is that, more often than not, the imperfections that we see in others or in ourselves are irrelevant in context. We are quick to judge but slow to empathize. With this line of thinking, shortcomings are not seen as human error — they are seen as inexcusable. Worse is that they are used as false equivalencies in the hope of invalidating things that come to our attention.

Take the latest public relations faux pas, courtesy of United Airlines. In the age of social media, it did not take long for videos to surface of Dr. David Dao being dragged down the aisle of a plane by United Airlines security and the bloody aftermath. Nor did it take long for United Airlines’ stock prices to tumble or for the boycott sirens to ring after United Airlines President Oscar Munoz doubled down on the company’s self-vindication. But even as most of the world criticized United Airlines' handling of the whole fiasco, a different narrative began to emerge in other enclaves of the media.

Dao, the headlines read, had his own personal demons. Information swirled that Dao had his medical license revoked in 2005 after being convicted of drug-related offenses. With this new information, the story shifted away from the growing injustices levied by corporations like United Airlines to the culpability of the victim – never mind the irrelevance of a nonviolent drug offense 12 years ago to being manhandled out of a purchased seat. The fallacy of the defense that “he was no angel” is that it overplays any prior mishaps of the victim. It provides unnecessary context to a situation as a false equivalence to sidestep the underlying problem. Through the wealth of information available at our fingertips, we have jumped the gun in trying to play both sides.

This way of approaching controversial situations has come to be known as “whataboutism.” Whataboutism is the name given by The Economist’s Edward Lucas to describe a propaganda technique birthed by the Soviet Union to deflect criticisms from the Western world by asking “What about … ?” followed by an event in the Western world. Whataboutism is dangerous because it makes us so hyper-focused on human error or imperfection, even when inapplicable to the overall context, that we neglect to acknowledge the initial wrongdoing. In Dao’s case, his own mishaps over a decade ago created the false sense that there was more to the story than United Airline’s wrongdoing.

But whataboutism has not just popped up in isolated circumstances. Its resurgence in the United States has been steady and widespread not just in social situations, but also in politics. President Donald Trump has used whataboutism to avoid implicating Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the crimes he has committed against people who oppose him. Trump’s response to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough’s point that Putin “kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” was, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing also.” In a February interview with Fox News' Bill O’Reilly, in which O’Reilly said, “Putin’s a killer,” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”

Trump’s whataboutism implies that Russia’s transgressions are less evil because the U.S. has its own faults. But when Trump uses the faults of the U.S. as reasons to not denounce the mishaps of other countries, there is no accountability to prevent future catastrophes on the global stage. This reasoning makes us prone to disaster.

The fallacious whataboutism that is used to justify matters like Dao’s forceful removal from his flight and Trump’s foreign policy toward Russia is a dangerous race to the bottom. When we use one’s past to question the legitimacy of their victimization, we ignore the real issue at hand. Justice should not be limited to people who have clean records.

Lucas Maiman is an editorial board member.