Communication Training Skills Alert: Beware of WHATABOUTISM
Whataboutism--I just learned the word and want to sound the alarm--
Most people in the United States, and around the world for that matter, are watching political discourse carefully. Some are engaging in it. Many are dismayed by it. In previous blogs, I've talked about the growing lack of civility in political discussions. In this blog I'd like to address a communication "trick" that is being used so widely it is a wonder that it's still effective. To be clear--there are good tricks, tips, and techniques that aid communication and clarity of thought. These facilitate understanding and bring successful win/win results to the user. Whataboutism is NOT one of those tips that shed light on discussions. It is a trick that clouds understanding through misdirection. It's simple and effective, and should not be used by anyone wishing to be forthright and honest in his/her communicating. However, forthright and honest people need to be aware of this technique so they can call out those who are using it in an attempt to cloud the issue and deflect from the truth.
Per Wikipedia: Whataboutism (also known as whataboutery) is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent's position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument, which is particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda. In modern politics, you'll find this is done simply by ignoring the topic at hand and concentrating on unrelated conduct of unrelated people--to throw the listener off-balance. It works like this: "John, we've received two complaints from women on staff that you are telling them lewd jokes, and it's making them uncomfortable. You know that is a violation of company sexual harassment policy." John replies with: "Well, what about Mark from accounting who stands around the water cooler telling jokes? What about Frank who is having an affair and everybody is aware of it? What about June who wears clothes totally inappropriate for this office?" As you can see, the three whatabouts don't speak to whether or not John is telling lewd jokes. He either is or he is not, but the other people he referenced don't impact the question of HIS conduct. They just change the topic.
You hear things such as this all the time, but you don't see people effectively shutting it down. You shut it down by saying "The topic is not Mark or Frank or June. The topic is you telling lewd jokes. And we're going to stick to it." Likewise when you're watching political drama unfold. Be aware of what the original topic is and don't allow yourself to be led astray by whataboutism. If the topic is the behavior of a wannabe-senator accused of sexual misconduct, don't be led off track by the obvious whatabouts--Bill Clinton, e.g. Yes, his conduct was scandalous. What has that to do with Roy Moore? Nothing. The Republicans are great whatabouters, as are the Democrats. This is not about a specific political party or agenda. It is about recognizing when someone's position is so weak that the only response he or she can muster in defense of it is "But what about the other person?" This childish school-yard response is becoming so common it's frightening, and savvy communicators need to be wary of it. Effective communication is clear communication that leads to understanding.
People who reference other people's conduct when defending their own are generally advancing a weak argument because their position is weak to begin with. Don't do it. Just don't do it. And when others attempt to buttress a weak argument or position by using whataboutism--point it out and get back to the topic tout de suite. Staying on track in discussions is the only way to arrive at the truth. Civility and clarity can return to private and public discourse, one savvy, mindful communicator at a time.
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