When I first learned about whataboutism it was a revelation. Although the term harkens back to the days of the Soviet Union, it still seems like the logical fallacy of our day. Not only because of Donald Trump’s frequent use of it, but also because I see it so often on social media and in person. Once you learn the concept you’ll start to see it everywhere.
Whataboutism diverts criticism by accusing the accuser of crimes worse or equivalent. The classic example is Soviet propaganda during the Cold War years. Any attempt by Americans to criticize Stalinist human rights abuses was met with the refrain “and you are lynching negroes.” While America’s dark history of racism and violence is worthy of condemnation, it is not a justification for Soviet gulags or other crimes against humanity. Your parents weren’t kidding when they told you that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Whataboutism is an enemy of progress. We should be able to criticize two things at once if both are in fact worthy of criticism. It pretends that the two issues are in zero-sum contest with one another—as if worrying about one problem is necessarily an impediment to solving another. It usually also rests on a false equivalence by claiming that the two problems are equally pressing.
For vegans, this shows up most commonly when people claim that because no one is deathless, there’s no point in trying to save lives. They will usually bring up that many small rodents are killed in the harvesting of wheat and other crops. This is clearly a deflection and it’s an argument that doesn’t survive too much close inspection. Incidental and intentional killing are different for one thing. Furthermore, the scale of suffering from traditional agriculture doesn’t hold a candle to factory farming.
This argument is a cousin to the ridiculous claim that plants feel pain, which is another way of saying that any attempt to reduce suffering is bound to fail so we may as well continue to enjoy our hamburgers and hot dogs.
The way we treat cows, chickens and pigs also opens the door to the rebuttal “what about factory farming?” whenever we (especially non-vegans) criticize more flagrant violations of animal rights. Here’s the Norwegian whaler Steinar Bastesen, in an interview with Matthew Scully: “If we accept that mankind’s resources should be utilized, why should the whale be excluded? If we have meat, you have to kill an animal. Killing animals is not nice at all–to kill any animal is not nice.” And so whaling practices can be defended, especially since they have tradition and indigenous cultures behind them. This splits the left’s sympathies. Those omnivores who criticize whaling then look like cultural chauvinists—excusing their own culture’s animal abuse, while condemning another’s. Of course, going vegan is a great way to get the moral high ground in a discussion like this, but I’ll gladly accept the support of omnivores in criticizing whaling. In point of fact, both factory farming and whaling are wrong and we should work on both problems.
It’s hard to imagine how people that toss out these arguments imagine any kind of moral progress ever taking place. If you can’t criticize any moral failing without getting bogged down in a discussion of every other wrong that goes on in the world, how will you ever make any changes? We need to see whataboutism for the deflection it is and call it out whenever we see it. We cannot be swayed into passivity by bad arguments of this kind.