On Resisting Whataboutism

It seems like ancient history now, but just a few months ago debate was raging about the Australian wildfires: how they started, who was responsible, and what we should do. It’s one of those conversations that started with mass recognition that no one was talking about it. Paradoxically, almost overnight, everyone was talking about how no one was paying attention to it.

It appears that the nightmare is over — at least for now. As some are pointing out, we should expect much more of this thing unless we undertake a massive effort to fight climate change.

The fires destroyed homes, killed a few dozen people, and inflicted unimaginable damage on the environment. Perhaps most disturbing of all — to myself and most other onlookers — was that they were estimated to have killed more than a billion animals.

This sort of thing provokes a lot of cynicism. We may start feeling a tad apocalyptic as we come to appreciate just how dire our situation, how helpless we are when nature gets angry. For vegans, this cynicism can be multiplied. Oh, now you care about animals? we might ask, out loud if we’re feeling particularly bold or irritable.

It’s true. It can be damn near impossible to resist judging someone when they mourn the loss of animals while funding the exploitation of other animals.

But we should, and here’s why: every animal matters. And this isn’t a game of who can be more ethical. It’s not a contest. It’s literally life and death.

That is, even though we live in a world that kills animals by the billions, every additional animal killed beyond that still matters. The fact that most of us eat animals for food and some of us wear their skins does not reduce the importance of saving the animals that may die for different reasons.

In the absence of cognitive dissonance about animal agriculture, non-vegans understand this. They are not faking their mourning of a deceased pet. They are not pretending to be upset about animals killed in wildfires likely caused by climate change. They really are sad about animals being unnecessarily killed — even though they support an industry that does similar unnecessary killing.

So we should resist the whataboutism of pointing to animal agriculture when non-vegans express a concern over animal welfare. They care about animals, just like you did before you went vegan. In fact, you might agree that if your concern about the well-being of animals wasn’t genuine, you wouldn’t have gone vegan in the first place. People don’t suddenly become concerned about animals after going vegan.

And besides, what would the whataboutism even accomplish? Maybe it would help some people make the connection between the animals they mourn and the ones they eat. But couldn’t it just as likely encourage people to reduce their concern for animals whose suffering they do not contribute to? In other words, prodding someone to explain why they care about koalas killed in Australia but not the cow that produced their glass of 2% milk might result in reduced concern about the koalas, rather than increased concern for the cow.

At the end of the day, we want people to care about animals. And the more animals that are being cared about, the better off they will be — at least in theory.

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