The made-up term “whataboutism” has already worn out its meaning. It’s time to retire it.

If you’re not familiar with it, you must not spend much time on Twitter. Whataboutism essentially is a way to criticize somebody’s who’s countering accusations of wrongdoing by pointing the finger at other people who have done the same thing. 

It’s become part and parcel of partisan debate today. Here’s how it works: Say Republicans in a state legislature passed a bill that takes power away from an incoming governor. Democrats criticize the moves. Republicans counter by saying that Democrats did the same thing when they were in power. Democrats then slam Republicans for engaging in “whataboutism.” 

The idea behind it isn’t a bad one. Whataboutism is a modern term that means the same thing as the tu quoque logical fallacy. And in general, pointing out whataboutism is a good thing.

Just because one political party did something bad in the past, it’s not magically OK for the other party to do the same thing now.

However, whataboutism has quickly morphed into a blunt instrument that shuts down legitimate debate.

It’s become a trump card used to score social media points and claim moral superiority. And it’s a way to avoid inconvenient facts.

There are occasions where it is perfectly acceptable — and even necessary — to point out hypocrisy or wrongdoing from opponents in the past. 

Today’s political rhetoric has become overheated to the point where anything Republicans are doing is “destroying Democracy” or an “unprecedented power grab.” It’s healthy to tone that down by remembering that similar actions have happened in the past without society crumbling.

It’s also acceptable to cast doubt on a partisan’s strident opposition by questioning where their outrage was when somebody on their own side did something. It doesn’t mean their concerns are invalid. But how can we move forward without everyone acknowledging the log in their own eye? 

Claiming “whataboutism” is now being used to avoid those tough conversations. If you say somebody is engaging in it, you don’t have to answer for your own behavior or positions.

At this point, whataboutism is no longer a useful term.

It’s being used to stifle debate instead of making it more honest.

Let’s find a better way to converse.


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