Whataboutism: The unsubstantial argument.

“But what about…” I’m sure it’s a phrase we are all too familiar with. Often used to deflect criticism by pointing out a pitfall in one’s own political beliefs or by reminding you of how your favoured political party once missed the mark with a policy of theirs. Perhaps the culprit will mention something related to the topic of discussion, other times it will be something completely irrelevant, often it is a catchphrase used by one side of the debate, brought up whenever their counterpart makes a valid argument. Whatever it is, it is almost always an unsubstantial argument.

It seems to be human nature. We, or our core beliefs which are often an extension of ourselves, are criticised. In this situation when we are backed into a corner, backing down is something most don’t consider. Whether it’s in relation to a sports team or it’s when we are discussing politics, the decision to defend without question always seems to arise when we are at our most tribal.

It is in these situations, when we are faced with a logical argument which cannot be refuted, we resort to whataboutism. Instead of conceding defeat we try to discredit the opposing argument by accusing them of hypocrisy, or even worse by simply recalling a dissimilar instance in which they acted wrongfully.

This form of argument appeared online over and over again throughout the 2020 general election. Sinn Fein are accused of having connections to the I.R.A, and how do they respond? “Well Fine Gael used to be associated with the blue shirts”. This contributes nothing to the discussion. Do two wrongs make a right? Are Sinn Fein simply excused because Fine Gael have also acted questionably in the past? Surely not.

But this works both ways of course. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail also engage in this tactic. Every time a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail member or candidate called to my house to canvass, I would question their handling of issues such as the climate crisis, the housing crisis and the healthcare crisis. It was clear they were unable to refute these mishandlings and instead attempted to drag Sinn Fein down with them.

Let me be clear, there are no perfect political parties in Ireland. The three major parties: Sinn Fein, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are all deeply flawed. However, supporters of these parties refuse to ever acknowledge these pitfalls which is where my frustration arises. To simply dismiss connections to terrorist organisations or the incompetence which caused both a housing crisis and a healthcare crisis is not only insincere but irresponsible.

Perhaps these supporters are in fact so blinded by bias that they see no wrong in their party, but I hope this isn’t the case. The vast majority of these supporters have been presented with evidence of their party’s unfavourable acts. Why is it so hard to say “I actually agree with you, Sinn Fein’s alleged connection to the I.R.A is pretty worrying, and it’s something they should be held accountable for. However, their stance on both social and economic issues are more aligned with my own so I will probably vote for them.”

Maybe I am in the minority here, but I am unable to trust someone who seems unphased by their parties less than redeeming qualities. When a Fine Gael supporter dismisses the handling of the housing crisis as acceptable behaviour, how am I to find common ground with them? It appears they have made up their mind; they will vote Fine Gael regardless of any information presented to them. As a result, we have entered a discussion, not to arrive at a reasonable conclusion where we are both more informed, but to simply convince others to vote for our party of choice. This is a recipe for disaster.

What can we do to prevent this?Is this something you have encountered? Let me know your opinion on whataboutism, and how we can combat it in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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Glenn McNamara

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