Swanson: Identifying ‘Whataboutism’ and Why It Doesn’t Progress Anything

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By Gavin Swanson, Opinion Writer

On January 7, the Golden Globes were broadcasted live to the world. It is the first major entertainment award show to be hosted since the explosion of the #MeToo movement and sexual abuse allegations made public against major figures in Hollywood such as Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and others. As expected, the show featured several examples of activism aimed at this issue that have been illustrated in the entertainment industry for the past couple of months and will continue to build long into the future. Attendees brought activists as their dates, attendees wearing pins with the slogan ‘Time’s Up’ along with their black clothing and, of course, Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech for her lifetime achievement award.

It was that night while browsing the Internet that I found a tweet by Editor in Chief of The Daily Wire Ben Shapiro on the activism presented at the Golden Globes. “I’m not watching the #goldenglobes, but I’m hearing a lot about female empowerment, which is great! I assume everybody’s paying it forward by sounding off about repression in Iran, right?” This is ‘whataboutism’.

So what exactly is ‘whataboutism’? It is a colloquial term for a logical fallacy where a debater tries to gain ground in an argument by presenting another issue of equal or greater value and implies that we are neglecting the second issue because of the first issue. It gains its name for the common phrasing used when infringing on it, ‘yes, I recognize that issue A is important, but what about issue B?’ It has become popularized as a result of the pursuit of reaching the ‘Gotcha!’ moment in arguments, which has always been present in political discussion but is now widely accepted since the recent adoption of call-out culture.

For those who accept the practice of ‘whataboutism’ and haven’t seen why it is an illogical argument to make, there will always be a more pressing issue. By pointing out seemingly equal or more important issues in comparison to the one that someone is trying to raise awareness for, all that is accomplished is zero advancement towards either cause. ‘Yes, I recognize that black people are facing some police brutality, but what about Christian persecution in the middle east?’ or ‘yes, I recognize that some terrorists are Muslim, but what about all the mass shootings committed by white men?’ or ‘yes, I recognize that #MeToo is important, but what about women in Iran?’

That same night, sex educator and feminist Laci Green took to criticize Shapiro’s tweet for the fallacy that it contained. After some back-and-forward and empty arguments, Shapiro clarified that he wishes that the Golden Globes focused on both Iran and Hollywood and that he wasn’t bringing down #MeToo or Time’s Up. By doing this, Shapiro puts himself in a wonderful position of not being wrong. Sure, it would have been wonderful and inspiring if some of the activism presented at the show gave a spotlight to the repression and protests occurring in Iran, but the activism was about people in Hollywood standing up to the abuse going on in Hollywood. It would have been nice if they talked about North Korea, mental illness in America, the genocide going on in Myanmar and increasing suicide rates in Asia, but that’s not what the show was about. By comparing issues to others and asking for more issues to be presented at once, they all lose the limelight and in the end, nothing is gained. Activism relies on concentration and focus, and if those are lost then it fails.

Ultimately, Shapiro is not wrong, but he’s not right either. Which is weird because it wasn’t even an argument he had to make. There was plenty else about the Golden Globes that was ripe for critique. For example, the ceremony was all for the support and awareness of #MeToo and all of the brave men and women who came forward, but there was an eerie lack of invitations to the victims who came out and led these movements like Rose McGowan and Asia Argento. There was also Natalie Portman’s introduction of the directing award with “Here are the all-male nominees,” a quip that I felt accomplished nothing but ruining what was a very important moment for all of the directors who worked incredibly hard to get that level of recognition and achievement.

With that being said, I would like to take the time to promote the Time’s Up legal defense fund which, as of the writing of this article, has done the outstanding job of raising 16.5 million dollars to provide legal aid to men and women who face sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. If you would like to contribute in some way towards the fight for women’s rights in Iran you can easily do so through the OMID Foundation by fundraising or volunteering. Either way, it is time that as politically aware adults and consumers of media that we recognize and discourage the practice of ‘whataboutism’ and promote discussion that leads to results in the causes that we are passionate about.