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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 15, 2017

While Whataboutism has long served as a tool for Soviet (and now Russian) propagandists, it has now become entrenched in American political discourse. It is, as noted by comedian John Oliver, a beloved tool of Fox News and President Trump.

Whataboutism is a variant of the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In the standard tu quoque fallacy it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:


  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.


The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite, but this does not prove his claims are false. For those noting the similarity to the Wikipedia entry on this fallacy, you will note that the citation for the form and example is to my work.

As would be expected, while the Russians used this tactic against the West, Americans use it against each other along political lines. For example, a Republican might “defend” Roy Moore by saying “what about Harvey Weinstein?” A Democrat might do the reverse. I mention that Democrats can use this in anticipation of comments to the effect of “what about Democrats using whataboutism?” People are, of course, free to use Bill Clinton in the example, if they prefer.  To return to the subject, the “reasoning” in both cases would be fallacious as is evident when the “logic” is laid bare:


  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, A did not do X.


Obviously enough, whether C did X is irrelevant to whether or not it is true that A did X.




  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, it is not wrong that A did X.


Clearly, even if C did X it does not follow that A doing X was not wrong. This sort of “reasoning” can also be seen as a variant on the classic appeal to common practice fallacy. This fallacy has the following structure:


Premise 1. X is a common action.

Conlcusion. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.


The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most people do X is used as “evidence” to support the action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable. In the case of whataboutism, the structure would be like this:


Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  X done by your side?

Premises 3. So, X is commonly done/we both do X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.


It is also common for the tactic of false equivalency to be used in whataboutism. In the form above, the X of premise 1 would not be the moral equivalent of the X of premise 2. In fact, the form should be modified to account for the use of false equivalency:


Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  Y, which I say is just as bad as X, done by your side?

Premises 3. So, things just as bad as X are commonly done/we both do things as bad as X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.


This would be a not-uncommon double fallacy. In this case not only is the comparison between X and Y a false one, even if they were equivalent the fact that both sides do things that are equally bad would still not support the conclusion. Obviously enough, you should not accept this sort of reasoning—especially when it is being used to “support” a conclusion that is appealing.

Whataboutism can also be employed as a tool for creating a red herring. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:


  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.


In the case of a whataboutism, the structure would be as follows:


  1. Topic A, my side doing X, is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced: whatabout X done by the other side?
  3. Topic A is abandoned.


In closing, it should be noting that if two sides are being compared, then it is obviously relevant to consider the flaws of both sides. For example, if the issue is whether to vote for candidate A or B, then it is reasonable to consider the flaws of both A and B in comparison. However, the flaws of A do not show that B does not have flaws and vice versa. Also, if the issue being discussed is the bad action of A, then bringing up B’s bad action does nothing to mitigate the badness of A’s action. Unless, of course, A had to take a seemingly bad action to protect themselves from B’s unwarranted bad action. For example, if A is accused of punching a person and it is shown that this was because B tried to kill A, then that would obviously be relevant to assessing the ethics of A’s action. But, if A assaulted women and B assaulted women, then bringing up B in a whataboutism to defend A would be an error in logic. Both would be bad.

As far as why you should be worried about whataboutism, the obvious reason is that it is a corrosive that eats at the very structure of truth and morality. While it is a tempting tool to deploy against one’s hated enemies (such as fellow Americans), it is not a precise weapon—each public use splashes the body of society with vile acid.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 16, 2017 at 8:31 am

  2. TJB said, on November 16, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Which is worse, not knowing how coal is cleaned or not knowing how many states there are in the U.S.?

  3. TJB said, on November 16, 2017 at 11:51 am

    Evidence that Senator Al Franken groped a woman’s breasts while she was sleeping.

    Mike, should he resign?


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2017 at 6:53 pm

      If his misdeeds are limited to the two known incidents, then no. I’d say the same if a Republican did the same thing as Franken. While Franken’s actions are to be condemned, they do not seem to warrant his resigning his position.

      Everyone has done relatively minor things that are stupid and bad, so the standard for having people resign cannot be set to such a low level. Otherwise everyone would be out of a job. The challenge is deciding at what level the offense is serious enough to warrant resignation. Weinstein and Spacey clearly crossed the line and kept on going way beyond it. Franken probably didn’t. I’ll need to consider the matter in more depth in regards to just punishment for misdeeds, the impact of repentance, and so on.

      The obvious counter to my view is that Franken did engage in groping behavior twice (as of this writing) and hence should be forced to resign. If this principle is accepted, then every government official who ever groped (touched without consent in sexual way or touched a specific part, like the butt) another person must also resign. This might also be extended to all jobs. Naturally, the principle would have to be applied consistently without regard to party, etc.

  4. dh said, on November 17, 2017 at 11:06 am

    I think the biggest fallacy (if you can call it that) here is the assumption or attempt to apply logical proofs to matters of politics or even law. While “proof” beyond the shadow of a doubt is required for prosecution in a court of law, the burden on the defense is merely to show reasonable doubt. All of that, of course, goes out the window in the court of public opinion – people believe what their Facebook friends believe.

    Moral outrage is also a moving target. What was acceptable ten years ago is now fodder for the pitchfork-and-torch bearing mobs, and vice versa.

    The issue I have with the syllogisms you do present is the conclusions you draw. It is specious, at best, to presume that anyone thinks that because both A and B do something, that makes it OK. Further, there are differences among the acts which make the reduction to “A”, “B’, and “X” a complete waste of time.

    “Whataboutism” does not prove or disprove “X”. In fact, it makes “X” irrelevant – but what it does do is point out hypocrisy – blatant, amoral, politically motivated hypocrisy – but rather than say that it is “corrosive”, I think it points to a huge problem among all of our leaders, and something that We the People ought to deal with, if we can all manage to get off our respective derrieres and distance ourselves from engaging in the very hypocrisy that seeks to destroy us.

    There is also the issue of credibility. If “Person B” makes a statement about “Person A”, your syllogism does not address the history of statements of either party. It’s very true that a person can be a profound and consistent liar throughout his life, but that has no bearing on the veracity of a current statement – but it does go to his credibility and certainly can cast doubt on his statements. This is true of both “Person A” and “Person B”.

    For example, a politician may have a history of opposing coal mining and coal energy throughout his entire career – exhibited in speeches, sponsored bills, and votes on the floor of Congress. Perhaps this politician attains a position of power and can actually sink some teeth into the matter – but walks his position back and starts exploring other options, including clean coal production. Is this man a liar? Do those who point out this difference have a point, or are they politically motivated, or liars themselves? Is coal bad, or good? Clearly all attention gets diverted from the real issue (coal), and becomes about the credibility of A and B, and whose side we’re on, anyway.

    Throughout this country’s history, this situation occurs consistently. A cynical, but reasonable explanation is the pragmatic issue of vote-getting. A candidate will say or do anything that will garner him the most votes, but keeps his true hand close to the chest. Another explanation, somewhat less cynical, is that of “evolving”. Once in a position of power, a politician is obligated to represent the entire country – rich and poor, and is required to hear a broader analysis of every issue. As an example, I would offer Barack Obama’s staunch opposition to the prison at Gitmo, and his repeated promise to close the facility on day one. Now, after eight years of his presidency, the prison stays open. Was he lying? How does this fit into the “A”, “B”, and “X” analysis? While I think it’s entirely possible that Obama was indeed lying and had no intent to do anything about the prison, I believe that the truth is that he realized how difficult the act would be, and when he played out all possible scenarios he realized that keeping the prison open was the least damaging of all options.

    So when Trump changes his position on an issue that was part of his campaign, and the Democrats point fingers, the Republicans play “Whatabout?”. None of the ensuing discussion has anything to do with closing Gitmo or building a wall – it’s merely irrelevant finger-pointing to try to tear down one’s political enemies.

    However, if we do remain focused on the issues instead of the people or their political leanings, I find it interesting that people want to compare the Roy Moore case with that of Harvey Weinstein and/or Bill Clinton. If you strip these three of their political leanings and cast aside blind allegiance for a short time, you will see that there is nothing similar among them at all.

    Bill Clinton and Harvey Weinstein are abusive sexual predators. They both abused their power, wealth and position to coerce and even force women to provide them with sexual favors either as a “quid pro quo” or on threat of harm. These acts were not one-time strays from an otherwise upright and moral life, but rather a continued pattern. What makes Clinton’s offenses worse is that he was staunchly defended by Hillary, who threatened the victims of his abuse out of one side of her mouth, while standing up for women everywhere out of the other.

    Roy Moore, on the other hand, had no power to wield – he was a novice attorney working in the DA’s office. His offense was an attraction to younger women. The most serious allegation is that he took a 14 year old girl, Leah Corfman, out into the woods and kissed and caressed her. By her own testimony, she told him at the time that she was not comfortable and wanted to go home – so rather than force himself on her, he took her home.

    The point here is that Moore, while in his 30’s, was a creepy guy who liked young girls. He was not a predator, and the behavior he exhibited in 1979 stopped. While it’s true that four women have come forth with similar tales, all of this took place in the 1970’s; there has been no history of this kind of activity in the 30 years since. So was this a youthful indiscretion, acting on urges that Moore later learned to control?

    The “whataboutism” is not about whether or not Moore did what these women say he did, but rather about the hypocrisy of those who feign such moral outrage at his one-time act, while forgiving the likes of Bill Clinton (who is an actual criminal), and even “The Lion Of The Senate”, Ted Kennedy, whose sexual abuse, abuse of power, and blatant misconduct led to the death of a young intern. A conservative talk show host put it very succinctly yesterday on his radio show – paraphrasing, this is the essence of what he said –

    “I think that sexual predators are despicable human beings, and if it can be proven that they did what they are accused of, they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, until the Democrats express the same moral outrage when it is one of their own who commit these acts, their voices only expose them for the shallow, amoral, politically motivated creatures they are”.

    Of course, I would also reverse this – there is a very Orwellian tone to the whole mess. “Four legs good, two legs bad” led to “Four legs good, two legs better!”

    I think that “whataboutism” in its current form is only destructive because we just don’t listen. It can be a very healthy process for this country, a process that can weed out the worst this country has to offer, most of whom are clustered in and around Washington, DC. I am very interested to see how this all develops now that a Democrat, Al Franken, stands among the accused. Perhaps the moral outrage will die down a little – or perhaps Franken will become a martyr to the cause – thrown to the wolves as a sacrifice to the cause, appeasing the “whatabouters” enough to allow for more and intensified hypocrisy.

    Sadly, I believe that the current state of affairs (pun intended) is intended as a long-term political ploy. I don’t think there is a single member of our government who is truly outraged by any of these acts – from Jack Kennedy to his brother, from Weinstein to Franken to Moore – I think that most of our leaders have either engaged in this kind of behavior themselves or witnessed it among their friends with either tacit approval or a Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing” attitude. However, given the accusations against Trump, political strategists understand that if they can work the country up into an outrage, it may be a great campaign point in 2020.

    While the acts themselves are reprehensible, the outrage is feigned and the intended result is misplaced.

  5. CoffeeTime said, on November 18, 2017 at 4:49 am

    While I agree with your logic, I’m not sure you are actually addressing the actual intent and mechanics of these cases.

    Start with the initial alleged bad actor. If some prominent member of a faction is credibly alleged to have misbehaved, people promoting the other faction often use it to smear all their opponents, not just the miscreant. For example, I read a lot of “How could they vote for Trump?” after the tapes. The target of this ongoing campaign was not primarily Trump, but the Republicans and others who supported or accepted him.

    And now that we have the revival of allegations against Bill Clinton, and Hillary for being an enabler and enforcer, the people who were stung by having to take the heat for Trump are enjoying biting back at the people who supported the Clintons.

    I don’t see any of this as being about Donald Trump or the Clintons. I see it as being about warring tribes engaging in a bit of tribal taunting of each other, with the figureheads being purely symbolic – and logic completely irrelevant.

    • dh said, on November 18, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      Whether it’s about the tribal warfare or “Trump And Clintons” may be debatable, but one thing is sure – it certainly isn’t about the issue at hand.

      Case in point –

      “Whatabout” Trump’s alleged contact with the Russians?

      Oh yeah?

      “Whatabout” Hillary Clinton’s sweetheart deal with them regarding US Uranium?

      Oh yeah?

      “Whatabout” George Papadapoulous?

      Oh yeah?

      “Whatabout” blah, blah, blah.

      The big question is this –

      “Whatabout” Russia? “Whatabout” the fact that Russia has been involved in American politics and economics, through contact with people on BOTH sides, and with Facebook and who knows what else?

      Apparently, internally smearing one side or the other is far more important around here.

      • CoffeeTime said, on November 21, 2017 at 4:38 am

        DH, I don’t understand the relevance of your response. Did you read me as responding to you? I was responding to Mike.

        To spell it out further to avoid misunderstanding, then, we are discussing “what about” in the public context, where accusations are being made and countered not to create direct effects like evidence in legal cases, but to affect public conversation, to have political or social effects.

        When a partisan of Faction A publically accuses a prominent member of faction B of something felt to be bad, it is usually to mobilise public opinion against the accused, and often by extension against other partisans of faction B. The truth, the degree of evidence, and the seriousness of the accusation is not terribly important to the accusation.

        When a partisan of Faction B, in response, publically accuses a prominent member of faction A of a similar or even dissimilar thing, it is similarly to mobilise public opinion against faction A.

        We see this in a lot of elections, where the campaigns “go negative”. The truth and the actual seriousness of the accusations is less important than the degree to which the public is focused on blaming the opposite faction.

        Mike’s essay focused on how this could be a fallacy if anybody took the truth value of the accusations seriously. I would argue that that is not usually what these accusations are about.

        In thinking about this, it occurred to me that we have a statement by no less a moral authority than Jesus, testifying in favour of the Whatabouter:
        And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
        Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
        Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2017 at 6:36 pm

          While the tactic of whataboutism is often used, as you note, to mobilize feeling it is still bad reasoning. That is, people should not be moved by it and if they were able to rationally consider the lack of logic it would move them much less (or perhaps even not at all).

          • CoffeeTime said, on November 24, 2017 at 2:42 am

            There is a claim of bad behaviour by a person on one faction about a person on another faction.

            There is a claim of bad behaviour by the person accused against a person of the first faction.

            A rational person would observe that both claims may be motivated by partisanship, but should consider the merits of each separately, and without prejudice based on which accusation was levelled first.

            • WTP said, on November 24, 2017 at 7:27 am

              Exactly. This is generally listed about half way down the syllabus for logic 101. Why do you suppose this obvious bit of objective thinkology needs to be explained to someone with a PhD in the domain?

          • dh said, on November 26, 2017 at 11:07 am

            I would take it one step further, and say it’s “no reasoning at all.” Goes to my point (or constant harangue?) about the lack of critical thinking among the citizens of this country, and their susceptibility to such emotional appeals. It extends beyond “whataboutism” and permeates just about every branch of the news – or should I say “mass media”.

        • dh said, on November 26, 2017 at 11:04 am

          Yes, I get it. I understand that you were responding to Mike, but my point was to your comment,

          “I don’t see any of this as being about Donald Trump or the Clintons. I see it as being about warring tribes engaging in a bit of tribal taunting of each other, with the figureheads being purely symbolic – and logic completely irrelevant.”,

          …with which I completely agree. Whether you are right or wrong, though, the point is that the practice takes our eyes completely off the issues on which we should be focused Not whether Trump or Clinton is more involved with Russia than the other, or whether Republicans or Democrats are more righteous, or even if all of this fingerpointing and taunting has any intrinsic merit at all, but rather on the fact that Russia is colluding with BOTH sides. That’s the most salient issue, IMO, and the one that no one seems to care about.

          • CoffeeTime said, on November 26, 2017 at 2:44 pm

            Ah. Thank you for clarifying. Yes, I see your point now.

            I take it for granted that countries routinely interfere in each others’ political processes as a matter of Standard Operating Procedure, so this particular little rumble strikes me merely as one that received more attention than usual.

            • dh said, on November 27, 2017 at 9:39 am

              Lot of things like this happen routinely – I think that’s kind of the point. Another example is Trump hiring Ivanka and Jared – all of a sudden the public is worked up over nepotism – as though we are seeing something new.

              Maybe “whataboutism” is just borne of ignorance – people are so uninformed that when something like this comes to light, they think it’s something brand-new that needs to be dealt with. Maybe they are truly surprised when it is pointed out that it has happened before.

  6. dh said, on November 20, 2017 at 10:04 am

    Sorry, I want to weigh in on another point or two here, that have bothered me since first reading this post. I guess a big part of it lies in the fact that you seem to be getting your news from comedy shows, which is something that is, quite sadly, hardly unique to you. Politicians increasingly appear on talk shows like The Daily Show, where I guess you have the advantage of reaching a broader audience, and you don’t have to be entirely truthful in the name of “satire”. When they aren’t appearing themselves, they are parodied by the likes of people like Tina Fey, who had a pretty big chunk of this country’s population believing that she actually was Sarah Palin, or at least that her gag lines had actually been spoken by Palin.


    Don’t get me wrong – I think political satire is funny, and I deeply cherish the underlying Constitutional freedom that allows it – but like so many freedoms, it can be abused. Not by the satirists, of course, who can and do (and should) take their craft to whatever extremes their imaginations inspire – but by the public, who is too ignorant or unwilling to make a distinction between fact and fiction. It’s true that “many a truth is said in jest”, but we need to look just a little beneath the jest to understand the real truth behind it.

    Anyway, by posting this video and making the claim that you did, you are employing a few other debate strategies to which I might say, “Nice Try”, but it doesn’t look as though anyone has bitten. When you say, “Whataboutism … has become a beloved tool of Fox News and President Trump” you are outright daringsomeone to say, “Wait – whatabout … [insert example here]. By dismissing the validity of the premise before you even make it, you are eliminating debate and opposition. So let’s use a different word.

    In the video, at 2:25, Oliver makes the statement that Trump’s own daughter and son-in-law work at the White House, as though this has never been done before and he is getting away with some some kind of never-before-seen nepotism. While it’s tempting to say “Wait – ‘whatabout …”, we’d just be falling into your trap; as soon as the words leave our mouths, you’d be able to say, “See? That’s what I’m talking about! You and Trump and Fox are all the same! QED!.

    So maybe we should just use the legal term “Precedent”, as in “The precedent for having unelected family members work on one’s political team has been long established in this country. Hillary Clinton, for example, was at the forefront of Healthcare Reform during the Clinton Administration – but it goes back farther than that. In fact, the very law that people are trying to cite in opposition to Trump hiring Kushner, the Federal Anti-Nepotism Statute, is nicknamed “The Bobby Kennedy Law”. Hmmm – I wonder why? There are other precedents set also – before pointing fingers one ought to look at the FDR administration and the influence over matters of State wielded by Eleanor and daughter Anna. Webb Hayes, son of Rutherford B. Hayes, served in the role now known as Chief of Staff for his father; Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore, represented her father on an official State trip to Asia.

    Please note – I am not descending into that Trump/Fox “beloved tactic” of “whataboutism” here – I am saying that we are a nation of laws, and the interpretation of laws is based on precedent. Whatever a current president says or does that the opposition finds questionable, one only need to look at history for the precedent that paved the way for the actions

    But we don’t really have to do that, do we? It’s too much work! I’d rather just take Oliver’s word for it. It’s not nearly as dry as the history books.

    It seems that even though I thought I was making a different point here, I’ve come around to the original again. Many of a president’s actions are based on the careful study and interpretation of the laws regarding the office – some are based simply on the history of what his predecessors did, others push the envelope. As much of a “loose cannon” as we might think Trump to be, simple logic would dictate that he does nothing without careful consideration and tactical analysis – of law and of public opinion.

    The “whatabout” people merely point out the hypocrisy of selective outrage.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 21, 2017 at 6:40 pm

      Mostly I listen to NPR and the BBC for my news. They tend to be fairly neutral and generally do not have people shouting talking points at each other.

      But, even if I did get all my news from comedy shows, it would be irrelevant to the merit of the assessment of whataboutism. I included the clip because it lays out the basic ideas in a humorous way, not because I intended to argue in defense of his specific claims in the body of the essay (although he does seem to be right). You should take your points up with John Oliver.

      • WTP said, on November 24, 2017 at 7:38 am

        They tend to be fairly neutral and generally do not have people shouting talking points at each other.

        The former, you are certainly not one to judge regardless of what you may think of yourself. Which explains much of your circular thinking in regard to the Narrative. In regard to the latter, they don’t have heated discussions because they rarely bring on knowledgeable people who disagree with the Narrative. When they wish to look “neutral” as you say, they present a “conservative” who is basically on board with the general discussion and is only willing to quibble around the edges.

        Anyone else find it interesting that Mike’s two main sources of news are government supported entities?

      • dh said, on November 26, 2017 at 10:48 am

        I did not mean to be snarky about my comment – though as you know by most of my posts this sort of thing is a very sensitive issue for me. If not you, then many, many Americans. They may not consider themselves to be “getting their news” from comedy shows, but they are most definitely influenced by them.

        I listen to NPR quite a lot – both news and podcasts on various topics, and I think that to call them “fairly neutral” is pretty far afield. Left field, in fact. This extends beyond their editorial stance on the issues, and well into their choice of stories to present. They may, for example, appear to be unbiased in their reportage of Trump’s Russia Problem, but Trumps Russia Problem is the lead on the news almost every day. There is an implicit bias in any news outlet, that what they are presenting is what you should be listening to.

        Not that I don’t think it’s important to listen to them – but as a critical thinker you should be reading publications like the Wall Street Journal as well to create your own balance – if only to see what else is going on in the world. MSNBC, FOX news, even Al Jazeera should be consulted if you don’t want to simply be led down the path someone else has chosen for you.

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