Like a lot of bullying tools, “whataboutism” is powerful because there’s a bit of logic to it, however twisted it may be.
In fact, on the meta level, it’s easy to use whataboutism to fight complaints about whataboutism. Most people use it in some form at some point.
The key difference to me is this: Are you using bringing up an opposing side because you’re making a decision between two things (say, candidates) or because you’re trying to deflect criticism instead of dealing with it?
In other words, if we’re talking about an election with only two viable candidates, and you tell me Candidate X embezzled money but I know Candidate Y murdered somebody, I’ll have to point that out. (I hope it never gets to that point!)
And in some cases, what appears to be “whataboutism” is actually making a case to give one entity the higher ground. For example — if a Trump voter criticizes the Clinton Foundation, it seems fair to point to the Trump Foundation, especially if you go on to note that the Clinton Foundation actually does some good.
Let’s say the Charlottesville situation had been reversed, and an “antifa” demonstrator had killed someone. Surely someone would use that incident to claim there’s no difference between the “left” and “right” in this situation. (Aside to media: Can you quit using “left” and “right” in describing this sort of thing? CBS did it for Boston, which was ridiculous — I’m sure a lot of registered Republicans were among the “left” crowd in this case and were quite offended by the assumption that the supremacists were the “right.”)
But the counterargument would be this:
- The majority of the counterprotesters were not violent.
- Most likely, the bulk of the nation’s lawmakers and thought leaders would denounce the killer without the equivocation Trump used in his half-hearted denunciation of a considerable chunk of the people who still support him.
- What’s the overall intent of the counterprotest? It’s to stand up against racism. What’s the overall intent of the original protest? To promote it. Not equivalent.
A Facebook friend made this sort of point in answering Trump’s “whatabout” on Washington and Jefferson owning slaves. Washington and Jefferson don’t have monuments because they supported racism. They have monuments for their actual accomplishments. Monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are for their service to an abhorrent cause.
Historical footnote — I did not know this:
In May 1985 the U.S. State Department funded a conference at the Madison Hotel on the fallacy of “moral equivalence,” a philosophical cousin of whataboutism. The goal was to tamp down comparisons of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other instances. The actions may be comparable, the State Department implied, but the intentions were not.