What does each response have in common? They are, by in large, factual, rational statements. However, none actually addresses the call. Each is a deliberate attempt to shift the focus away from the issue at hand and steer the conversation toward something else. In relation to the actual problem, the argument is, at best, adjacent and, at worst, destructive.
This purposeful misdirection is a form of whataboutism, a propaganda technique often attributed to Russia during the Cold War, and it should come as no surprise that as a culture we find ourselves using this type of ‘debate’ more and more. Trump has long been the champion of the form. To be sure, humankind has engaged in whataboutism since the world’s first spat (“You left the fire go out, honey.” “Well you didn’t kill a single woolly mammoth on your hunt, dear.”). But I believe the frequency and ferocity of the current usage can be attributed to how often we hear it in the news and social media. And with our president having both of those markets cornered, we cannot escape it.
Whataboutism works so well because there is a certain familiarity to it. We trained ourselves to use it from a young age. Remember, as a child, getting caught doing something (stealing a cookie, getting in a fight, not doing a chore). Think about your typical response. “What about Joe? He took two cookies!” or “Why are you punishing me? Mark started it!” or “Why doesn’t Mary have any chores!” Because we felt disproportionately punished or unfairly blamed—but not that the accusation was false—these arguments were a defense mechanism meant to deflect attention elsewhere. And that is how whataboutism works. Rather than disprove or refute the original argument, the easier route is to [sometimes literally] point at someone worse or something else. Does posting a video on Facebook of a white police officer helping a black man mean that the police is working just fine? Or could it be true that there are good police officers AND the institution could use a makeover?
Whataboutism often doesn’t allow for two things to exist simultaneously in the same space. It forces you to choose between two quasi-related issues, turning a logical exchange into a mish-mash of disparate, loosely associated ideas. This form of argumentation is particularly detrimental to the Coronavirus. Often pundits and presidents ask ‘what about’ the common cold or flu. “Do we shut down the schools for the common cold!? Did we close restaurants for the flu!?” If you are a person who takes the Coronavirus seriously, these statements attempt to make YOU feel like the crazy person. The logic could be completely reversed very easily. How about: “Many actions taken to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 could be applied to cold and flu season. Let’s adopt them more broadly to keep our communities healthy.”
There are a few reasons that the U.S. leadership has resorted to whataboutism so often, and the previous paragraph underscores one of them. It allows you to shirk any kind of responsibility. Once you admit that the problem exists, you cannot simply point another direction and say ‘what about’. You’ve put the magnifying glass directly over the issue and now have to take ownership. Another reason is that there is no perfect response. Every policy move involves a trade-off and Trump is a man of either/or; he works in superlatives. Things are either the best or the worst, the most or the least. There is no ‘best’ response to COVID. So rather than evaluate trade-offs and develop a good plan, he has opted to keep pointing in different directions…resulting in no plan.
A third reason is that you may have to admit you were wrong. The science around this disease is not static, it is dynamic, which requires flexibility in the response. And inevitably, we will make mistakes. But imagine the breath of fresh air it would be to hear an elected official simply say: “I was wrong about this and we have made policy changes based on what we now know.” But if your heels are dug in and you refuse to accept the possibility that you could be wrong, what happens when you are wrong? You change the subject. Whataboutism is the ideal tactic for the stubborn.
So how do we break a cycle of whataboutism? How about…howaboutism? ‘How about’ is the phrase used right before offering a suggestion. It is constructive rather than obstructive. Whataboutism offers no solutions, just points out other problems. Howaboutism, on the other hand, immediately acknowledges the problem, and begins down the path to an answer. Granted, this path is often long, circuitous, undefined, but it is a step down that path. It meets the problem with purpose and direction, it spurs creativity and innovation, it opens the dialogue to diverse opinions but also forces compromise. I believe it can be a unifying response to cut through the divisive rhetoric of whataboutism.
When I am looking to make a change, I find it helpful to find an example in practice, and follow it. Luckily, we have millions of examples of howaboutism being used all around us. That is not an exaggeration. You have to look no further than anyone in the LGBTQ community and/or any woman who has been an advocate for #BlackLivesMatter. I saw a total of zero posts from the LGBTQ community reminding the world that June was their month and we should shift our attention to them. Similarly, I heard no woman suggest that a focus on black lives was taking away from their struggle for equal rights. On the contrary, we witnessed (and are still witnessing) solidarity and compassion, a concerted effort to work together for the common objective.
To be clear, women are still mistreated and underrepresented (just look no further than AOC’s remarks in Congress). LGBTQ folks are experiencing discrimination (it took until June 15 for the Supreme Court to rule that homosexual and transgender employees couldn’t be fired based on sex). #BLM didn’t magically solve other institutional and structural problems (it also highlights challenges associated with intersectionality), but those from which the focus was shifted did not use whataboutism to bring the focus back to them. Instead, they unified their voices around the cause and address the issue at hand. Instead of saying “What about us?” the message has been “How about we focus on this group right now?”
The same can be done with COVID-19. Other diseases did not take the year off. But in the same way that now is the time to fight for #BlackLivesMatter, now is also the time to fight COVID-19. Instead of pointing fingers, we should be asking the right questions: How about we re-imagine education and childcare? How about we consider both the unemployment rate and the stock market as valid economic indicators when creating relief packages? How about we use what we’ve learned about reducing the spread of COVID-19 and apply it during flu season? How about we take some of the best practices from other countries and implement them here? How about we use scientific evidence, real-time data, and informed opinions when creating public policy?
Words are just words, and changing from ‘what’ to ‘how’ will not solve the problem of Coronavirus. However, just the shift in thinking could at least start us down the right path.
If you have experienced this, you understand the concept of headwind/tailwind asymmetry, a phenomenon studied by Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai. In a nutshell, we tend to overweight the influence of barriers to our successes and underweight the influence of bridges. Consider the winter morning when your car doesn’t start, or when your colleague gets the promotion at work, or when your classmate gets the ‘easy’ group project and you get the ‘tough’ one. These are true headwinds with real repercussions. But now consider the accompanying tailwinds: you own a car, you have a good job, you are receiving a high-quality education. While the net impact of the underlying tailwinds is stronger by magnitudes, the feelings associated with the headwinds are more salient. The bias stems from the fact that the obstacles in our life are so tangible, obvious, in-our-faces, while the benefits we enjoy blend into the scenery and the normalcy of everyday life.
This headwind/tailwind asymmetry bias can be applied to white privilege, and I believe it contributes to the difficulty some have with accepting it exists. It is rational to take credit when things go well. We like to think that personal achievements are the result of our hard work and that failures are due to factors outside of our control. I’ll be the first to admit that when I have a good teaching day it is because—in my mind—I prepped like mad, perfectly blended content and humor, and just crushed the lecture. Alternatively, when I have a bad teaching day, it is not my fault. More likely I come up with an excuse, a headwind: the room was too hot, the A/V didn’t work, last night was Green Beer Day and so the students had no energy. Each of those headwinds disproportionately influenced my assessment of the outcome. Could it be that I just had an off day?
Privilege is related to gratitude, and gratitude requires accepting that you had help. No matter how much energy you put into an accomplishment, there are always underlying tailwinds that push you along the way. Gratitude does not minimize the success; it just acknowledges these tailwinds. I think it is easier to recognize white privilege as the headwinds that black people experience and white people do not. We witness things like disproportionate police brutality and higher incarceration rates, and we can take specific steps to reduce them (e.g., activism, voting, funding organizations). However, there are tailwinds that white people enjoy that black people often do not, and these tend to be less conspicuous. Things like growing up in a community with social programs or getting a job interview because our name ‘sounds white’ are tougher to observe. For instance, it’s easy to forget about the tailwinds (white skin, male gender, middle-class upbringing, access to education, etc.) that led to my opportunity to become a professor to begin with—let alone have a good or bad teaching day.
This is not to say that every person does not have to overcome struggles. Regardless of color, we all run into and against headwinds. Some are systematic (e.g., gender, appearance, ethnicity) while some are individual (e.g., fill-in-the-blank of your own experiences). Similarly, we all experience systematic and individual tailwinds. The challenge for white people, I believe, is to simply accept that we are pushed forward by certain tailwinds that do not exist for people of color, and we undervalue them because of the asymmetry bias.
My last post was about embracing the mistakes I will make when attempting to be anti-racist. So instead of ending with that ‘food-for-thought’, I will attempt to do something about this asymmetry. My endeavor is to try and provide that individual tailwind for someone who does not have it systematically built-in. The first step is to think about specific (often subtle) ways that being white has made my life easier. Have I walked by police officers without anxiety or fear my entire life? Have I been recommended for a position over someone else with the same credentials? Have I not been given the side-eye by clerks and cashiers? Are products always geared toward me? Is my understanding of art, music, and literature actually just white art, music, and literature? And on and on.
How have those tailwinds, compounded over time, shaped my life? They have offered a steady breeze at my back, pushing me through the sporadic headwinds. What can we do about it? Once we acknowledge our tailwinds, we should not feel guilty or shameful—that does not help anyone. Instead, we can be grateful and become that tailwind for someone who needs it.
One example. On TV and in the movies, successful and powerful people have always looked like me. The doctors, lawyers, CEOs, politicians—and college professors—are most often white males. How has that been a tailwind? Over time, that consistent cue subconsciously instilled confidence in me, driving me to believe I could achieve the career I wanted. College professors are white males, therefore I can—or even should—be a college professor. A black person my age would not have had that constant reminder, that representation, and would perhaps lack the same confidence. The opportunity for me is to make a concerted effort to instill that confidence in, say, one of my black students who would not otherwise have it, to provide an individualized tailwind where the systematic one does not exist.
But perhaps we have the capacity to create a systematic tailwind. In the model of #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackHikersWeek, and #BlackBotantistsWeek, let’s create #BlackProfessorsWeek, August 23-30, the first week of the fall semester for most universities. Black professors can share their stories and pictures on social media, representing and demonstrating how the profession is accessible to young black people. Equally important, it can show how the profession needs MORE people of color. White people who wish to be involved can share stories and photos of black professors who changed their lives. It’s a small start to creating the systematic tailwind that so many white people like me have enjoyed, but it is a start.
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.