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.