What about getting along?
“If everyone is guilty of something, is no one guilty of anything?”
That’s a headline from the folks at Merriam-Webster.com and their “Words We’re Watching” feature on “whataboutism.” Although it does not yet list whataboutism as a bona fide word, Merriam-Webster says it is keeping watch to see if it takes deeper root in the American vernacular.
Whataboutism is essentially a reversal of accusation, a way to derail a discussion or personal liability by arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as bad or worse. Forget about me, what about what he or she did?
The article says the tactic is not new. Romans called it “tu quoque,” or, you too. A common axiom dating back to the 17th century challenges what right the pot has to call the kettle black. During the Cold War, Soviet Union officials deflected charges of human rights atrocities by leveling just as inflammatory charges on the West. On playgrounds around the globe angry children shout their version of, “Oh yeah, well you stink!”
Now it has seeped into American politics. You hear it from certain candidates, TV and radio commentators and sadly, even in polite political discussion. Perhaps you have fallen prey to it in the past five years. Hopefully it wasn’t during a friendly conversation that unexpectedly escalated into heated debate. If so, we hope you and that person are still speaking.
Even in ancient times, whataboutism was recognized as a logical fallacy. The Romans determined that what an accuser did had no bearing on the truth of the original accusation.
While it is imperative we hold our politicians and leaders accountable, that we demand they tell the truth and abide by the law, that does not mean we citizens must drag each other through the mud arguing about which of them did what. America is so divided, maybe the time has come to, “drop the argument and change the subject,” as Anne Applebaum suggests in her recent article in The Atlantic.
While exploring the mindset of Capitol seditionists and their millions of supporters, Applebaum relates how countries like Northern Ireland and South Africa overcame intense, often violent divisions within their populations.
It certainly wasn’t done through political debate. Instead, they built community centers, decorated for holidays and established job-training programs. By doing something constructive that benefited everyone, they evened the playing field. Inducing people to work alongside people they hate made it less likely they would try to kill each other the next day.
In Belfast, they realized there was no sense trying to turn a Protestant into a Catholic or vice versa. Rather than fighting the same old battles, running up against the same old logjams, they put aside their differences, shut up and went to work.
What about if we tried that in America? Could it work for Republicans and Democrats?
It’s worth a shot.