But What About Whataboutism?

“Whataboutism.” You know about whataboutism. It’s when someone agrees with someone, then says, “Yes. But what about . . .”

“Sure it’s fine for NFL players to express political opinions, but what about . . . “

“Sure, I know about the Second Amendment, but what about . . .”

“Of course people need to earn a livable wage, but what about . . .”

You see the pattern:

“Sure it’s bad that ______ happens. But what about . . . ?”

Here’s the thing about that word “but:” It erases everything that comes before it . . . “I love you, but . . .”

Whataboutism’s most virulent form is, “I agree with you, but let me play devil’s advocate.”

Advocatus Diaboli. At one time, this was an official position at the Vatican. The Advocatus Diaboli investigated why a candidate for sainthood should not be sainted. (It is telling that the Advocatus Diaboli no longer exists as a position at the Vatican.)

Don’t get me wrong: I happen to believe that both deep understanding and deep compassion spring from considering as many sides of an issue as possible. That’s not the question.

The question is when “whataboutism” and devil’s advocacy and “but” are appropriate in conversation with others and when they are not.

When do they move from attempts at deeper consideration or deeper compassion into the realm of mansplaining or whitesplaining or just being a jerk?

For people who gather in groups and congregations of mutual support, this is an especially important question to consider. After all, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes,

To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

The Third Principle of Unitarian Universalism is “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”

It’s easy for liberals to accept. It’s not so easy for liberals to encourage views we disagree with.

“But whatabout . . .” Not very encouraging, is it?

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