You would not accept it if your child said he didn’t do his homework because none of his friends did their homework, either.
You would not accept it if you had a complaint about a product you purchased, and the salesperson responded to your concerns by saying, “Well, what about all the other products you have bought here that did work?”
And finally, you would not accept a restaurant server responding to your concerns about an unsatisfactory sandwich by saying, “If you don’t like our hamburger, Joe’s down the street is even worse.”
The scenarios above are examples of whataboutism, defined an attempt to discredit an opponent’s position by charging hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving the argument. Whataboutism is not a form of critical thinking, but instead an example of deflection, and parents everywhere — if they are being truthful — find it to be an unacceptable excuse. So if whataboutism is something we do not accept as an excuse, why are so many people today using whataboutism whenever they are confronted with a reality that does not match their hope, opinion, or expectation?
Revisiting the earlier examples
If we are being honest, you would never accept from your child that he did not do his homework, but his friends didn’t, either. Your response, of course, would be to tell your son that what his friends do and don’t do has no bearing on your expectations for your son — hard stop. Similarly, if you purchased a product that doesn’t live up to your expectations, having an employee remind you of the other products you purchased there that did work would not in any way soothe your concerns about the current product in question. While it’s nice to know other products work, the only thing you want in that moment is for the product you purchased to work. And finally, when served a bad meal at a restaurant, the last thing you want to hear is the excuse that if you think this sandwich isn’t good, it’s at least better than the competition. Here again, you could care less about the restaurant down the street — all you want is a good meal where you are in that moment.
Instead of deflecting, a better way to go is to look at each issue critically and independent of other unrelated issues. In too many instances today we are witnessing deflection and whataboutism from adults who know better, and this is a terrible example to set for kids. Perhaps we need to revisit an earlier time, when our parents would immediately confront us about the irrelevance of what other people are doing relating to our thinking and behaviors.
Employ critical thinking instead
Whataboutism is an ineffective way to properly discuss and analyze important concerns in the world around us, but what is a better way to go? The answer to that is to use — and model for kids — the importance of exercising patience, discipline, and critical thinking. What this means is the following:
- First, sit quietly and actively listen to the speaker. If there are things you do not understand, respectfully ask for clarification, and if you are unsure what you are hearing is true politely ask for sources so you can cross-reference.
- Next, think about what you have heard and refrain from simply finding other counter examples in the world, including straw man arguments, and instead weigh the evidence on its own merits.
- Tamp down your emotions when what you learn does not match up with your expectations or hopes. Try instead to search for truth rather than trying to win an argument and be right.
- When you learn new things, thank the person you have learned from, and incorporate the new knowledge into your thinking so that you can make better, more sound future decisions.
In far too many instances today we are witnessing people work so hard to try and maintain a position and/or belief that is clearly not factual or based in truth, often going through mental gymnastics so that they can win an argument. This approach is short-sighted, fueled by emotion, and devoid of critical thinking and objective problem-solving. If you are finding that your previous opinions and positions are fraught with errors and omissions, rather than trying to jam a square peg in a round hole, try using critical thinking for better results and improved mental health.