Dr. Axel Barcelo discusses when a "whataboutism" isn't a whataboutism.

Producer: Matthew Werman
04/14/2021 • 11:00 PM EST

Dr. Axel Barceló, professor of philosophy at the National University of Mexico discusses whataboutismssee definition - discrediting a criticism by accusing hypocrisy, in order to shift the focus away from oneself and onto others.
and when they may be a non-fallacious form of pointing out inconsistency or selective application, rather than just a diversion to shift the focus of a criticism or accusation. He bases this unique classification on a combination of relevance to the argument at hand and there being a "warranted suspicion of hidden motives" in the accusation.

0:00: Matthew Werman:

With us today, we have Dr. Axel Barceló, professor of philosophy at the National University of Mexico, who is going to talk to us today about whataboutisms, Dr. Barceló, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:12: Dr. Axel Barceló:

Oh no. On the contrary, thank you for inviting me.

0:16: Matthew Werman:

In your writing, there seems to be a fine line between whataboutism as deflection and what you call a clarification or a justification of one's position. Can you describe this distinction?

0:26: Dr. Axel Barceló:

Oh yeah, that is the main point of my work and you're right it's a very, very fine line indeed. And that is why I was interested in it, because at the very superficial level they're very similar, right. Someone makes a claim or makes an accusation or something negative, a complaint. And then receives a reply like, yeah, but what about, and then somebody brings a very different case that is supposed to be somehow similar angle, Like, Hey, I mean, what about it? And of course, you're completely right that these can be used to derail the discussion because it's bringing up a different case. In that sense, it's kind of distracting, trying to make people change or stop talking about what they don't want to discuss and just bring another topic altogether.

However, I don't think that's always the case. I think you can have now a genuine argumentative move along the same lines that you can actually, that may make sense sometimes to actually bring up these other cases and say, what about them? I mean, they're similar enough and however you're treating them different. And in those cases that are not fallacious are the ones that I call a request for clarification, for what seems to be a selective application of a general rule, right? You're treating these cases that at least at the superficial level seem to be clearly similar in a different way. And so, it is natural that one can ask why, right? What is going on there? Even though you're completely right. It is very common that this kind of moves are used to derail the argumentation

2:09: Matthew Werman:

In your paper, you explain that a request for justification is based on a warranted suspicion of maybe hidden motives, while a whataboutism reflects an unfounded or unwarranted suspicion? Can you elaborate on this a little bit more, please?

2:22: Dr. Axel Barceló:

I'm going to try to use another example to answer your question. I hope this helps, because as you may remember, a few years ago, the United States, the White House issued a freeze on immigration from seven, mostly Muslim countries, right? It was Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Sudan. And they cited the potential threat of terrorism as the reason, however, people soon noticed that the list didn't include any countries from which actual radicalized Muslims have actually killed Americans in the US, at least in September 11th. And shortly after Justice, Sonia Sotomayor was joined by Ruth Ginsburg in issuing a descent. And they said, well, the problem is that the justification doesn't seem to match the action. And that raises concerns. And she said, well, you know, based on the evidence one could conclude that the proclamation was motivated by anti-Muslim animus, right? That's what this dissenting statement said.

And this is the key element here, right? It is not that you notice that there is kind of a selective application of the rule, but that there seems to be another competing hypothesis of why, in this case, why these seven countries were selected for the immigration ban, right? So there is like an explicit justification given forward, but this doesn't seem to match the facts as much as this other hypothesis, in this case, the anti-Muslim animals in the background, right? So you have, you see this contrast between these two competing explanations of what is going on. One is being put forth explicitly by whoever is making the action and this other, that seems like pretty salient and obvious. And that's when you ask, I mean, really that is your real reasons, because this other reason seems to match your behavior better, right?

So that's when you ask and you say, well, I want to know why you're making this difference between these cases and these other cases, right? There could have been other countries, people talked about Saudi Arabia, about other countries. And the whataboutism, well, no, it was not a whataboutism I think, but the request was to say, what about these other countries? Right? And here you can see that what is triggering the question is a suspicion, a suspicion that there is an alternative explanation for what is going on, for what what could be the real reasons behind what people are doing or what people are stating. And thus what makes the accusation fit or adequate is that you do have this alternative explanation instead of just raising it up just to derail the conversation.

So, if you have good reasons to think that there might be something else going on, then you raise the question. Is there something else going on? But if you just, if there's, I don't know, here's another example, suppose that you are caught speeding on the highway or on an avenue and a lot of other people are also speeding more or less at the same speed and you are caught. It would not be right to say, well, what about those other people who are also speeding? Because there, there doesn't seem to be any competing hypothesis for why you were stopped, right? It just could have been random. Yes. There were other cases that were not treated the same, but in those cases, the distinction seems to be well-grounded and it doesn't make sense to ask why, what about these other cases? I think that is the difference I want to draw.

6:11: Matthew Werman:

We've gone away from whataboutism as a deflection to whataboutism perhaps as a tool to accuse someone of lying or subverting their real intentions. And, while there is room for that to be a legitimate argumentative move, it seems like that can also be used as kind of a fallacy as well, kind of like a club to throw around suspicion. Can you talk about this a little bit?

6:40: Dr. Axel Barceló:

Yes. I don't like to talk about like whataboutism for both kinds. I prefer to use the term whataboutism for the fallacious kind, and that is why I coined this expression of selective application, accusations of selective application. But you're completely right that even if somebody says like, Oh no, no, this is not whataboutism, I'm just telling you that you're being selective in how you apply this rule. That doesn't mean that this is not also derailing the conversation or the discussion, right? Because you are bringing in information that is true. But the question is whether it is relevant, right? Whether to expand the discussion to include not just the case that was previously at issue, but this new one is going to enrich the conversation or not. Right. So you have to be very cautious that your suspicion, that there is something there in that distinction is grounded enough that, to bring this new case up, is not going to just make things more complicated than just, you know, just make a mess out of the discussion.

And you're completely right. It is a very difficult decision to make, right? Because you are in the moment in the conversation and you maybe easily tempted into thinking that the difference is more important then it actually is. And if you bring it up and then it ends up not being as relevant, even if you do it with the best intentions and the other person also responds with the best of intentions and tells you well, and explains why bringing this case up is not relevant enough, that there is nothing there in the distinction, you already lost a lot of time and a lot of effort in the discussion just explaining why this is not relevant, right? So that is why you're completely right. That even if we keep in mind that when we ask, what about these other cases, we have to be careful about why they are different, why they are similar. This is still difficult, right? And therefore it's a move that one has to be very careful when to bring up in order not to fall into a whataboutism that is fallacious.

8:58: Matthew Werman:

Have you seen any changes in the way that the two types of accusations have been used in recent years?

9:04: Dr. Axel Barceló:

Oh, yes. I think the term, whataboutism has become more and more common, and I think people are becoming more and more aware that people make this move. Actually, I think the problem now is that I think people are overusing the concept of whataboutism and just whenever somebody brings up what I would consider selective application of a general rule of general principles, people go like, Oh, that's a whataboutism, and just disregard it. And I that think it's a lot of times that's become a fallacy itself, right? The popularity of the concept of whataboutism, I think has over generated false positives. Right. And people now think that whenever somebody says, what about these other cases, they are falling into a whataboutism.

9:54: Matthew Werman:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking with Dr. Axel Barceló, professor of philosophy at the National University of Mexico. About whataboutisms. Dr. Barceló, thank you so much for joining us today.

10:07: Dr. Axel Barceló:

Oh, on the contrary, really. Thank you so much for an invitation. It was a very, very, very interesting talk. And I really look forward to the next of your videos.