Whataboutism isn’t just a fallacy, it’s evil

Back around 2003, I had a conversation about abortion with a liberal friend. She couldn’t get her head around the idea that I, a pro-lifer, sincerely cared about some inconsequential cluster of cells that happened to be human, happened to be technically alive. She wasn’t a cold or cruel person; she just didn’t understand the point of even mustering up a thought for a person you can’t even see.

What kept her up at night, she told me, was the thought of an Iraqi mother scrambling around in the bombed-out ruins of her house, calling out the names of her children, fearfully searching for their bloody remains. That’s the scene that brought a lump to her throat and made her feel panicked, made her feel the urge to rescue, to change things. Not abortion.

She knew I supported the Iraq war at this time, so that’s why she brought it up. Mercifully, I can’t remember how I responded. I hope to God it wasn’t some kind of hawkish, utilitarian garbage about how collateral damage is a shame, but it’s inevitable in wartime. If that’s what I answered, I’ll have to answer for it on judgment day.

If someone gave me a chance to respond to my liberal friend today, I hope that I would say something like what Fr. Martin tweeted out the other day, after the news served up two kinds of tragedy at once: The repeal of Ireland’s abortion ban, and the news that parents who approach border guards seeking asylum will have their children removed from them, to be “put into foster care or whatever.”

Here’s what Fr. Martin tweeted, in quick succession:

As several friends pointed out, the message calling out pro-lifers got tens of thousands of retweets, but the one calling out social justice activists got mere hundreds. But don’t fool yourself that this is evidence of liberals once again refusing to be self-reflective. If Fr. Pavone (for instance) had tweeted out similar paired messages to his audience, you would have seen the retweet numbers reversed, with pro-life conservatives cheering on the jab at liberals, but nervously ignoring the jab aimed at them. Left and right are equally guilty of this silly game. We love it when our enemies’ oxen get gored, but we want our own pet oxen to be left alone.

I believe Fr. Martin knows this, and that was part of the point of the tweets. Not only did he demand that each group inspect its own consistency, he demanded that we see that these two questions must go together. These two groups of people, left and right, must go together. Don’t we see that we both want the same thing, overall? Don’t we see that we’re not, in fact, enemies?

All humans deserve justice, whether they exist inside or outside the womb. It’s all right to put your emphasis more on one form of work than the other. It’s all right to be called mainly to advocate for the unborn, or to mainly advocate for immigrants, or some other vulnerable group.

But it’s not all right to believe that, because your work emphasizes one kind of work for justice, then work that emphasizes some other kind is foolish, trivial, misguided, or even evil. We can say “X is important to me” without proceeding to “. . . and therefore, Y is stupid, and if you care about Y, then you’re stupid, too.”

Love is generous; love overflows. This is the hallmark of love: It wants to expand. Love always helps us see more and more good in more and more of humanity, not less. We may not be called specifically to devote ourselves to fighting abortion or to fighting social injustices of various kinds, but if we have scorn for those who do, then our work is not motivated by love. We should stop and ask ourselves what it is motivated by.

The Lord never gives us a Sophie’s choice. If we find ourselves making a choice like that — saying “my cause is so vital that your cause can go to Hell” — we can be sure that we are not doing the Lord’s work.

We hear a lot about “whataboutism” as an increasingly popular fallacy these days. “You say you care about that microscopic little embryo,” my liberal friend might have said, “But what about the grieving mother searching for her actual born child that she knew and loved? What about him?”

Or, “You say you care about a bunch of dirty illegals busting into our country uninvited,” my conservative friends will say, “But what about the tiny child torn limb from limb before he even has a chance to see his mother’s face? What about him?”

But whataboutism isn’t just a logical fallacy, it’s a message from Hell. Hell always wants to diminish. Hell always wants to reduce. Hell always wants to narrow your point of view, divide your affections, sequester your heart. Hell wants you to believe that there’s only so much love to go around, and so you better parcel it out carefully, divvy it up without allowing in distractions like compassion, gentleness, mercy, or humility. Hell wants you to feed your sheep by stealing food from the shepherd next door. Hell isn’t satisfied with seeing you do wrong; it wants you to insist that you’re doing it out of love. Hell doesn’t just crave suffering; it wants to drain joy dry.

I am pushing myself to reject this kind of thinking. It is not from the Lord. I can’t work and strive for every good cause at once; but if zeal for thy house makes me bulldoze my neighbor’s house, then that’s not zeal at all; that’s just another name for damnation.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

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34 thoughts on “Whataboutism isn’t just a fallacy, it’s evil”

  1. I hear what you’re saying, but I do believe Fr. Martin is still comparing apples to hamburgers. The people who don’t care about the border children are few and far between. If people are more silent about the issue, that is less reflective of their caring and more reflective of the incredibly painful complexities of what’s happening to those children. People are silent because thoughtful, rational, and well-informed people know that it is a very hard and painful subject to speak adequately about. Abortion, on the other hand, has very little complexity to it at all. On the one hand, it takes an act of the will to believe that an embryo is not human; on the other, it takes the usual do-gooder mentality to oversimplify the border situation so that there is an easy solution.

    Consider two little-known moral problems on the border. First and foremost, the previous border policies incentivized illegal immigrants to kidnap children to use them as “chits” or bargaining pieces to get across the border. This is not a minor problem — border patrol agents have publicly gone on record to point out this growing problem, but also to point out that the incentivization and the current “separated children” horror came above all from the fact that America did not adequately enforce its own border laws until now. This isn’t conspiracy-theory make believe. These are the words of the border agents themselves who work with these children every day. From Clinton’s presidency onward, we have increasingly rewarded kidnappers with the chance of entry into the U.S.

    The second problem is with the fact that some of these children — both kidnapped and not — will be killed by drug cartels back in their countries once they are returned. Of course, the do-gooder will oversimplify again and say they shouldn’t be returned, but the problem is that the border agencies have no real way of knowing which will be returned. The absolutely shocking truth is that some of these children are SUPPOSED to be separated — and the current public response to keep these children with their parents will also hurt an unacceptable number of children.

    With all due respect to Fr. Martin’s points, they are just another superior and easily stated position over and above others that so oversimplifies the reality (in favor of criticizing the right people) that it threatens to do more harm than good. The reality? If you’re indifferent about abortion, you’re a fool. If you’re silent about the border children, it might very well be because you care more about them than those who think the solution to their problem is as easy as posting a lazy tweet.

    And one final note about “whataboutism.” For my part, I have studied logic a very great deal and I think that whataboutism is a very poor fallacy. It should be erased from the English lexicon forever. For one thing, very few people understand what it means. Any time you compare one crime to another, or heaven forbid if you point out that one crime is greater than another, people will think you’re committing whataboutism and assume that they’ve won the argument. This comprises about 95% of the accusations of whataboutism, in my experience. Whataboutism (when it is really committed) is the fallacy of trying to hide one sin behind another. But often times people accused of committing whataboutism are actually just trying to set two sins side by side and asking for a single consistent standard for both. For example, people are asking why, if Trump’s immigration policies are so bad, were Obama’s policies (in some cases equal to or positively worse than Trump’s) considered so great? Why are separated children horrible, but kidnapped children were okay? And the usual response is: “Whataboutism! What does it matter what Obama did etc.?” But the problem is, it is a perfectly legitimate question to ask: why did our standards change? How can we fix the problem if people are insisting (whether they mean to or no) that we go BACK to just as bad a problem?

    Fr. Martin wants a consistent standard for two things that both are and aren’t similar things. Should people about the children? Of course. The vast majority of them do, and it is arrogant to think that their more nuanced response is less thoughtful than “We’ve got to do something about this!” The proper response to abortion and the proper response to the border children differ radically both in complexity and practicality. How we respond to either one cannot be compared, save incorrectly and (as seems the case with Fr. Martin’s tweet) arrogantly.

    By the way, if you ever want to know how to apply “whataboutism” correctly, it’s easy: don’t think of the argument you’re opposing as “whataboutism,” but ask whether it is “relevant.” Are Obama’s immigration policies relevant to Trump’s? Of course they are — it would be impossible to understand or criticize Trump’s policies without knowing what they are a reaction to. It would also be impossible to fix the problem without being sure we weren’t committing a prior mistake. The last 20 years of immigration policy are perfectly relevant, and it’s not whataboutism to say so. Are border children relevant to abortion? Maybe, in some ways, but also not really, in others. It’s just not that simple. An admission of complexity in the abortion issue is logical suicide — it is not a complex issue, nor should we ever pretend that it is. To say that it is is to admit it can’t be solved. But an admission of simplicity in the border-children issue is also logical suicide: every single simple solution proposed so far is proposed for the felt moral superiority of the proposers, not for the children. And we have already proven that every one of them hurts the children. Aborted children dictates a simple response, full stop. Border children dictates a nuanced and complex response, full stop. And the last thing either one of them needs is to be used to prove a point.

    Merciful God in heaven save us from those who argue with the full approval of their own consciences.

  2. You care about children on the border who are NOT being murdered. What about children in the womb who ARE being murdered?

    There. I fixed Fr. James Martin’s phony equivalency.

  3. I’ll bite. Zygotes, implanted blastocysts, and early-stage fetuses are in no way, shape, or form the equals of actual, post-birth people and do not have any claim to moral status if the pregnant woman does not want to give them any status. A woman who has given birth can hand the baby to someone else; it is not part of her anymore. Before the seventh month of pregnancy, that simply is not possible. Laws banning abortion force pregnant women to provide themselves as hosts to parasites, with the concommitant physical damage to the host. No male is ever going to face that.

    Furthermore, there are thousands of things that can disrupt implantation and early gestation, including exercise, breastfeeding, coffee consumption, stress, sleep deprivation, physical abuse, horseback riding, and eating spinach. How, precisely, do you intend to enforce an abortion ban or, God forbid, 14th Amendment personhood protections which include a protection against negligent injuries, at that stage of fetal development? If you make zygotes persons, do you intend to have Social Security numbers issued at fertilization? Or, more likely, do you intend to simply ban women from any activity that might, possibly, cause injuries to the hypothetical zygote? You cannot do that without creating the Republic of Gilead. No antiabortion activist has ever explained this to me: how do you make zygotes citizens without making women nonpersons?

    My empathy remains with the actual, visible people. I refuse to dilute my empathy to meaninglessness by wasting any of it on fetuses.

    1. Wow, you think an unborn baby is a “parasite”? That means you yourself and and those you love were once that too. You are a “former parasite”?

      1. How will you enforce an abortion ban during the first eight weeks of pregnancy? How will you protect the right of zygotes against negligent injuries during that time?

    2. If the last line sums up your argument, then “what about” those who reply that they will save their empathy only for citizens?

      1. Answer my question first: what legal penalties will you impose on women who negligigently injure a fetus during the first eight weeks of pregnancy?

    3. Parasites? The baby didn’t appear in her womb by magic. She made a choice to have sex. (Abortions due to rape or incest amount to less than 5% of abortions.) Sex is for reproduction, not for recreation, despite what the world may tell you. When a penis and vagina come together a baby is to be expected. It’s not a surprise. The problem today is that people want to have sex without consequences.

      Here’s the real crux of the matter. What is the difference between a fertilized egg and the infant? The only difference between a fertilized egg and an infant is 9 months of time. Each is fully human but at a different stage of development. (Just like you and your parents.) Both are just as dependent on assistance to survive. An infant is no more viable than that fertilzed egg. Without care they both perish. The infant didn’t choose it’s fate just as the fertilized egg did not. There is no difference between the two. I find it rather interesting that people like you claim that the government is stomping on your rights if it tells you can’t kill the life you chose to put in your womb by having sex but you have no problem with them dictating many other aspects of your life. You can’t drive without a license. You can’t fly a plane, be a doctor, or practice law without one. You have to go to school until you are a certain age or be home schooled. You can’t smoke where you please. You can’t drink alcohol until you are 21. Now they are telling you what you can say and how you have to address people who are confused about their sexuality. Pro Choicers have no problem with any of these laws that tell you what you can do and when you can do it but they have a problem with the government telling them they can’t kill a human being, a human being they put inside their body by choosing to have sex in 95% of abortion cases. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

      Perhaps you should look at your reflection in a mirror and wonder why your parents didn’t consider you a parasite and eliminate you before you were born. Maybe you should also consider what might happen to you when you are old and people determine you have become a parasite on society and decide it’s time for you to go. Maybe your own children (if you have any) will decide you have become a burden and decide to terminate your retirement years prematurely before you exhaust your nest egg. Perhaps they will repay your callous attitude toward humanity in kind. If you can legally murder a human in the womb, then you can murder them at any stage of life. It’s just a matter of making it legal. Some European countries are already moving toward that. But that’s to be expected when you reduce the value of a human life to a matter of convenience.

      1. You list a bunch of frightenting scenarios but you never, address my point: If early-stage zygotes deserve the same legal protections as three-year-olds, then you have to restrict the activities of the women hosting them. How do you do that? What legal restrictions will you impose?

      2. No.
        Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy.
        Outside crises like a pandemic, respect for individual autonomy is usually the north star of morality.
        Morality does not come from the Bible. It’s the reverse of the Golden Rule: “Do NOT do unto others what you would NOT want done unto you.”
        What’s immoral is harming others by disrespecting their individual autonomy. Again. don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.
        But where there is consent, there is no harm. Surgery is painful, but it’s not harm because patients consent. Falling in love can lead to an agonizing break-up, but that isn’t harm because both people know in advance a painful end is possible. Similarly neither being gay nor gay relationships are immoral because no one is harmed.
        Banning abortion is immoral because it steamrolls individual autonomy — without consent. Despite Justice Alito’s bewilderment about why viability was used as a cutoff in Roe and Casey, the answer is morality.
        I wouldn’t use the word “parasite,” but no one consents to pregnancy by consenting to sex — and, of course, some pregnant girls and women do not consent to sex in the first place.* Morality guides us to respect pregnant girls’ and women’s individual autonomy; otherwise, the government forces them into servitude to a zygote (blastocyst, embryo, or fetus). This is unconstitutional (Thirteenth Amendment), not that forced-birth states care.
        Girls and women who are pregnant at viability are presumed to have consented to their pregnancy, and morally this is when the government’s interest in “potential life” should appropriately begin.

        *Forcing girls and women to carry their rapist’s spawn throughout pregnancy, labor, and delivery is not only immoral: it’s literally torture.

    4. Host to parasite? If you are deliberately trying to de-intellectualize the discussion, I don’t expect you have anything useful to offer this important topic. Orwell would be impressed at your newspeak…the deliberate misrepresentation of a topic by words intended to alter perspective and meaning. Sad, but this is how many of us view the ‘alt-left’ hardcores. As deliberately de-intellectualizing science and society to make incoherent arguments appear valid.

    5. Your contention that it’s impossible to have laws against abortion without creating some horrible dystopia is empirically disproved by the fact that the United States had such laws for years and yet didn’t devolve into such horrors. Everyone throughout history who has carved certain people out of the human race has come up with wonderful excuses to justify it, so you’re in good company.

      1. Those laws did not make zygotes persons with all consequent legal protections. Do you want to recreate laws that make abortion a separte crime or do you want abortion included as murder? Do you want penalties for negligent injuries to fetuses?

    6. Karen, there are lots of “invisible” people you would condemn to death, too. You want life for people like you and nothing less. 6th month, 29th day Karen? OK to kill?

    7. That’s interesting, Karen, that you consider that there is no right to existence unless it is an equal right. I guess I always considered gestation a particularly unique stage of human growth, and one of particular dependency. If no less human.
      Whether or not there are legal restrictions on pregnant mothers encoded in civil law seems to be a separate question from the morality of whether or not women, who by Nature’s design have been designated hosts to the gestational process, are”required” to modify their behaviors in some way.

      Now, there *are* all kinds of conversations about that, as it so happens. But maybe not the kind that you envision are justified by a logical extension of the argument.

      For example, Child Protective Services might remove (from their mother) a child at birth who was “unremovavable” prior to birth. In the case of severe drug addiction/neglect, say.
      In this case, there seems to be some recognition that the gestational phase is separate and the mother’s behavioral choices are something that she primarily has control over (during that time), and not the state. And still, the safety of the child takes precedence over any legal penalty for the mother.

      So should these women be fined, too? Or imprisoned?
      I’m sure some might think that could solve something, but that does seem to be out of bounds & apart from the question of safeguarding the well-being of the child. Which is in fact the primary goal.

    8. Really, you have “empathy” for “visible people”. What if that “visible” person is (as you call it) “parasitic” like a baby born who needs constant attention, feeding, diapering, holding, round the clock care. Or that elderly person who needs round the clock care… they are visible after all, but demanding… “parasitic” as you would call it. And may I say that the baby in the womb IS his/her own person and not “part of her” (the mother) like an arm or leg… and may be much less demanding and far less parasitic then you think, it is after the birth that the real work begins and the real Love, bonding and devotion blossoms. Yes, a baby in the womb needs the mother to live, but so does the baby outside the womb need someone to care for him/her. And yes, a woman can hand over a baby to someone else, but that someone is needed just as much as the mother to take care of him or her. Should we decide a baby unwanted needing continuous Love and care is just a “parasitic” life and is just not worth it at any age? Should we offer our children to the fires of Baal? Or consider them objects of lust for the pedophile? Where do you really think we should draw the line Karen, are you sure just at the womb?

    9. Full disclosure: I am male. I am not a Catholic. I do strongly disagree with abortion for any reason. I believe in the _ability_ of a mother to procure an abortion. If the State allows it, then she also has the _right_. The State’s opinions are none of my concern. Mr 12:17
      Karen, I take the tone of your comment to mean that you’ve had some bad experiences over this topic. [Science alone tells us that a fetus is not a “parasite” like an oak gall. It was placed by a natural process and usually develops into a human. Who may or may not become ‘a parasite on society’; that’s another topic.] If so, I’m sorry for your sadness. I’ll limit my response to an area where science and the Bible agree.
      Please read Ps 139:13-16.
      V 13. “screened off” or “in secret” is an accurate simile for the healthful isolation of the embryo during gestation.
      V 14. An Ob/Gyn is the person to consult on this. Even the atheists among them acknowledge that the whole reproductive process is “a wonder”.
      V 15. A nice poetic restatement of v 13, and true to science.
      V 16. “Your eyes saw even the embryo of me, and in your book all its parts* were down in writing, as regards the day when they were formed and there was not yet one among them.”
      As you know, the blastocyte is an undifferentiated blob of identical cells. At about two weeks, differentiation begins. ‘All the parts’ were there in potential. Science understands this but does not yet understand how. It does agree they were written. The letters used are only four, G, A, T, C., but these suffice to direct the development of a fingernail part, a cardiac muscle part, a nerve cell part …
      “Whole genome” studies are popular these days, and have proven useful in spotting potential medical problems in one’s life after birth. David, the “Bronze Age shepherd” who wrote this, did not at all know or understand the process, but believed the creator God he followed could predict the attitudes and tendencies of the human. And why not? Scientists say they are on the way to doing the same thing with any “parasite” you might choose to carry.
      To summarize. The blastula, derived directly and only from an egg/sperm pair, has the unique characteristics the adult will demonstrate. That’s my belief, based on scripture and science. It is human, and not to be harmed by me. Rev 4:11.

      * Some translations say one’s “days” were written, as if predestined. This is not supported by scripture. I do not address it here. Note, though, that “parts” makes the verse internally consistent.

  4. True.
    I used to ask my family how they could support laws that impose on the free will of the current crop of citizens in order to protect the environment with an aim to maintain the “quality of life” of a distant future generation of citizens while they oppose legislation that would limit the free will of a current citizen to save the life of a very real future citizen who is due to arrive within the calendar year.
    No one likes that question…

  5. Ricardo made me read what was making me furrow my brow. I haven’t felt very much inspiration to read much to him for a while, –and abortion is depressing. His work pressure is depressing! But he got all fired up and said “SHE NAILED IT!”, and “I LOVE HER MIND!”

    I haven’t read *anything* to him for too long

  6. Well stated, Simcha. Being concerned about the defense and dignity of life in the womb does not prevent anyone from also being concerned about the fate of those threatened by war, the death penalty, immigration law, or anything else. For myself, and I suspect, you, the only label I care to place on myself is “faithful.” Not liberal or conservative or progressive or traditional or anything else.

    I am tired of being accused of being cold-hearted, ignorant, and hypocritical by those who are upset that I am pro-life and anti-abortion. It is a mistake to assume that those of us who fight against abortion and find it horrific are incapable of being concerned with injustice elsewhere. I and others support the dignity of life, womb to tomb. For me and others, however, the difference is that abortion is a more urgent issue, in that the unborn child cannot defend himself or run away.

    Thank you for permitting me my say, Simcha, and God bless you.

    1. True. The Mexican children on the boarders cannot defend themselves either. Neither can the kids in countries at war or the ones who are starving to death, whether they are inside or outside the womb. I don’t believe one issue is more urgent than another. They are all urgent and they go together.

      1. I listened to a TED talk recently about why certain causes or movements fail to generate any change. One of the take-aways I got was that failure happens because people who should be working on the same side or in partnership, segregate themselves from one another and jealously guard their niche. They are fighting over money and other resources and the the head space of potential supporters. What has the pro-life movement really accomplished in almost 50 years? Ireland? Clearly, what’s being done is not working. If Catholics embraced and promoted the Church’s social justice teaching completely and put all politics aside, we could possible change hearts. I am pro-life, but whenever I defend immigrants or a just wage or universal healthcare or criticize a war or a Republican policy, I am suddenly under suspicion and a closet socialist. What I really am is Catholic.

        Excellent piece, Simcha!

        1. I think you are describing a subset of ‘Catholics’ in your paragraph. Thos who attach to left or right politics tend to set the politics above their faith. This leads to the problem you describe. Those of us who set our faith above the politics tend to avoid the aforementioned problems. This is because we maintain the faith which leads to examination of conscious, reflection and the intellectual tradition that does not permit the paradox you noted and is the topic of the article.

      2. Catholic Church teaching is that all threats to human life and dignity are evil, but abortion is in a category of evil that separates it from the rest. It is the popes and bishops who have taught that without the right to be born, the rest of the rights become irrelevant. That does not mean that those issues are irrelevant, only that abortion is truly the highest one in terms of urgency. This is borne out by the fact that disagreeing with the Church on abortion bars one from reception of Holy Communion, while disagreeing with her on how to implement Catholic social justice teaching in the area of immigration, capital punishment, and just war does not. This does not excuse people from working to ensure human life and dignity are protected at all phases of life, of course, but it does mean that those who strive to stop abortion are not required to work against any and all things at the same time (as some seem to be demanding they do). The Body of Christ is one, but it has many members that do different functions, all of them important.

        1. Patti, you stated it so much better than I. Thank you for the clarification. Of course mistreatment and injustice to anyone is wrong, but, absolutely, abortion is in a category of evil of its own.

        2. Actually, according to the Catechism it’s “formal cooperation” (meaning willing and knowledgeable participation in a sinful act) that bars one from Holy Communion. There’s nothing there about agreeing with the Church or disagreeing.

          Furthermore, the Catechism calls formal cooperation in abortion a “grave offense”, but it also calls infanticide, patricide, fratricide and murder of a spouse all grave offenses. Scandal is also called a grave offense. This is just in the section regarding the Fifth commandment. There are probably other grave offenses in different articles. So can you tell me where the idea that abortion is “in a category of evil that separates it from the rest” and is “truly the highest one in terms of urgency” come from? I’m truly curious.

          I do believe that abortion is a reprehensible and a true horror especially in these times. But I have doubts about what you are claiming here. I’m wondering where these claims are in actual Church teaching.

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