What about it?

Debaters are ready to win the debate with one endless question. Graphic courtesy of Getty Images

SAM HAGGARTY | OPINION COLUMNIST | shaggarty@butler.edu 

While the divide within politics is often cited by partisans hoping to make themselves popular, the fact of the matter is that political divisiveness has simply never been easier. Debating as a whole has evolved with more platforms being made available with ever-broadening reach and more access to information about the world. College is one of the most tangible examples of this. As we as students shift from the towns and cities we’ve known for years to new beginnings at Butler, more than just the scenery changes. We get the chance to grow and learn about things through a plethora of courses covering topics big and small and voices well-known or unfamiliar. Even in the confines of the Butler bubble, we still see how small our old world was. 

With these broadened horizons and new diversity of thought comes inevitable exhaustion. After all, there is so much to care about, learn about and take a stance on that some people decide there’s a limit as to how society or those around us should discuss issues before comfort is sacrificed. Sometimes people do this because they tire of opposition; sometimes they do this to only focus on one topic and sometimes they do this because they cannot be bothered to care about another cause or group of people. Regardless of their rationale, more and more people have been retreating to two ironclad words: “What about?” 

Whataboutism is all the rage in American politics, in part due to its efficiency. With only two words, anyone can imply that their opponent doesn’t care about certain things, anything they care about is not important enough and, most importantly, use anything to disagree without starting any pesky dialogue. Why kick the can of compromise when one can just throw issues out to avoid real discussion? Finally, a way to avoid Fichte’s pesky synthesis, a way to just shut people up without coming across as apathetic or closed-minded. 

You don’t have to take just my word for it. Sophomore finance major Braden Mlenar gave some insight into how it feels when these tactics are used in matters of passion and importance. 

“When [whataboutism] happens, it feels like you’re kind of trapped,” Mlenar said. “It’s good because [the opposing voices] want to be heard in their regard, but it’s hard to sympathize when they won’t do the same … To be heard is important.” 

Disagreeing acknowledges your opposition’s points on some level even if contested, but people use whataboutism to paint topics as non-issues. 

This leads to another moral problem that I have with whataboutism. As previously stated, the first goal of groups and causes is acknowledgement, and to be heard. When a group’s mission and struggle are used not to receive acknowledgment for that group, but to only override another, the result is always hurtful. While it might seem like a harmless and flippant way to avoid conversation, we in fact perpetuate the idea that these issues are at odds with one another, that a person cannot care about cause A and cause B. 

Efroymson Diversity Center Director Randall Ojeda has worked with a plethora of student organizations and has seen lots of perspectives, both on the students’ ends as well as from an administrative standpoint. 

“When an individual or community is expressing harm, need, education, celebration or opportunity, it often requires boldness and risk that should be heard and acknowledged,” Ojeda said. “I think the second piece of that is that it can also be true that another identity group or individual is also experiencing need, harm, opportunity, and celebration, and that is relevant and important to acknowledge. When we acknowledge that, and how we acknowledge that, matters a lot.” 

Ojeda brings up a very valid point in that some issues, while longstanding, have not seen a long existence in public dialogue. 

One of the primary differences between whataboutism and a connection is context. There are certainly times when issues intersect, overlap or bring up valid concerns. At that time it makes sense to draw a parallel between them or try and analogize their issue with yours to create understanding. Or you could disagree with them, but at the very least you acknowledge them. 

Fabian Gonzalez, a senior entrepreneurship and innovation and finance double major, pointed out this overshadowing both on and off campus. 

“It puts a lot of shadows on real issues when people try and bring up something to cloud the fact we have issues on campus or in society in general,” Gonzalez said. “I think we see it a lot now in society where people use the shutdown to avoid talking about real issues.” 

So what do we do? While it’s easy to point fingers and accuse others of being bad actors, the problem is that we often engage in this practice with good intentions. Plus, not everything exists in a vacuum, too many things relate for us to not draw a correlation. 

In the face of the pervasive and often divisive tactic of whataboutism, addressing this issue requires a multi-faceted approach. One critical aspect is fostering empathy. Empathy serves as a powerful antidote to whataboutism. Encourage individuals to genuinely try to understand the perspectives and concerns of others, and how they don’t always have to clash. 

While it isn’t as easy as blaming others, we need to reflect on our own biases and assumptions. Self-awareness can lead to more open and constructive conversations. Although we would rather not admit it, sometimes we can be dismissive to avoid confrontation. There are times where, even unknowingly, we overturn queries to avoid addressing positions that make us uncomfortable. 

Sometimes the intention isn’t to drown out, but to shed light on another angle of the same issue. Talking about issues is difficult for people who aren’t in a position to instantly receive support. 

Though the issue is pervasive and daunting, it is not without hope of repeal. If we identify the setting of dialogues, the motivation of someone’s message and perhaps, most importantly, our motivation to bring up another topic, then we can work to achieve a solution. After all, the primary goal of groups is acknowledgment, and we don’t need to agree for everyone to be heard.


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