We’re supposedly the most scientifically advanced, enlightened, informed generation in human history. We have the entire accumulated knowledge of humankind on devices in our pockets, after all. One would think this abundance of information would be making us more wise.
But then we witness surreal scenes like what happened at the U.S. Capitol. Are we living in fifth-century or ninth-century Europe, witnessing the Visigoths sack Rome or the vikings raid Northumbria? Are we watching orcs breach Helm’s Deep in Middle-earth? No, this is 21st-century life in the most powerful nation in the world. And we are as foolish and barbaric as any generation prior.
The Capitol insurrection was horrifying enough as a spectacle of foolishness and symbol of civilizational decay. But another horrifying exhibit of foolishness has been the reactions to the event on social media. Namely, the widespread deployment of one of the laziest tactics to hit rhetoric since the ad hominem: whataboutism.
What Is Whataboutism?
Whataboutism turns the tables in an argument by responding to one accusation by deflecting to something else egregious, even if unrelated: “Yeah, well what about ______?” In the world of logical fallacies it’s a form of a false dichotomy and closely related to bothsidesism—another tactic of turning attention away from one wrong by suggesting another side is equally guilty of similar wrongs.
We see whataboutism every day (probably every minute) on social media, but it was especially prevalent following the Capitol insurrection. Instead of simply denouncing and disavowing the mob’s deadly behavior, many social-media users (including an alarming number of Christians) offered “what about?” comparisons to 2020’s various unlawfully destructive BLM and Antifa protests. Then, the “what abouts” turned to social-media censorship, as throngs of Trump defenders deflected attention from the Capitol attack by pointing to encroachments on free speech by Big Tech.
The reality is we can critique both the Capitol insurrection and the Antifa protests. We should be alarmed both by Trump spreading dangerous falsehoods on Twitter and by Twitter censorship. But it’s one thing to recognize the dangers of and speak out about both; it’s another to use one to downplay the gravity of the other. The ability to recognize problems on all sides is wisdom. The assumption that action on one front necessarily makes one vulnerable on another front is folly.
The ability to recognize problems on all sides is wisdom. The assumption that action on one front necessarily makes one vulnerable on another front is folly.
Christians especially can and must be multi-directional rather than tribalistic in how we see threats. We can be concerned about more than one thing at the same time, even if certain moments (like the Capitol mob) require us to be decisively vocal about this threat in this moment, rather than quickly deflecting with a “what about____?!!” out of fear that some will forget other things are still threats, too.
Whatboutism is a temptation for everyone online. In the hours after the Capitol insurrection, I saw loads of tweets by progressive-leaning Christians saying something to the effect of, “See! All this talk of CRT (critical race theory) being such a threat—ha! Clearly the biggest threat is CN (Christian nationalism)!” This sub-genre of whataboutism (“this problem is the real threat!”) is both annoying and intellectually lazy. If a bridge collapsed in a city, of course it would make sense that calls to fix crumbling infrastructure would take on new urgency. But it would not make sense to then say, “See, all you people going on about the urgent needs of our city’s homelessness crisis are off base and distracting us from the real threat!”
Leaders at all levels understand they can and must address multiple threats simultaneously. The pandemic has made this clear. That the public-health crisis needs urgent attention does not mean the economic or mental-health crises should be downplayed or ignored. All three must be simultaneously addressed.
Leaders at all levels understand they can and must address multiple threats simultaneously.
Christians need to be able to recognize the threats posed by CRT and those posed by CN. To be sure, recognizing their respective dangers does not mean placing them on equal footing or claiming they’re equally dangerous. It simply means we’re honest that they’re both dangerous, in different ways, to different degrees, and that while triage and prioritization are essential, we must ultimately guard against both.
Why are Christians today so bad at this? Why, when a Christian leader writes or speaks out about the evils of racism, is there predictable whataboutism that responds with “now do abortion”? Almost always, a quick Google search will reveal that said Christian leader has “done” abortion, rightly denouncing it just as vehemently as he or she has denounced racism. No soundbite, social-media post, or article can address every wrong and injustice in one fell swoop. To demand as much is intellectually dishonest.
Ultimately, whataboutism is a convenient, lazy, and destructive rhetorical tactic that shrinks Christian faith to the narrow confines of tribalism’s partisan aims.
What’s causing us to be so prone to whataboutism? In large part it’s because certain dynamics in our information age work against our wisdom and lead us to folly. I highlight three of these “sources of our sickness” in my new book, The Wisdom Pyramid:
1. Too much. Our brains are so taxed by overstimulation that they’re weakened in vital ways. Capacity for critical thinking is reduced. We cope with the glut by herding into tribes, over-simplifying problems, and resorting to logical fallacies (like whataboutism). It’s just easier.
2. Too fast. The speed of information today works against our wisdom. Before we even consider the truth or prudence of what we’re about to post, we post it. The internet rage cycle moves too quickly to have time for nuance or big-picture awareness that today’s injustice doesn’t have to negate yesterday’s, or that the “breaking news” now doesn’t mean the “old news” problems have been solved.
3. Too focused on me. The orientation of information around individuals—increasingly sorted into ever-more-insular echo chambers and bias-confirming bubbles—is perhaps the biggest root cause of rising whataboutism. In the narrow confines of your given tribalistic bubble, of course you’ll start to see this issue as the true scourge and those people as untrustworthy fools. Our bubbles bind and blind.
What We Need
Given the various ways the structure of the internet makes us more foolish and intellectually error-prone, what’s the solution? How can we become healthier and wiser, more able to address multiple threats and to triage through the landmine-filled glut of the digital age?
A key part of the solution should be cultivating a better knowledge diet—one oriented around trustworthy sources of lasting truth more than dubious sources of #trending buzz. If we’re increasingly foolish in the internet age, it’s likely because we spend inordinate amounts of time online—in spaces where unvetted, reckless, and deceptive information spreads like wildfire and boring old truth tends not to go viral.
If we’re increasingly foolish in the internet age, it’s likely because we spend inordinate amounts of time online—in spaces where unvetted, reckless, and deceptive information spreads like wildfire and boring old truth tends not to go viral.
That’s why, in The Wisdom Pyramid, I argue that the internet and social media should occupy the least important place in our knowledge diet. If you’re looking to grow in logic, rhetoric, and critical thinking, don’t spend much time online. Put down your phone, exit your echo chamber, and look to better sources for wisdom—like the Bible, the church, nature, books, and beauty. More time in these nourishing spaces will help you become a clearer, more logical and versatile thinker. Even more importantly, it will help you become wise.
Whataboutism is just one of many marks of foolishness we come to bear when the internet functions as the foundation of our knowledge diet rather than an occasional indulgence we consume in careful moderation. As the world grows in foolishness, believers in Jesus need to be intentional about cultivating healthier, slower, more balanced (and largely offline) habits of knowledge formation. If Christians—who have a framework for unshakeable truth foundations and a rich heritage of wisdom traditions—are not the ones bringing wise illumination to these new dark ages, no one will.