November 8, 2016, Goleta, CA. We were so full of hope, a room of liberal arts college kids scrunched together on beat up couches watching the U.S. presidential election results fully convinced that a character so publicly indecent, unqualified, and inappropriate could never come to the face of the leader of the free world. There are too many protocols, too many quality assurance checks, too many obstacles systematically put in place to prevent such and event from occurring. But it was a grueling campaign season that started too early and extended longer than necessary, the fighting was constant and we were inundated by sensationalized news that only charged us emotionally against one another. I blame the media, and the parties, and the candidates, but more than anyone I blame ourselves for being so easily distracted. I think the biggest embarrassment to come out of the 2016 election was the public’s lack of focus on holding the correct people accountable for their behavior; a recurring trope that has permeated through the past two and a half years, and haunts my visions of the foreseeable future. As we buckle up for the Eukanuba pedigree of shit show that is the 2020 election, I want to take a moment to reflect what might have caused our lack of focus that has allowed such prolific unaccountability.
I could get into historical empirical data, site acts and bills that systematically reduced the amount of influence public opinion has over U.S. politics. But that’s not what I’m about, I’m not trying spill dates and drop names to stir a conspiracy theory cockpot, nor am I trying to side with any one side. What I want is instead, for us as the public, to take stock of the civil power and responsibility we have to keep our politicians, government services, and businesses as accountable for their actions as possible in the hopes that if we do our part, the other cogs in this system will follow suit. We all have a role in this play, but the story only works if everyone remembers their lines.
At the focal point of this issue, I see an epidemic of a particular logical fallacy known as “Whataboutism,” whereby an argument’s rebuttal is instead an attack on the opponent’s character by charging them with hypocrisy rather than I proper refutile. This was prominent charge against candidates of the Democratic party as well as amongst Republican candidates. Here we make the attempt to hold one party accountable for their actions, but instead of acting accordingly to make amends or justify their actions, candidates would simply point out their opponents’ shortcomings and moral failings, ultimately leaving the public unsatisfied with any prominent candidates, sore from cognitive whiplash, and completely uninformed about any one that isn’t in a breaking news scandal. The reason whataboutism is a logical fallacy is because it does nothing to advance an argument or work toward an agreement, it’s simply a tangential topic that distracts from reaching an ultimate conclusion. Because it leaves arguments unresolved, there’s no threat of consequences, and the public’s power of accountability is undermined by each new accusation.
Not only does whataboutism leave us without closure, it’s purposefully distracting to the point where the public cannot form a consensus on what behaviors are unacceptable and what are unsavory. Two major examples of this is Trump’s entire pre and post election campaign and the recent Bezos scandal. Trump’s campaign team played the shitty hand they were dealt perfectly by flooding the media with hundreds of snippets of faux pahs, boorishness, and unacceptable public behavior to the point that before we could collectively agree how and why we should disqualify him, there was a whole new docket of offenses. We became overwhelmed and bemused and the man became a joke, the punchline was his victory and the subsequent disappointment from those of us who thought our public deserved less embarrassing representation. Similarly, when it became public that Amazon was able to shirk paying its taxes, it wasn’t too long after that Jeff Bezos found himself (not his business) under scrutiny from the public eye for his marital drama and a scandal with a tabloid newspaper. Our focus shifted gears so quickly they’re making another Fast and Furious movie about it, and in our excitement to make Bezos dick jokes, we forgot to hold him, and our government accountable, for a legitimate discrepancy. Whataboutism doesn’t just hurt our ability to qualify and disqualify those with significant political and monetary power, but it overwhelms and distracts us from being able to collectively express our power. Only through collective action can we truly hold our rulers accountable.
Whataboutism is making a mockery of our political system, I fear that if we continue to let this logical fallacy blind us from realizing our ubiquitous goals and rules of social decency then the 2020 election will be an all out brawl and full fledged debauchery. If we allow whatabouchery to thrive, there will be no civility, no intellectual discourse, no sportsmanship. Our debates will devolve into playground arguments, our elections chosen by who can make better roast memes. Already whataboutism permeates through our discourse, undermining the efforts of the #MeToo movement and providing slivers of plausible deniability for climate change deniers. We have a responsibility to work to achieve resolution, or at the least keep powerful positions accountable to the public’s sense of decency. How we do that, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it starts by sifting through the news, while staying mindfully objective and publicly discussing the issues that we think matter most. We have to start by getting on the same page. This play won’t reach a second act if we can’t coordinate enough to read it together.