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Sunday, March 14, 2021

Bad Arguments #8 - introducing irrelevant issues (whataboutery)

‘Hannah, tidy up your bedroom.’
‘Because it’s so untidy you can’t find anything in it.’
‘Maybe, but you forgot to pick me up from hockey practice last Tuesday and I had to take the bus home in the dark and Mum had a go at you about how dangerous it was for me to come home in the dark so why should I listen to you going on about my bedroom?’

Hannah’s criticism of her Dad’s failure to remember his chauffeuring duties is well supported and powerful. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the issue at hand; the tidiness of her bedroom. She hasn’t addressed her Dad’s argument in favour of tidying up her bedroom, instead moving the debate on to a completely irrelevant issue. By avoiding the central issue, she has lost the debate.

This bad argument is sometimes known as ‘Whataboutery’. This is because debaters who use it often begin with that phrase. To give some examples:

‘The use of homophobic language should be made illegal because it legitimises violence against gay people.’

‘What about racist language? Shouldn’t that be made illegal?’

‘GCSEs should be abolished because they create excessive stress for teenagers.’

‘What about the stress caused by competitive posting on social media? Why aren’t you addressing that?’

‘Meat should be taxed because the production of meat contributes to climate change.’

‘What about air travel? Why not tax that?’

How should you respond to ‘whataboutery’? One problem is that the issues raised (like Hannah’s Dad’s life-threatening forgetfulness) are often very real and important ones. However, you need to recall that they are not the issue that the debate is about. So, agree (briefly) that racism, bodyshaming on Whats App, air travel and not picking up your daughter from hockey practice are bad things, but then remind your opponent that they are not what the debate is about.

To sum up:

  • Only introduce issues that are relevant to the motion
  • If your opponent introduces irrelevant issues, don’t engage with those issues; simply point out that they are not relevant to the debate in hand, and then return to the central issues of the debate in hand.

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