“Whataboutism” is neither an English word nor a logical fallacy. It is a tactical error.
The concept of “whataboutism” has perhaps been demonstrated by current events. Let’s try a simpler, less controversial example.
You live in an apartment in New York. You agree to take a friend’s cat, Squiggles, for a week. Your toilet leaks. Without thinking, you call the building superintendent. He fixes your toilet—then evicts you for having a cat in a no-pets building.
Which crime you did. However, the super’s brother-in-law is in the building too—and you happen to know that in his apartment, that motherfucker keeps a pet tiger. No shit.
Your eviction defense relies on the fallacy tu quoque, literally “you too.” Actually the policy comes from the owners—not the super. It doesn’t change what you did—that’s the fallacy. Someone could have had an allergic reaction to Squiggles and died. Also—who, exactly, is allergic to tigers?
Tu quoque is a fallacy—in a certain context. That context is a rule which is external, absolute, consistent and undisputed. “Whataboutism” done right is not tu quoque, because it expands the frame of the dispute to question the rule itself—not whether the rule has been violated.
What you are actually saying to the super is that he is a hypocrite. When he lectures you about either the importance of Following The Rules, or the Peril of Feline Allergies, you know he doesn’t give a gram of a damn about either. But that doesn’t change the fact that you had a pet in the apartment, which was against the rules. Still guilty.
Law is only a special case of power
But in power there are no rules. The line between politics and war is never sharp; the curb that keeps politics confined to the firm, clear asphalt of “the law” is never high. When we look at “whataboutism” through the eyes of power, we see another picture.
You don’t know why the super is evicting you. You know why he isn’t: because he’s a stickler for rules, or because he fears and hates cats. Wait—wasn’t there a time he came by for a “voluntary contribution” for his friend’s “important charity?” Maybe, you know, asking for “more regulatory information” wasn’t the right move…
If you want to stay in the apartment, what you have to do is to escape the frame. Go to the owners; confess Squiggles; tell them about the super, his little racket, and the tiger; and odds are, they’ll be grateful enough to let you stay. Rules or no rules. Worth a try.
There is no rule allowing you to make this move; there is no rule prohibiting it; you are acting outside the dimension of rules, within the greater dimension of power.
“Whataboutism” is a tactical error because it questions but does not escape the frame. When you say “what about the tiger?” to the super, you are accusing a hypocrite of being a hypocrite. There are two ways in which he could respond to this accusation.
First, he could react like a philosopher and instantly admit the gravity of his logical error, which you have detected. Of course he is in the wrong! Not only can you stay—you can even keep the cat. “But Squiggles isn’t even my cat!” So everything really is fine—why don’t you guys grab a beer together?
Second, he could react like a human being—with more hypocrisy. As it happens, there is no accusation more favorable to hypocrisy than the accusation of hypocrisy, because no two things are exactly the same. Hypocrisy is like Bondo: any hole in it can always be patched by more of it. So—expect to hear a lot about the rarity of tiger allergies, the surprisingly charming disposition of tame tigers, their protectiveness in self-defense, emotional support tigers, etc, etc. “Any port in a storm” is the hypocrite’s motto.
Never question anyone’s hypocrisy—except to a third party willing and able to act on it. Hypocrisy is not a question. Hypocrisy is an answer.
The question that hypocrisy answers is the question of whether, under present terms, you can have a good-faith conversation with your interlocutor. The answer is no. This means the time for talking to the super is over.
The phase of conflict
You have left the phase of cooperation and entered the phase of conflict—which is a distasteful euphemism for war. War is a human universal and deserves no euphemism.
War, in this case, doesn’t mean you drop the super with a fire-ax as soon as he comes in the door. It means you talk to the owners. The concept of war is not restricted to mere violence. War is any systematic escape from a frame of rules. With all due respect to Clausewitz, war is not a special case of politics; politics is a special case of war.
The proper effect of hypocrisy on a conversation is to invalidate the conversation. For the interaction to move forward, you must create a new frame. In our example, the new frame is created by an interaction with a third party: the apartment owners.
But what if no third party is available? Suppose the super is actually the owner. He can break his own rules. Now, that tiger is actually illegal, so you could appeal to the city—which will definitely not keep you in your apartment. So who cares?
At this point we discover that the rule is not actually a rule; it is not the rule of law; it is no more than the rule of force. Ultimately you are not being evicted for Squiggles. You are being evicted because the super/owner wants you out.
But due to various state, local and Federal ordinances, his building isn’t entirely his. He has to show “cause.” So he has to harangue you about the Importance of Rules and the Menace of Cats—both of which, so far as you can tell, are a total joke to him.
In this situation, your best option really is to call the moving company. But we have squeezed enough juice out of this analogy.
Concern trolling and game theory
The Internet, for all its faults, has a great term for hypocrisy: concern trolling. Concern trolling is when you try to persuade others of concerns you don’t share. For example, an atheist might try to convince Christian voters that some politician is un-Christian.
Again we see the question of tu quoque. How should anyone respond to “I don’t believe in this, but I know you do, so I’m going to use it to try to get you to do what I want”?
The logical and game-theoretic answers to this question are different. Logically, the source of information is not relevant—only its reliability. If Nazis prove to you that your wife is cheating on you, even if they have Nazi reasons for proving it, she is still cheating on you.
From a game-theoretic—or a military—perspective, concern trolling is a weapon. The business of war is to resist the weapons and exploit the weaknesses of the enemy.
As often in war, any use of this weapon exposes an equal weakness. When your enemy trolls some concern—as demonstrated by some other phenomenon, which would also have excited any genuine concern, but which he clearly doesn’t care about at all—he leaks information. He reveal that he genuinely does not care about this concern. What is the right way to use this information against him?
Turn your concern trolls into stone
The only proper game-theoretic response to concern trolling (or any attack) is the classic tit for tat strategy—which tries to replicate the strategy of the opponent.
From a game-theoretic viewpoint, the right response to any detection of a concern troll is to stop caring about that concern—at least, if that concern would limit your effectiveness against the troll. You should never care about anything that your enemy doesn’t care about. This bad habit is a precious affectation that you cannot afford.
For example, in a shooting war, if your enemy is unconcerned with human life, and takes no prisoners, your policy must be the same. The rules of engagement in any conflict should be symmetrical—and they can easily be made symmetrical. Just take each side’s rules of engagement, then merge the documents. In case of conflict: pick the most lenient rule.
If Hitler had used chemical weapons, the Allies had chemical weapons ready to go. (Hitler’s were actually better, but he didn’t know it.)
Any side in any conflict which does not adopt this policy of symmetry has an inherent disadvantage in the conflict. Question: are you doing so well that this kind of handicap is no big deal? Or so badly that it’s no big deal? Are you… tired of winning?
The rule of tactical nihilism
But what do you do when you discover that your enemy, so far as you can tell, has no concerns? That, like the shark in Jaws, he only cares about killing, eating and making more sharks?
In effect, your enemy cares only about power, not about “issues” or even “principles.” In his heart he does not believe this. He is completely sincere about his issues and his principles. His problem is that, not being a political philosopher, he did not come up with any of these issues or principles—and, unbeknownst to him, they are filtered for their ability to make him feel important. And who doesn’t like feeling important? The man is fundamentally a junkie. It’s easy to tell a junkie he’s a junkie, but he knows it.
You cannot effectively fight the enemy’s accidental, chaotic and emotional nihilism, masquerading as good but consisting only of power, having no moral sense because power has usurped the mental seat of empathy, until you develop a counter-nihilism of your own.
Of course, the enemy will project the frame of his own nihilism onto you; you must resist this frame at all costs, not because the enemy’s kind of nihilism is bad (though it is bad), but simply because you cannot afford its costs and he can. For example, he can get rowdy and you can’t.
Your nihilism is of a completely different kind. It is intentional, orderly, and tactical. Tactical nihilism is the ability to accept any tactic that is genuinely useful in defeating the enemy. If you want to win—if it is your duty to win—you can accept no constraint on the efficiency of your actions motivated by a concern your enemy does not share.
But you are only a tactical nihilist. Your concerns have not changed. What has changed is that you now recognize that the only practical road to satisfying those concerns is a road which may involve ignoring those concerns. Your moral philosophy is unchanged.
You take no pleasure in your tactical nihilism: that would be submitting to the thrill of transgression. That one must be left for the enemy. Tactical nihilism is not for fun, nor is it for proving a point.
If the enemy kills puppies, you do not kill puppies too, just to show you are his equal and have have no less right to kill puppies. But if the life of one adorable beagle puppy, Spotto, can be taken to save the whole world, Spotto shall be slain without hesitation or regret.
In fact, the cool head created by an attitude of detached tactical nihilism is often more careful than the warm head of engaged moral sincerity. It can be more systematic in excluding emotional biases that would compromise tactical efficiency.
A missing Star Trek episode
Kirk and Spock beam down to a planet which is governed by hypocrisy. The planet is a theocracy in which the priests do not believe in their own religion. But the peasants do—and the religion keeps them from rebelling against their priests. Many such cases.
Concern trolling is a weapon of psychological domination. It normalizes a frame in which the dominant class is exempt from rules that bind the subaltern class. When their guys can do anything because they are on the side of the angels, and your guys get pulled over for a dirty taillight because you are on the side of the devils, they have broken away to a frame of power that cannot be reconciled with the concept of law.
A state of domination is a state of war. The civil war is not imminent—it is permanent. It was already happening, but you didn’t see it. It is not being fought with bullets and probably never will be. Psychological warfare is still war. Each side of each war has its ceiling of escalation—above which it does not go, below which there are no rules.
Totally ignoring the Prime Directive for the moment, suppose Kirk and Spock want to end the cold civil war and help heal the planet. Obviously this is a revolution-complete problem. The planet’s regime depends on hypocrisy as a load-bearing element. No harm need come to the priests if their regime is decommissioned in an orderly way.
How can Kirk and Spock help this benighted, priest-ridden planet have the revolution it so clearly needs? What would a clear-headed Vulcan convince the peasants to do?
To abandon their ancient religion and adopt no other—to become as philosophically nihilistic as their masters, and use this nihilism as a wrecking-ball against the regime?
Or to retain the religion—but use the tactical advantage of nihilism where it works, with the intent of restoring the true religion, not abolishing it? In this case there will be mercy, where mercy is appropriate—for mercy is one of the values of every religion.
Maybe they even need a new civic religion—with better scriptural protections against being misused, so that it can’t degenerate into yet another corrupt theocracy. Spock, like Napoleon’s dream in Egypt, would write his own Koran; Kirk, from orbit, would enforce it with proton torpedoes. Robespierre too had the idea of a new faith; and he too, the help of Fouché to enforce it.
Not all such futures can be seen from where we stand. Even from where we stand, we can see plenty of bad ones. But from where we stand—we are going somewhere bad.
The future of conservatism
So… maybe forget about the policies, principles and personalities? Maybe, now and for the foreseeable future, a political party is just a vehicle for seizing power—as much of it as possible, and ideally all of it?
As someone told me today, once there were two kinds of cons: neocons and paleocons. Now there are two kinds of cons: rubicons and pedocons. It’s not true but it’s funny—and often funny things have a way of coming true.
The future of conservatism will be: the GOP as a post-leftist revolutionary party. Discuss. (You can comment if and only if you subscribe. Please, no sedition in the comments.)