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‘Whataboutism’ and the decay of discourse

‘Whataboutism’ and the decay of discourse

Discourse in Pakistan is often plagued by the logical fallacy that is ‘whataboutism’. Whether a discussion be about violence against women, or the treatment of minorities or even xenophobia against Muslims, the argument “But, what about…?” is bound to pop up at some point.

This phenomenon certainly isn’t unique to Pakistan. In fact, it is best associated with the Soviet Union and its deflection of criticisms against human rights violations, with the proclamation, “But what about racial injustices in the USA?”, which led to the infamy of the phrase “And you are lynching negroes”.

Even China is guilty of it, often defending its treatment of the Uighur Muslims by pointing out the injustices faced by Black Americans in the United States. Similarly, Israel has defended its occupation of Palestine by pointing out that “there are plenty of big countries that occupied and replaced populations and no one talks about them”, instead of presenting an actual argument.

India too has used whataboutism to deflect attention away from the political, economic and humanitarian problems faced by them by bringing up similar or worse problems faced by Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Whataboutism in Pakistan

However, this phenomenon is no less common in Pakistan, even if it is less documented. When accused of corruption, PTI officials have a tendency to remark, “But what about Shehbaz and Nawaz?” instead of actually attempting to prove their innocence. When confronted with allegations of rape and violence against women, Pakistanis often ask, “But what about violence against men?” And when human rights violations in Balochistan are brought up, nationalists inquire, “But what about human rights violations in Kashmir by India?”

The phrase does have its place in discourse. Sometimes, it is important to point out glaring hypocrisies in arguments. For example, if a Pakistani liberal is extremely vocal against racial injustices in the United States, but silent as a mouse when it comes to identical problems in Pakistan, then whataboutism is a key tool in proving that hypocrisy. But, more often than not, the phenomenon leads to the decay of discourse.

What should be a clash of ideas and arguments and an attempt to find the truth is reduced to constant whataboutism targeting the hypocrisy of proponents of a given argument, a type of logical fallacy referred to as Tū quoque. Using this tactic, there is no need anymore of refuting an opponent’s argument. This leads to no benefit. All it leads to is outrage on both ends as debates become more and more personal, rather than working to actually solve the issues plaguing the country.

The first step against whataboutism is identifying it and avoiding personal usage of it. The next step is calling out its usage by others. The third step is engaging in more self-criticism so that an opponent cannot criticize a country for it. For example, if Pakistanis themselves are calling out injustices against the Baloch people, India can no longer use it as a form of whataboutism to justify its poor treatment of Muslims.

Discourse is fundamental to the Pakistani democracy. If the plague of whataboutism is allowed to continue, it will eventually result in regression rather than progression.

Also read: Pakistan is at the edge of having its very own Big Brother

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