This month we tackle the current epidemic of “whataboutism.” Political debate, social media and everyday conversations are rife with comments and claims that are often frustrating because they seem wrong, but we can’t explain why this is so. One could be excused for thinking—wrongly—that there aren’t any standards for the use of language. In fact, rules for rational discourse not only exist, they guide academic writing, discussions and examinations for millions of students and teachers. Fallacious arguments and claims can cause harm, so it’s helpful if you can point out common errors in reasoning when they show up in your classroom.

Academics refer to errors as “fallacies,” of which there are dozens, some better known than others. For example, our politicians are fond of using the phrase “moral equivalence,” in which the actions of one person or political party are morally equivalent to the actions of another —  therefore one is just as good or bad as the other, regardless of what the actual actions are.

Moral equivalence is sometimes described as “whataboutism,” the practice of deflecting criticism by pointing to another’s transgressions, with the assumption of equivalence. For example, in news from the United States these days you’ll often hear something like this: “There is so much emphasis on the investigation into Russian interference in the last election, but what about Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server?” The assumption that it’s not fair to investigate the former if you’re not investigating the latter contains at least two errors. First, the claimed offences are not equivalent. One involves an active investigation into possible intent to actively collude with foreign nationals with the purpose influencing the outcome of an election, while the other investigation is complete and found no nefarious intent nor equivalent consequences. Second, the rebuttal does not address the morality of the issue at hand. The moral failure of another does not justify moral failure on your part.

Closer to home, consider a hallway fight in your school, where both parties are automatically considered equally culpable because both were fighting, which is against the rules, and both are suspended. Yet if one attacked the other and the other responded in self-defence, are their actions equivalent? On the surface, at least, they are not, which suggests that a more nuanced approach to determining guilt is required.

With these teasers in hand, you can learn everything you need to know about “whataboutism” and then some from these websites:

  • RationalWikiRationalWiki (RW) offers some clear and simple explanations of the issue, along with dozens of examples of moral equivalency, such as: equating neo-Nazis with those who oppose fascism, equating the treatment of animals with the treatment of human beings, equating acts of war with murder, and equating gay marriage with legalizing pedophilia.
  • Humbug! The skeptic’s field guide to spotting fallacies and deceptive arguments – Self-described as “A site for skeptics and critical thinkers. Hundreds of real life examples of fallacies, updated regularly,” Humbug addresses some common examples of moral equivalence, mostly in political contexts.
  • False EquivalenceTruly Fallacious provides more real-world examples of false equivalence, as well as a plain language guide to the world of logic itself. To underscore the importance of proper use of logic, it says, “Even a perfectly formed argument, where everything is factual, based on scientific double blind studies and extensive research, fails when a single logical fallacy is included.”
  • Moral EquivalenceThe Logical Place offers a range of information on many fallacies, including moral equivalence, where it focuses primarily on political examples.
  • Quizzes on FallaciesFinally, Quizlet offers simple exercises on a range of fallacies. The interactive site provides examples of fallacies with multiple choice responses, instantly evaluated.

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