The recent clashes involving “Unite the Right” protestors and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, cost Heather Heyer her life. Her death and President Trump’s response to it have dominated the news of late.
To recount the salient events, fighting broke out between “Unite the Right” protestors (a group of white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and others associated with the “alt-right”) and counter-protestors (who oppose white supremacy and fascism, including members of the Antifa or anti-fascist movement). One right-wing protestor deliberately drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer. In response to the tragedy, the President spoke first of the bigotry and violence “on many sides,” and then reversed course to call out neo-Nazis and others for their disreputable beliefs a couple of days later. He subsequently returned to his original message of blaming both sides in his press conference the following day.
People have said and written so much about these matters that I hesitate to offer yet another take. What compels me to write, though, is a sense that our reactions to this event and others often go awry. We are frequently caught between a cultural tendency to seek the middle ground in any conflict and a political environment that regards an opponent as totally wrong, if not morally evil. In this context, President Trump both reflects and embodies two widespread, flawed styles of political discourse: “both-sides thinking” and “whataboutism.”
Beginning with “both-sides thinking,” blaming both sides in any conflict obviously asserts a degree of equivalence between the words or actions of the implicated groups. You attribute blame in this way usually when you want to avoid some challenge to your own credibility. It is a way of saying that, no matter what your opponent thinks, you have an even-handed position. You seemingly apply the same standard to all comers, suggesting that you are not siding with one team over another.
This seems to be the rhetorical impulse behind Trump’s statements about the events in Charlottesville. No fair-minded person would accuse him of backing white supremacists if they turned out to be just as hateful and violent as a group of “anarchists” on the front lines of the Antifa crowd. For people to suggest otherwise simply proves that they have been cowed by political correctness or deluded by the purveyors of fake news.
Why is it both easy and comforting to blame both sides in a conflict? It is easy because we have been taught that the way to be fair-minded is to avoid falling into the trap of “either/or” by instead embracing a “both/and” approach. It is comforting because we can portray ourselves as noncombatants, as neutral arbiters. In politics, sometimes one side is more at fault, or is more in tune with cherished values, than the other is. The reflexive blaming of both sides thus ignores context; it obscures the motives and goals of the participants. One stays above the fray only by failing to make a choice.
Whataboutism takes two forms. One form emerges when you think you have found a hole in your opponent’s position. You suspect that they are guilty of some hidden hypocrisy or logical error that you need only expose by a pointed and poignant question. The other form emerges when you seek to deflect criticism or blame. It functions as a deft move to change-the-subject. Someone accuses you of doing something bad. You respond with a quick “What about the bad thing you do?”
Both forms appeared in a single exchange during a February 2017 interview with Trump on Fox News. In response to the President’s professed respect for Russian president Vladimir Putin, Bill O’Reilly tellingly observed, “Putin is a killer.” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Indeed, Trump used a similar approach in response to the events in Charlottesville. If you think the “alt-right” is bad, then what about the “alt-left?” As he noted in an August 15 press conference, “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”
At first glance, changing the subject, or calling attention to another’s defects, rightly broadens political conversation by raising vital issues that might go unexamined. However, a moment’s reflection reveals that the aim of the “whataboutist” is not to begin a comprehensive inquiry. The goal is to absolve oneself of responsibility. By asking “what about …?” you force others to look at what seems to be the big picture. Really, though, all you seek is to get out of a political or logical pickle, to avoid authentic self-examination.
As forms of political discourse, “both-sides thinking” and “whataboutism” emerge from the same source — an encounter with an adversary or opponent whose worldview is different from one’s own. Difference is common, but the problem is that we often treat difference as symptomatic of a skewed, mistaken view of the world. Something is wrong with the other, and that something is ideology.
In such encounters, one’s goal is not to understand or empathize with the opponent. The goal is to win the argument by raising uncomfortable questions, by challenging the moral worth of the opponent, by poisoning the enemy with words. When you engage in both-sides thinking or whataboutism, you seem logical and rational on the surface, but you really aim to avoid responsibility or to mount an attack. Political discourse of this sort is not rooted in genuine conversation. Its appearance masks the reality of ideological bad faith — not being willing to admit that one is over-simplifying complex political events and judgments, and doing so in the service of partisan beliefs and interests.
Understanding these features of today’s political discourse will neither usher in the Age of Aquarius nor make America great. However, it will help us navigate the conversations that will arise when the next street fight becomes a semiotic one.
Leonard Williams is Dean of the College of Education and Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Manchester University in North Manchester, Indiana.