many conservatives resorted to ‘whataboutism’, a rhetorical strategy of deflecting blame and criticism by drawing false moral equivalences developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Hang on.

A “whataboutism”, as you imply above (although I don’t think you meant to do so) can be EITHER a deflection OR a valid charge of hypocrisy, DEPENDING ON WHETHER the implied moral equivalence is true or false.

So ,when a person uses a “whatabout”, the first thing their debate opponent MUST do is to determine if their implied charge of hypocrisy is true or not. Simply saying “Oh, that’s a whataboutism” loses the debate.

From the moment that Trump announced his withdrawal of troops from Syria, the twitter-verse and mainstream media outlets were flooded by ‘whataboutism’ from conservative pundits and trolls.

Some indeed did. However, the larger question is if the Syrian withdrawal was wise or not. In this case, the “whatabout” from the right was simply another way of saying “you people on the left are a bunch of hypocrites.”

The rejoinder to criticisms of Trump’s administration at that time had been to point out that Obama had also authorized the separations of families at the border. While true, comparing Trump’s zero tolerance policy, which resulted in family separations at a massive scale, to Obama’s policies, under which such separations were rare, is misleading and sloppy.

Hmmmm. I think it’s sloppy (because there’s much more to the story than that) but not necessarily misleading. Yes, there was a difference in scale, but its perfectly reasonable for a person to believe that a policy is either good or bad, regardless of scale.

A person can’t really be “a little dead” after all. They either are or they;re not.

Similarly, comparing the media’s criticism of Trump’s sudden and stunning decision to withdraw troops from Syria against the advice of the Secretary of Defence and other top officials with the media’s lack of criticism of Obama’s methodical and carefully planned announcement of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq is an abandonment of good-faith argumentation.

Which begs the question of why the criticism of the move *sounded* in most venues like a criticism of the move, rather than — as you point out — a criticism of the process. Bad journalism, you think?

Ad hominum fallacies are a family of fallacies of which ‘Whataboutism’ is just one type

Uh… A “whataboutism” is either a valid or invalid argument, if expressed in logical completeness. It is not a logical fallacy.

but this particular version has become a common tactic used by Trump and conservatives to defend against criticism.

So, each instance is either valid or invalid. Pretty simple, that.

They trade on the misguided intuition that the critic will be discredited if the critic can be shown to exhibit some amount of hypocrisy regarding the issue at hand.

Bingo, except that it’s not always misguided. For example, several left-learning pundits have bemoaned the fact that the acceptance of Mr. Clinton’s sexual behavior now provides a modicum of cover for Mr. Trump’s. Especially considering that Mr. Clinton’s behavior may well have been worse.

The trick here is that, by calling into question the critic’s own history as the critic, the defender can motivate the critic to feel the need to justify their own grounds for criticism when in reality no such justification is necessary.

Yea…well, sorry. Justification really is necessary, in many of these cases. Don’t be a lazy debater. Strive for moral consistency.

For example, if John says, “Bob is guilty of tax evasion and defrauding the government out of tax dollars,” then Jane might respond, “How can you say that when you yourself have 35 unpaid parking tickets?”

This is a trivial example of a (using your terminology) a misguided instance. HOWEVER, if the example had been:

John says, “Senator Bob is guilty of tax evasion and defrauding the government out of tax dollars,” and Jane responds, “Well, you supported Senator Dave, and he was also guilty of tax evasion and defrauding the government out of tax dollars. How is it fair that you now criticize Senator Bob?”

……well, then, Jane has made a worthwhile point.

This tactic has been used in Britain and Ireland since the period known as the Troubles, but was perfected by the Soviet Union for use as propaganda during the Cold War.

Hmmm. This itself is an example of a logical fallacy called “Poisoning the Well”.

It is completely irrelevant who has used the tactic in the past. What IS relevant is if (see examples above) the two situations are reasonably analogous or not.

Whataboutism is still employed by Russians today, and was recently used by President Putin in his interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly In June, 2017. When asked about Russia’s meddling in American elections, he changed the subject to U.S. interference abroad: “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal election processes.”

So, Putin was incorrect? We never interfere in election processes? :-)

The root problem with whataboutism is that it deploys our collective failures as a society against good-faith discussions of specific failures by members or groups within our society.

Actually, I think the opposite is true, if the parties keep their wits about them. What happens with the tactic is that it inflames the passions. The first person is usually levying a reasonably heinous accusation at somebody, which pisses off the second person, who then throws the whatabout back in the first person’s face, which is (a) unexpected and (b) the person is not prepared to respond.

And then all hell breaks loose in a handbasket.

No, instead of just throwing a penalty flag down when somebody uses a whatabout, the challenged person should be able to articulate WHY the comparison is invalid, as you did in YOUR John/Jane example. In your case, the two infractions are of an entirely different scale; the former is an intentional criminal act, while the second could simply be personal irresponsibility. Apples Oranges.

it is now an accepted form of political argumentation to force your opponent to account for some random past transgression before a conversation can move forward.

Well, it’s been an accepted for of political argumentation for at least as long as political arguments have existed on USENET, so…..1986?

The implicit stipulation here is that, not only must all participants in a political discourse be ‘free of sin before they cast stones,’ as Jesus would say, but also that all political interlocutors must be ready to demonstrate why they are not personally responsible for the past sins of the larger groups in which they hold membership.

Neither is true.

Since such mountains are, in principle, impossible to summit, there can be no genuine political engagement with parties who employ whataboutism.

Sure there can. See above.

Bored now. Bottom Line:

A whataboutism is a charge of hypocrisy that must be answered, either by (a) showing that the analogy is false, or (b) admitting the hypocrisy, but then arguing that two wrongs don;t make a right.

Easy Peasy.

If all you do is scream “whataboutism” and move on, you lose. It’s like walking off the ball field before the game is over.


UPDATE (2/4/2019): Since I wrote this response, the matter of Virginia governor Northam has arisen. I assume all are aware that the governor seems to have appeared in blackface at least once in his life, and matters appear to be taking their normal course, with both political parties calling for his resignation (let’s leave speculation regarding the motivations of those political parties out of the discussion for the moment. Suffice to say that I don’t think the white people running those parties are particularly offended.)

At any rate, since the matter came to light, my Twitter feed has been filled with this picture:

Suffice to say that the Democrat/Left’s objections to “whataboutisms” as used by the GOP/Right are now dead, dead, and more dead.

Data Driven Econophile. Muslim, USA born. Been “woke” 2x: 1st, when I realized the world isn’t fair; 2nd, when I realized the “woke” people are full of shit.

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