The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Signifiers


Or, the tu quoque gambit.

B.D. McClay

THR illustration.

Cast your mind back for a moment. It is the week after the Oscars, and everybody is talking about one thing: Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, an event practically engineered to generate opinions. For some, however, this cultural focus on a celebrity spat was a problem. “Your periodic reminder that this was the headline a week ago today but you may not have read it because an actor slapped another actor at an awards show,” ran a tweet above a picture of a headline reading “UN warns Earth ‘firmly on track toward an unlivable world.’” “The craziest thing about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock,” went another, “is that for the past 7 years the US and UK have backed a war against Yemen that killed 400,000 civilians and starved 17 million more.”

To such reproaches, there is a stock response that goes like this: “I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” often coupled with attestations of attention paid in the past. If such attestations cannot be produced, other ripostes include reminding your accusers that they do not know you, that you are just one person, and that they should be directing their own hostile attention toward some worthier target. What about that guy? What about his lapses? Why aren’t you so concerned about him? Why are you so mad at me about my consumption of celebrity gossip? Why am I singled out for this particular attention? What is your agenda?

The online term for this move is whataboutism, though more formally it is usually a variant of the tu quoque gambit, in which someone who is outraged by one thing but not visibly outraged by another is called a hypocrite, a bad faith interlocutor, even if no real mismatch between values and actions is present. If you are angered by the treatment of the Uyghurs in China, do you really have standing to be angry, given the treatment of migrants at the United States border or the detainees in Guantánamo? If you think Vladimir Putin suppresses dissent, where is your anger when Twitter or Facebook refuses to allow actors on their platforms whom they believe to spread “misinformation”?

What about whataboutism? Attention is finite, the record of how we spend it public, and it is easy enough to check if somebody who tweets every day about Ukraine has ever tweeted about Yemen. Many people are inclined to give somebody they trust a pass; behavior that might attract loud condemnation of a stranger might be ignored if done by a friend. Sometimes, such inconsistencies, added up, indicate that somebody is untrustworthy, that her commitments are insincere, and that there is something manipulative about her public persona. But most of the time, I would hazard, they indicate that people do not live their lives striving for perfect consistency.

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that someone sickened by China’s campaign against the Uyghurs is indifferent to the plight of migrants or supportive of retaining the detention center at Guantánamo. But it is undeniably true that how somebody feels or posts online is not going to do anything to help any of these people, and even truer that scolding someone about his selective outrage will not.

The Internet, however, has only one currency, and that currency is attention. On the Internet, we endlessly raise awareness, we platform and deplatform, we signal-boost and call out, and we argue about where our attention should be directed, and how. What we pay attention to and the language in which we pay attention are the only realities worth considering, which is one reason why stories are so often framed by the idea that nobody is talking about a problem, when the problem is often quite endlessly talked about—just not solved. Why isn’t the media covering this story? is a common refrain that is just as often accompanied by a link to an article about the story, which is how the complainer learned about it in the first place.

Attention can be paid and registered in many forms, but you pay attention online by making it known that you are paying attention. Your own expenditure is worthless unless other people are paying attention to you. As they do in regard to the currency of the analog world, people feel as though they get to judge how other people pay attention. Even though most actions are undertaken with some idea of gaining attention, to do something out of a blatant desire to attract attention is gauche and discrediting. People whose job is to translate attention into real money—celebrities, “influencers,” and so on—are often left walking a thin and ridiculous line. They must draw attention to some larger event going on in the world lest they be judged selfish, but their attempts to do so mostly underscore that drawing attention to something means very little.

Most scrutiny of how other people spend their money is driven by the zero-sum fact that a buck spent here cannot be spent there. But with attention, the zero-sum fact, as everyone acknowledges, is that one cannot pay attention to everything. Yet lapses in attention are always subject to judgment. Sure, you can’t pay attention to everything. But to this? Now, that is telling.

However, given that attention is finite, in the grand scheme of things, paying attention to what other people are paying attention to should probably rank pretty low in budgetary priorities. But since attention is also, as currencies go, pretty worthless when it comes to solving any real problem, it is most profitably spent harassing other people. Malicious intent or willful lack of attention can be diagnosed through any number of avenues: simply not tweeting about a subject, or tweeting about the wrong subject at the wrong time, or drawing attention to the wrong thing at the wrong time.

What is perhaps most frustrating about the deployment of whataboutism is that some form of it is in fact a necessary moral appeal. In the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I sometimes saw people bringing up the situation in Yemen. That situation is indeed horrifying, and it is one in which the United States is complicit up to its neck. Though it takes a similar form, I do not really consider invoking Yemen to be by itself a form of whataboutism, for one simple reason: It is an effort to widen the sphere of outrage, not to make expressing outrage impossible. The point is not that individuals have no standing to express the view that Russia’s actions toward Ukraine are deplorable unless they have hitherto condemned every misdeed of the United States, but that their moral instincts should not stop at Russia’s actions.

Ideally, a widening moral sympathy should also involve new spheres of action, but sometimes, maybe most of the time, it does not. What an everyday American can do about the situation in Yemen is hardly clear. Attention is so highly prized in the world of online manners partly and precisely because action itself is so limited. The images coming out of Ukraine are gut wrenching, but there is nothing most Americans can do except donate to an international aid organization. Any individual can boycott cotton produced by the forced labor of Uyghurs, but absent a broader organized movement, a boycott serves only to reduce personal complicity without making anybody’s life better. And even a broader movement may barely shift the needle.

But the other great crime of whataboutism is that it solidifies the online sense that the appearance of paying attention is paramount—not actually paying attention. It is true that we have a moral duty not to ignore the suffering of others, even if attention itself is not the highest good or an especially efficacious one. Most forms of paying attention involve reading and listening, not talking. Caring about something and staying informed is not synonymous with public speech about it. The paranoid impulse to believe that everybody is judging you for what you do and do not talk about is as corrosive as always targeting people’s motives and only rarely their claims.

As a remedy, I propose a solution that, like many antidotes, involves a little of the original poison. When somebody accuses another person of selective attention, ask yourself how often you have seen this particular person default to that retort, and how often you have seen him engage with the other person’s claims. If you come to the conclusion that the accuser is generally fixated on motives, add him to a little list titled “Clowns.” Remove the clowns from your sphere of attention, and keep the people whom you judge to be worth taking seriously. Repeat as often as necessary. Then log off.