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The appeal to hypocrisy

I’d been caught red handed. I felt a flush of shame flood my face — any normal person would. But I really flipped out when I was told I’d be punished.

“This isn’t fair!” I said, stomping my feet and wringing my hands. “What about Paul? He did it too and nothing happened to him!”

“I didn’t see Paul,” Mrs. Adams replied. “But I saw you.”

My 5th grade teacher wasn’t buying it.

I’d been humiliated in front of the class, and I never tried using that excuse again.

“What about Paul? He did it too!” is silly and embarrassing, and it just doesn’t work. Most people learn this lesson very early in life.

You can imagine my surprise when I moved to Malta 25 years later and heard grown adults saying, “Well, Charlie did it too and he got away with it, so why are you picking on me?”

Not only is whataboutism an acceptable form of defence on this strange little island, but the highest ranking government officials actually get away with it.

Why do such tactics work here when they didn’t work on Mrs. Adams, my 5th grade teacher?

In philosophy, whataboutism is known as “tu quoque”, or the appeal to hypocrisy.

It’s a logical fallacy: a pattern of reasoning that might sound convincing, but that is invalid because of a flaw in its logical structure.

In this case, the person using whataboutism — the “appeal to hypocrisy” — is attempting to discredit their opponent’s position by saying the opponent had failed to act in a way that is consistent with that position.

Here’s how it maps out:

Person A makes claim X.

Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.

Therefore, X is false.

An example would be:

Kevin: “Jason is guilty of stealing the bike.”

Jason: “How can you say that when you yourself stole a pack of gum six years ago?”

The moral character of Kevin has nothing to do with the logic of the argument. Jason stole the bike, and that is still true no matter what Kevin may or may not have done six years ago.

A counter-accusation does not absolve Jason. It’s just a distracting trick he’s using to avoid having to talk about the bike.

I suppose you can take some comfort in knowing that this line of defence doesn’t just occur to elementary school children. Whataboutism was actually perfected during the Cold War, and used by Soviet Union propagandists to attack the non-Communist West.

Whenever the West would level criticisms at the Soviet Union, their response would be to say, “What about…” and to name some event that had taken place in the Western world. Much to the frustration of diplomats everywhere, Russian President Vladimir Putin dusted off this old cliche and started using it aggressively when he came to power.

For example, President Obama complains about Putin’s 2014 invasion and seizure of Crimea, and Putin responds with something about Kosovo or the Scottish Independence Referendum, without addressing the actual criticism.

In Malta, when the current government is accused of corruption, a Labour official will reply by dredging up some prior example of perceived corruption that went unpunished by the Nationalist Party.

It doesn’t mater if the two events were comparable in seriousness, if it happened 50 years ago, or if the counter accusation is even true. What matters is that the user of whataboutism is attempting to discredit their opponent’s position by suggesting that they, too, are corrupt.

Not much of an argument, is it? We’re both corrupt, so why are you attacking me?

Here’s the problem.

“What about Charlie? He did it too!” does nothing to refute the original allegation. The person using whataboutism is just trying to distract everyone from what he did.

Could you imagine an ex-Soviet official on trial for war crimes saying, “Well, what about Stalin? He killed kulaks too and got away with it! Why are you picking on me?” That’s a gross exaggeration, yes, but the logic is the same.

It’s just smoke and mirrors.

When you ask Joseph Muscat, “Why did Konrad Mizzi open a Panama company within days of being elected?” and he replies with, “What about Adrian Delia’s account in Jersey?” you should be asking, “Why are you avoiding the question?” That’s the bottom line.

Now, you may be offended at hearing me describe whataboutism as childish, especially if you’ve used it yourself.

Well, I think you should be offended. When your elected representatives use it on you, they are talking down at you. They’re treating you like children, and they think you’re too unintelligent to figure that out.

Unfortunately, these are not just Soviet-era political games. There is a much larger problem to deal with.

Silly tactics like whataboutism are used so routinely — and so successfully — in Malta because they fit Maltese culture.

I was completely puzzled by it when I first moved to Malta. “Charlie did it too! Why are you picking in me?” struck me as laughably bizarre.

It took me several years to realise that whataboutism works there because it conforms to amoral familism rather than to moral right or wrong.

If you’ve read the work of anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain, you’ll know that the amoral familist believes any action undertaken to benefit one’s family or oneself is justifiable, and everyone expects everyone else to do whatever benefits their family or themselves, regardless of whether it is legal or ethical. This worldview pervades every aspect of life in Malta.

Well, a political party mirrors a family, because it reflects that person’s self identity. A Maltese person is either Labour or Nationalist. Red or Blue. And so that person will do whatever benefits the Labour or Nationalist Party, and they expect everyone in the other Party to be doing the same.

The person who invokes whataboutism is saying, “You acted to benefit your own political party, and to hell with everyone else, so what’s wrong with what we did?”

I hope you can see the problem here, because it goes beyond politics.

If you want responsible politicians to govern you, then you need to look closely at Maltese culture, and to move beyond amoral familism. That starts with accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions. You can’t demand better of your elected officials if you’re guilty of the same behaviours yourself.

Whataboutism is silly and childish. Please stop using it, and please shine a light on it when you see it. You deserve better from your leaders than 5th grade excuses.

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