Excuses, Excuses: Whataboutism

Today we’re going to talk about Whataboutism, one of the most popular ways people deceive you. Early last year, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word whataboutism to its catalog: “The technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.”

Whataboutism is the perhaps the primary mechanism by which politicians deceive. This illuminates as much about the lack of critical thinking of the general public as it does about the inauthenticity of government.

It continues to baffle me why more journalists don’t call their interviewees on Whataboutism. To do so is considered disrespectful, however, and can lead to negative consequences for the journalist, who is supported more by corporate interests than the will of a curious and critically thinking people.

There are myriad examples of Whataboutism coming from both sides of the aisle, though this particular example is just too juicy to pass over. .

In the third 2015 Republican presidential debate, the moderator asked that classic interview question, “What is your biggest weakness, and what are you doing to address it?” Let’s look at the Republican field’s attempt to respond to the simple question. (I’ve truncated some responses that are simply immaterial to the question.)

Carl Quintanila, moderator: This series of debates is essentially a job interview with the American people. And in any job interview, you know this: you get asked, “What’s your biggest weakness?” So in thirty seconds, without telling us that you try too hard or that you’re a perfectionist…[crowd laughs)…what is your biggest weakness and what are you doing to address it? We’ll go left to right. Governor Kasich, thirty seconds.

John Kasich: My great concern is that we are on the verge perhaps of picking someone who cannot do this job … We need somebody who can lead, who can balance budget, cut taxes, and I did it in Washington and Ohio and I will do it again in Washington if I’m President to get this country moving again.

Complete non-answer to the question.

Mike Huckabee: If I have a weakness it’s that I try to live by the rules. I try to live by the rules no matter what they are… There are a lot of people who are sick and tired because Washington does not play by the same rules that the American people have to play by.

The conditional “if” raises the possibility that he has no weaknesses, followed by an attribute that’s ambiguously weak at best. Most people want their leaders to play by the rules, so for most voters this is obviously perceived as a strength. The second part of the question, what he’s doing to work on the weakness, is not answered, of course, because that would only apply to an actual weakness he wanted to change.

Jeb Bush: I am by my nature impatient. And this is not an endeavor that rewards that. You have to be patient, you have to stick with it and all that. But also I can’t fake anger. I believe this is still the most extraordinary country on the face of the earth, and it troubles me that people are rewarded for tearing down our country. It’s never been like that in America’s politics before.

“Impatience” actually answers the question, but it’s quickly supplanted by the dubious quality of not being able to “fake anger” and his judgment about what other people are doing. There is no mention of how he’s working on his impatience, which presumably wouldn’t make sense anyway because it’s his “nature” that he seems somewhat proud of.

Marco Rubio: I’m not sure it’s a weakness, but I do believe that I share a sense of optimism for America’s future that today is eroding from too many of our people.

The first phrase is a clever attempt at spin with false humility: it softens a potential objection to his response because he already admitted he’s not sure. He fails to answer the question at all, but we’re less likely to point that out because of how it was couched.

Donald Trump: My greatest weakness is that I trust people too much. I am too trusting. And when they let me down, if they let me down, I never forgive. I find it very, very hard to forgive people that deceived me. So I don’t know if you would call that a weakness, but my wife said let up.

Trump’s answer is the most clever. Being too trusting is both a strength and a weakness, depending on the situation, and he introduces that doubt by saying “I don’t know if that’s a weakness.” The inability to forgive is more likely seen as a weakness, but he does not commit to it being so. Apparently his wife has more responsibility for him working on it than he does, as he gives no information about what he’s doing about it.

Interestingly, Trump’s response is probably the most direct and his supporters praise his “tell it like it is” orientation, which helped get him elected. The difficulty of forgiving someone who has wronged you is relatable. It’s also a weakness likely not to be criticized; it’s also one that projects power.

Ben Carson: Probably in terms of applying for the job of President, the weakness would be not really seeing myself in that position until hundreds of thousands of people began to tell me that I needed to do it. I do however believe in Reagan’s 11th commandment and will not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots here.

This could be a weakness if he extrapolated it to some kind of thematic blind spot, but instead is bragging about his humility which is cleverly ironic. Also interesting is how he invokes Reagan’s “Thou shalt not speak ill about a fellow Republican” which we’re left wondering if he thinks that applies to talking about himself, because it’s completely irrelevant to the actual question.

Carly Fiorina: Well gee, after the last debate I was told that I didn’t smile enough. But I also think that these are very serious times.

Your biggest weakness is your lack of smiling? This is worse than Ted Cruz’s response:

Ted Cruz: I’m too agreeable, easy going. You know, I think my biggest weakness is exactly the opposite. I’m a fighter, I’m passionate about what I believe, I’ve been passionate my whole life about the Constitution … If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home.

Another confusing recasting of a strength as a weakness. Being a fighter might lead to righteousness or poor listening, but he makes no mention of such downsides or his plan to change anything about himself.

Chris Christie: I don’t see a lot of weakness on the stage, quite frankly. Where I see the weakness is in the three people left on that democratic stage. I see a socialist, an isolationist and a pessimist, and for the sake of me I can’t figure out which one is which.

A very clever dodge of the question that strokes the egos of himself and his fellow Republicans.

Rand Paul: You know, I left my medical practice and ran for office because I was concerned about an $18 trillion debt. We borrow a million dollars a minute. Now on the floor of the Congress the Washington establishment from both parties puts forward a bill that will explode the deficit … I will stand firm and I will spend every ounce of energy to stop it, I will begin tomorrow to filibuster it, and I ask everyone in America to call Congress tomorrow and say “enough is enough, no more debt.”

Um, what? Was the weakness leaving the medical practice or…? Paul hoped perhaps that going last meant the public had forgotten the question—or maybe he did.

Imagine a world in which the moderator might have said, “Thank you all for your attempts at answering the question. I know it’s challenging to be vulnerable, but I think I speak for the American people when I say we really want to know. Most of you cited strengths as your weaknesses, despite the fact that I specifically asked you not to do that. And none of you said what you were doing to address it. So I’m going to ask the question again, and we won’t move on until it’s actually answered, because that’s the kind of transparency and accountability the American people deserve. Knowing one’s weaknesses is an important leadership quality.”

Okay, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon in American politics.

But how about in your hiring process? Do you hold your candidates accountable in this way? Has anyone modeled this for you? If you don’t, and you accept slippery non-answers from them, then you can expect more of the same when they work for you.

The more you deeply listen to how directly or indirectly people answer questions, the more you’ll learn about what’s going on inside them. The obvious examples are easy to see, but the subtle ones require practice. Listen carefully to how people answer your questions, and they will tell you volumes of information that they don’t mean to. Do they:

  • Answer a Yes/No question with something other than a yes or no?
  • Reframe or reword your question before answering?
  • Begin to answer and then pivot to a different subject?
  • Somehow include you in an issue when it’s not relevant?

These are the signs of Whataboutism. One of the primary ways I work is by listening for what people don’t want to talk about … and then going there. I’m not joking. It’s actually quite easy once you know how to listen.

There’s a scene in Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker where the two boys try to outwit their Native American teacher by covering their tracks in the woods. He finds them easily, because in their zeal, they cover all animal tracks along their path, in effect creating a perfect path made of zeros instead of ones. This is how it works—listen for what they don’t want to talk about. Look for that path, and follow it to the truth.

Whataboutism is countered when we get curious about why a person dodges a question, even going so far as to tentatively presume guilt until proven otherwise. Chances are good they’re hiding something.

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