“What Aboutism” (359)

What passes for moral discourse in our culture has been eroding for some time. This has led to a lessening in our ability as a society to discern what’s more harmful to others and what’s less harmful. We have come to this place in our culture for many reasons, not the least of which is the lack of any shared narrative about what both Aristotle and St. Paul understood to constitute a “good life,” one that is respectful, compassionate, and just.

This inability to discern the good, to see things clearly, has led to false claims of moral equivalency when someone engages in misbehavior of one kind or another. So, for example, someone like Garrison Keillor, who people have enjoyed listening to on the radio for years, gets fired from his job for sexual impropriety. Rather than acknowledge his misbehavior for what it is – wrong – people often engage in what’s become known as “what aboutism.” So, upon hearing about his misbehavior, they’ll say something like: “Well, what about (fill in the blank with another person in the news)? Isn’t his behavior more awful?” They hope this will create a moral equivalency in people’s minds thereby diluting the perception of misbehavior in their preferred person. I hope we see the problems with this sort of “what aboutism.” It leads, as I wrote above, to a further erosion of any kind of intelligible moral discernment in our culture. It also masks another real issue: Similar misbehaviors aren’t morally equivalent.

For example, in the news recently is the revelation that many Africans are being enslaved in Libya as they seek to immigrate to what they hope will be a better, safer life in Europe. As they make their way north, some are captured in Libya and literally sold into slavery. One commentator replied: “Well, what about the situation with migrant workers in the U.S.? Many of those people live in desperate situations and have their labor exploited for low pay.” This is, of course, true. Many migrant workers are grossly underpaid and live in appalling conditions. But they aren’t enslaved! As wrong as it is for migrant workers to be mistreated, it’s not the moral equivalency to slavery.

Another example: a CEO has a bit too much to drink at an office party and tries to kiss a subordinate against her will. Then the CEO is fired for sexual misconduct. The CEO was wrong and deserved to be fired for such behavior. But that’s not a moral equivalent to a TV star who openly brags about repeatedly grabbing women in their private parts or a Senate candidate who picks up teenage girls at a shopping mall and tries to engage in sexual relations with them. “What Aboutism” is used to make them all morally equivalent and they’re not.

We now have a president who lies on a regular basis (which must be intentional because the alternative is even more troubling). Yet, people will say: “What about other politicians or other former presidents?” Yes, they also lie or have lied at times, but we never, I hope, thought that was a good thing. We never extolled the lying or understood it to be normative. Now, however, lying has become normalized because people can relativize it by saying: “OK, but what about…?” Regardless of our political convictions, we must do our utmost to insist that lying shouldn’t be normal in our common life.


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