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On Whataboutery

Recently, I’ve noticed many tsk-tsking posts on social media claiming that it’s shameful to talk about trivial things when there are terrible things happening in the world.

This attitude is related to the belief that matters of lesser urgency are not worth considering. For instance: you shouldn’t bother worrying about, say, art in schools, because it doesn’t really matter anyway on account of climate change.

A friend who has a PhD in Rhetoric tells me that these are examples of the fallacy of relative privation. The Wikipedia entry for this fallacy notes the British neologism whataboutery. I can’t imagine a better word for it.

I don’t want to entirely castigate the practice of asking “what about.” On many levels and in many contexts, “what about” is a faithful question. Just recently, Tsh republished her eye-opening article about the use of child labor – even slave labor – in the chocolate industry. It is responsible to ask “what about the children” before you tear open that Hershey bar.

I think, too, about coltan. Coltan is a metallic ore used in devices such as cell phones, and it is mined heavily in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The high value of coltan and the low social and economic stability in the Congo is a terrible combination. Warlords have controlled many of the coltan mines, coercing people – including children – to work in dangerous conditions.

With the electronics industry greedy for more raw materials to convert into consumer products, little care is given to the human and environmental cost. We may have gotten a great deal when we last upgraded, but the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have paid a high price for our phones.

Doesn’t it feel right to cry out: what about the Congolese? Is that not a cry for justice?

But what about the woman who dropped her cellphone in the parking lot last week? The screen is cracked beyond repair.

(Before we sardonically tag this moment as a so-called #FirstWorldProblem, it’s good to remember that 7 in 10 Africans use mobile phones. I reckon they drop them sometimes, too.)

She texts her sister on that phone. She manages her life on that phone. Her kids get to see their dad when he’s away on business trips thanks to the practically miraculous powers of that phone.

Yes, it will have to be replaced. And even though this woman has a heart for the poor, she probably wouldn’t take it well if we chose this moment to say to her: what about the Congolese?

I wonder if it’s possible to affirm the experience of both the privileged woman in the parking lot and the exploited man in the coltan mine. I wonder if we can live according to the principles of justice and abundance rather than be blackmailed by the shame of whataboutery.

As a Christian, I pray the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples to pray. At the heart of the prayer are these words: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Much of Jesus’s ministry was focused on the Kingdom of God. In this realm, love reigns. There are no tears but tears of joy. There is enough for everyone. There is no fallacy of relative privation because there is no privation.

The Kingdom of God is, in a word, beautiful.

Even though this vision is not yet a reality, it is very real to me. I am grieved by the ways that this world does not resemble God’s realm.

So perhaps we can try this:

We can start with a profound sense of gratitude for everything we have: big or small, frivolous or valuable, luxury or necessity. We can enjoy these gifts, and when possible we can share them.

We can pay attention to the places where things don’t resonate with how we believe things should be. We can have the courage to face pain that isn’t our own.

We can have the integrity to notice injustice, even when we also can’t help but notice that we have some culpability. But instead of playing the game of whataboutery – instead of believing in the fallacy of relative privation – if we are praying people, we can pray.

And if there’s anything we can do – well, that’s obvious. We do it.

[To learn more about coltan mining in the Congo and how you can take action for justice, visit Raise Hope for Congo.]

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