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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36 Comments

  1. Tsetsa

    Interesting until you started talking about the kingdom of god blah blah blah. Like jesus f*cking christ, another christian??
    Do yourself a favour and watch zeitgeist, you can see it on youtube or something. Meanwhile I’m Unnnnsubscribing.

    • Tsh

      Hi Tsetsa,

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. but here at AoS we welcome writers and readers who believe all sorts of things. Katherine happens to be a Christian, and we’ve allowed her to express her own beliefs and opinions. By publishing them, we’re not prescribing that you believe the same. But we do ask for mutual respect for the wide and various faith backgrounds the many AoS readers come from.

      I’m leaving this comment here for now so that I can keep my comment to you, so that other people can read it as well. But please be respectful to our writers and fellow readers in the future. Thank you, Tsetsa.

      • Katherine Willis Pershey

        Thanks for this, Tsh.

        I’ve been thinking about Tsetsa’s comment and your response in light of the working definition of “simple living” you’ve offered up here. “Living holistically with your life’s purpose” is perfect because it leaves room for each individual’s purpose. My purpose is all tied up with my faith, so when I reflect on the struggles and joys of my imperfect attempts to “live holistically”, spirituality will be at the heart of it. (Sometimes implicitly, other times, explicitly).

        I truly didn’t mean for my post to be prescriptive, and hope that it’s clear that I deeply respect the many varied backgrounds and paths of our readers.

    • Guest

      I’m disappointed this comment is staying. If you have such a lack of vocabulary that you can only rant in foul language, you’re not adding anything to the discussion. I read all the time and I don’t discount a message because someone references a religion or a belief I don’t happen to ascribe to.

      • Tsh

        Agreed about the language. I’ve edited it, ever so slightly.

    • Sarah

      I’m thankful for Tsetsa’s comment today and for Tsh choosing to let us read it.

      After such a wonderful message from Katherine Willis Pershey, two sentences from a commenter punched me in the gut, made my heart ache and my palms sweaty. Tsetsa’s comment reminds me of the judgement and arrogance that used to fill me before I invited God into that void. I’m grateful to be forced to pause and give thanks today for that free gift of Love I accepted so many years ago and to be reminded of what a life apart from God is like.

      • Tim

        Well said, Sarah.

    • Carol

      I love the idea of a tiny house……..I am almost at retirement age and plan to do just that…………..

  2. Tsh

    Katherine, this is such good food for thought, and I’m so glad you’ve brought it up. It can be challenging to live in the tension of whataboutery, even personally—how I could reconcile my own ownership of a smartphone, for example. It’s tough, and I don’t quite know what the answer is in the here and now, to be honest (though I do wholeheartedly agree with your Kingdom of God encouragement).

    Thanks for opening us up to encouragement about this hard stuff. A good word.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      So, in a completely unplanned bit of irony (and perhaps hypocrisy), I got my first smartphone today. The organization I linked to rates tech companies, and Apple isn’t too bad in this particular realm.

      Thanks again for opening this space to me. I hope I’m honoring the spirit of AoS!

  3. tamara

    Yep, agreed. It’s hard to talk about our first world problems when so many awful things are happening in the world. Whatever your religion, one can still be compassionate to others and do things (even if you don’t pray) to help out. Perspective. Good article.

  4. Kelly

    Katherine, this was a beautiful post. I sometimes feel trapped and overwhelmed by where to help, what to do, we have a heart for the orphan, but also love our local art center, I want to eat organic and support local growers but also be mindful on how much we spend. It was easy to start making our own chocolate syrup and buy lollipops for halloween instead of chocolate… but the more you learn the harder it becomes. I love the simplicity and truth in your post, it’s a great reminder that God didn’t give us a spirit of fear and to shut down, but one of power, love, and self-discipline. I’m working on the last one and trying to consume less hoping to then be able to spend more on quality that positively affects others.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thanks for your kind and thoughtful words, Kelly. And yes – “the more you learn the harder it becomes.” Yes, yes, yes.

  5. Kim

    I agree that we need to do the best we can with the knowledge that we have. I try and read the tag on the things I buy so I can buy things that were made in countries that support fair labor. But sometimes the thing I need/want are just made somewhere I’m not sure of. And I still purchase the item. And some things I just don’t know enough about. I had never heard about the ore that my cell phone uses that is mined in the Congo under harsh conditions. I don’t think that my purchase of a new phone or skipping the purchase and using duct tape to hold it together will make much of a difference. However, if I hear of a company that makes cell phones who sources their raw materials from places with policies I support, I will purchase a phone from that company.

    Sometimes living in this world just requires us to pick the lesser of two evils. Kind of like elections. I just pray that His will is done in the end.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Do check out that link at the end of the post – it includes a list rating various tech companies. Some of them are definitely better than others!

  6. Mary Carr

    I was so pleased to read this. I have many FB friends who are passionate about various worthy causes – getting GMO’s out of our food, aiding the poor, stopping the exploitation of children, lessening economic and opportunity inequality in our country, improving our education system. They are real problems, sometimes life and death problems, that are far more important than the tiny bits and pieces of joy and worry that color my day. But, especially as a mother to three boys, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t the many tiny bits of joy, gratitude, love, hope and “focusing on just doing the next right thing” (Glennon Melton) that somehow snowball into something more powerful. We can’t all take on all of the world’s troubles. At best we can do good in whatever small ways we can, bring more love to the world than fear, pray and listen.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      You can’t go wrong if you’re following Glennon’s good advice!

      Thanks for reading, and responding. Blessings as you discern your way through this complicated world.

  7. Guest

    This is fantastic. The truth is that for MOST of us, life is the whataboutery. I’m totally guessing here but I would think even people in third world countries have things that concern or frustrate them beyond the stark life and death situations. Moms in dirt floored huts probably get just as tired of sweeping the floor for the fifth time in a day as you or I do. I’ve also found that when I’m around people who are always on a soapbox, I feel less motivated to actually DO something. The constant droning on about all of the world’s problems doesn’t motivate most of us to act. Instead it feels like, eh, what’s the point. I can’t tackle every problem in the world so I’ve learned to be selective about what our family can do, to pray about the rest and to seek joy. And to avoid the droners.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      The first time I heard the phrase “compassion fatigue” I was like: yup, that’s it.

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad it resonated with you.

  8. Steph

    “I wonder if we can live according to the principles of justice and abundance rather than be blackmailed by the shame of whataboutery.”

    Yes! Perspective makes such a difference. And thanks for following it up with some specific ways we can change our perspective. I especially like the idea of having a profound sense of gratitude…it’s amazing to me how much being thankful can change my daily life and how I see others.

  9. Kim

    This. Thank you for crafting a message my heart needs to hear. So often I’m consumed with questioning and worrying and guilt, instead of seeing and living each moment. Instead of asking “how can I help?” right here and right now, then doing that thing, loving that person, helping in that moment without worry and regret about all the ways I’m NOT helping. This post is a much-needed reminder to quiet my heart and open my eyes to where I can help, in big and little ways, and release myself from a zany expectation that I can and should save the world and all its people all by my lonesome. More of Him, less of me…

  10. Karen

    So appreciated this post!! I love your ending ideas: be grateful, pray and do what you can!

  11. Mindy

    Wow! Thank you so much for writing this. It is beautiful and encouraging. I’m forwarding to my friends. The value of perspective shouldn’t be underestimated. I love the insight about the cell phone. (And this coming from a SoCal mom with 3 kids–11, 8 and 2–who doesn’t own a cell phone). I also loved reading the comments on this page. What a blessing The Art of Simple is. Thank you again!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thanks for your kind words! And resist the siren call of the cell phone as long as you can!! (This, from someone who got their first real cell phone TODAY. How’s that for completely unintentional irony??)

  12. Sarah

    Thank you very much for writing this, Katherine. It’s exactly what I needed and I’m sure I’ll be reading it over and over again.

  13. Kat Canoon

    Great thoughts. It’s not just the big things in life that matter, but the (relatively) small things, too. In fact, the tinier things in life can have a huge impact – a kind word to a stranger, perhaps, might be just the thing she needs to keep going one more day. And a seemingly small problem like dropping your phone could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Thanks for posting.

  14. young

    Like this post! Thankful for the thoughtful comments added as well.

    • Jody

      I agree. Thank you so much for this timely and though provoking post.

  15. Fawn Carriker

    Thank you for a beautiful, relevant post. Our “small steps” can make a big impact when combined with those of others. As a Christian mother of two grown children who profess to be Athiests, I do think your reader could have at least been polite! Thank you for leaving that comment in for us to see. – Fawn

  16. Amy Tilson

    I probably shouldn’t even comment at this point, but I will anyway. I think I need to read this again – several times. I need to examine the phrases, the rhetorical concepts, and then my own attitudes and actions. This is a big can of worms you have opened for me and it goes well beyond smartphones and chocolate. I should mention how much I detest worms. 🙂 This stirs up thoughts of the “myth of scarcity” as it relates to God’s abundance for us, living and acting justly, and not neglecting the soul needs of the wealthy as a trade of for the physical needs of the poverty-stricken. I’m profoundly affected by this. Thank you for opening my eyes a little wider.

  17. Tim

    I remember years ago talking to someone who was collecting money to plant trees. I was working with a church youth group and told the person that was where I was putting my cash at the time. He said, “There’s no sense working with kids if they don’t have clean air to breathe!” Everyone has their cause.

    As to whether we should tell someone their own problems are insignificant because other people’s problems are worse, I think that’s a dangerous road to go down. Whether you’re grieving over a dead pet or a fire just destroyed your home or your village is ravaged by Ebola, the reality is that the person is facing a horrible situation. They need comfort, not judgment

  18. rebecca

    Such a thoughtful post. I’ve recently stumbled upon this quote and I think it fits nicely with what you’ve shared here.

    “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard.” – Edwin H. Friedman

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