On the Subject of Whataboutism & Toxic Activism

I still remember the first time I learned about fallacies in 7thgrade. Mostly, because I was so confused. I wasn’t naïve enough to suggest that all arguments had equally valuable merit, but I often couldn’t meaningfully articulate the complicated constructs of problematic arguments.   

 Maybe you remember the first time you were introduced to the 30 basic fallacies. They can be pretty daunting. And, while some of us had visual aids in order to help differentiate, like the handy dandy photo above, I’m guessing that many of you had to suffer through by memorizing a list and hoping that the two you remembered made it onto the test.

In a polarized political climate often buoyed by, perhaps, smug arguments littered with whataboutism (ie: but what about Obama’s separation policies), it can be easy to fall into the trap of exclusive, and what I would consider toxic, activism and arguments utilizing the fallacy of whataboutism.

I often find it rather ridiculous to see newly, and often self-proclaimed, “woke” persons needing to prove their authenticity in regard to activism. You know, the “I woke up when Trump was elected,” or “I care about pipelines because they are putting one in my suburban back yard” type disclaimers that are often rebutted with something like, “well, where were you in Black Lives Matter/DAPL/Ferguson/War on Drugs/Repatriation…slavery and colonialism.” Okay. So that escalated quickly, but you get my point.

While I want to caveat this by recognizing the reality that many people only become involved in activism when they are personally affected, I think that shaming belated wokeness is toxic and creates very real damage.

I mean, really. What is the point?

Okay, unpopular opinion alert: Why shame Rebecca (ie: new activist) now that she is here? Sure, she could easy fall back into being a Becky, but why not honor the Rebecca that shows up? I’m not saying that Rebecca deserves a gold star. I’m not saying that Rebecca should be the face of the movement. I’m not saying that Rebecca can’t be educated or that POC need to cater to Rebecca. But, I am saying that when we waste time infighting or whatabouting each other, we are no longer centered on the work but on who can do the work and who cares the most about the work.

I say this fully aware of the White Women Civil Rights movement. I say this fully aware of the propensity of white activists to decenter POC (ie: #metoo movement). And yet, I wonder if there are other ways to create space enough at the table for those, say, who would benefit from taking a 100 level course of Understanding Racism and for those whom would have graduated before elementary school.

I understand the intention and impact models. I get the oppression and historical trauma. I get the trepidation to include voices that weren’t there for you yesterday. I get the anger and the rage. But, I also know that justice doesn’t need to be based on a sum-zero game relying on just us. It can be inclusive and include people with varying degrees of commitment. 

Or, maybe that is my hopeful naïveté. 

In the wake of the zero tolerance immigration policy, I have seen a remarkable amount of arguments relying on delegitimizing the “other’s” point of view by using whataboutism. And, I have come to this, perhaps obvious, conclusion: People each “arrive” to varying levels of “wokeness” at different times and have different “woke” journeys.  

Perhaps the story of “arrival” isn’t a linear journey at all but an upward spiral.

In college, a required first-year assignment in Biblical Literature was to chart your spiritual journey in a timeline and note key and critical life events that shaped your biblical perspectives and your spiritual life. I have often applied this idea to charting various other journeys in my life. And, I have often found that, for me, my journey of “wokeness” cannot be separated from all of the other journeys – spiritual, mental, etc.,  

I think that one particularly problematic element of practicing whataboutism is that it usually devalues another’s experience in order to claim moral superiority. So, I offer this caution with a caution: the practice of valuing one another can often look like believing in equal value truths/stories. Practice deep listening! But, be wise enough to discern when there is truth or when there is falsity buoyed by privileged to look like truth.

This practice is hard. I will be the first to admit that when I go to a rally and hear a person loudly proclaim themselves as an activist because the pipeline is in their personal field, I often feel this tightness in my stomach. And, I had to investigate what the tightness was about.

·         Was it because I feared that all of these “new and shiny” voices would fundamentally devalue and derail POC whom have done anti-racism and oppression work for years?

·         Was it because I knew, historically, what happens when non-POC’s become the face of anti-oppression work?

·         Was it because I wanted non-POC’s to ask POC’s how to help the organizations that had already been started by POC rather than creating new ones with non-POC’s as the public face?

Was it because of all of the above and more? It was helpful for me to pull out key pieces of why I was feeling discomfort and validate them. It was even more helpful for me to consider how these fears often altered whom I believed could help and whom I believed could hinder. While there remains validity to these fears and beliefs, I realized that I could choose to live out of my fear or I could consider what it would mean to validate those fears and lean into inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

In this practice, there remains a risk. And, usually – though not always, the greatest risk lies with POC. But, I think that when we choose inclusivity over exclusivity, deep listening over negation and seeking truth rather than seeking to buoy untruths, we can start to build an intentional, sustainable community rooted in one another’s deep desire to value each other and committed to dismantling oppression and racism.

But, like I said – maybe I’m just being completely naïve. 

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