My least favorite form of argument is the whataboutism approach. This is a colloquial term for a rhetorical style that incorporates two logical fallacies of ad-hominem and straw man arguments.
“Gas prices are out of control under President Joe Biden!” one arguer might say. “No more so than furniture prices were under former President Donald Trump when the trade war with China was in full swing!!” the whataboutism debater would retort.
But the most costly mistake of all was when former President Barack Obama lied about being able to keep your doctor with Obamacare, so that is conclusive evidence that Republicans are better with our money than Democrats!!!
This is a loop of whataboutism arguments. Even if the conclusion is correct, and it arguably is, the idea that uplifting your side through tearing down the other is a logical fallacy. When you knock someone down, you don’t get taller.
An incredibly bright subscriber of the Concurrent who I am fortunate enough to bounce ideas off once asked me why the content spends so much time picking apart the arguments of other media outlets rather than strengthening the arguments presented in our pages.
She was tired of the whataboutisms and she was right. But this style of argument is satisfying, not just rhetorically in its simplicity, but also emotionally as demonstrated through neuroscience.
Dr. Jonathan Haitd’s wonderful 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion cited studies in which self-proclaimed Democrats or Republicans were shown newsclips of negative coverage about the candidate of their political party and had brain waves monitored as the footage was playing. No matter how negative the footage was about their presumed candidate of choice, when something negative was also said about the opposing candidate then dopamine was present.
To put it another way, even if all the coverage of both candidates can be categorized as a negative sentiment, a bad outcome for the country, individuals experienced pleasure emotions in their brains when they saw the bad stuff about someone other than their choice. It’s like the brain exhales a sigh of relief after worrying about how bad their own side is.
This pleasure experience is what draws us back into commentators who make a living trying to tear down the other side. We seek this exhale over and over again as if it is more part of breathing than it is an isolated pressure release.
As Daniel Kahneman and others put it in their 2021 book Noise, however, this can lead to a different logical fallacy - one of false equivalence. Two wrongs rarely make a right.
A judge who should have sentenced someone to 5 years in jail who gave him 2.5 years in one case and the same judge who should have sentenced a different case to 5 years in jail who gave someone else 7.5 years has not performed equal justice because the two cases average out to 5 years. You have two wrongly judged cases, not an aggregate of cases that have reached the correct mean.
This extended introduction is my way of saying that I’m about to make a whataboutism argument and I’m not happy about it. Last week a former Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac published an op-ed that should sound eerily similar to what we face here in Citrus. Ms. Benac served on the Manatee BOCC from 2012-2020 and is a Republican.
The op-ed specifically targeted the county administrator, Dr. Scott Hopes, who leads a 2,200 person staff in a county of roughly 400,000 people. Since Dr. Hopes took over the job in April 2021, almost 600 employees have left the county. Almost 600!
The situation has become so bad that the Manatee County Clerk of the Courts wrote a scathing piece prior to his annual evaluation encouraging the BOCC to fire him for gross mismanagement of county funds.
Instead the board retained him with a 4% raise, making his new $215,000 salary among the highest for administrators in the state.
We have our problems in Citrus and they are serious. Manatee County having similar (and somehow worse) problems does not give us a free pass to address ours. But hopefully these comparison stories can serve as a small dopamine hit that we are not alone.
Our problems are not insurmountable, but they do have to be faced head on. Only some on the board have shown a willingness to do that so far.