March 19, 2023

CHASEN | Whataboutism, False Equivalency and Campus Politics

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In the vast majority of countries across the world, universities are places where faculty, students and staff are free to study and pursue whatever passions most drive them. They are where students are prepared to enter the fields of their choosing and to make themselves and the world around them better. In general, universities, especially ones that stand for values like Cornell’s, are places where the free exchange of ideas must thrive.

As a result, Cornell must also be a place where students learn to advocate for their ideas in a civil, compassionate, respectful space. We need to become better at communicating our ideas on the merits of the ideas themselves, rather than as vehicles for personal grievances. So I wanted to talk about a trend that I’ve been noticing in our campus politics, one that increasingly threatens that civil exchange of ideas: Whataboutism and false equivalency.

Whataboutism, in the context of politics, is the practice of responding to an idea or question by creating a completely unrelated question or accusation about the other person, group or party. For example, if you were to say something like, “Joey hates pizza, so he doesn’t know anything about food — his opinion should not be trusted,” whataboutism would be if I were to respond, “well, what about Johnny, who hates ice cream?” There would’ve been so many better ways to respond to your point, other than lobbing an unrelated accusation about someone else. It can also be described as false equivalency, in which one makes a faulty comparison between two unrelated subjects in an inconsistent attempt to equalize them.  

Unfortunately, whataboutism and false equivalency are used in much more serious contexts than the discussion of who likes pizza and ice cream. It has been used to justify violence and political persecution in autocratic nations like Russia and China, who have deflected from their human rights abuses by pointing to perceived issues in other nations. It has also been used to inflame partisanship here in the United States and at Cornell.

But most importantly, whataboutism prevents any sort of accountability from taking root in our political systems. It allows folks in campus politics, on all sides of the political spectrum, to avoid responsibility for incendiary words and actions, and permits people to deflect from half-truths and falsehoods by pointing out unrelated ones on the other side. And if people are not made to answer for their damaging behavior, they will believe it is acceptable, and they will continue to engage in it.

In recent years, whataboutism and false equivalency have played a significant role in the deterioration of our campus politics. The lack of accountability for rampant falsehoods, half-truths and inconsistencies has led to a rise in partisanship, including hate and harassment of students for their beliefs, and even attempts to force Cornell to take unilateral action against students simply exercising their right to free speech. It has contributed to unwarranted personal attacks against students taking stands on complex, multifaceted issues for the purpose of scoring cheap political points. This is unacceptable, especially in a place that prides itself on the values of free expression, academic freedom and the right to assemble and demonstrate on campus.

It’s time for change in our campus politics. Let’s start by calling out whataboutism and false equivalency when we see it and forcing ourselves to engage in discussions on the merits of our ideas, rather than through personal grievances. This will help create accountability in our campus politics, and create accountability across the Cornell community.

Additionally, let’s stop assuming the worst in our political leaders. If both sides stop assuming the other has bad intentions, we no longer have an excuse to engage in this damaging behavior. We do not have to agree on everything, but we must respect each other despite our differences.

We have all seen no shortage of commentary saying that we are a divided people, and that our politics have become increasingly all-consuming. I would respond that it is our responsibility, as individuals and within the Cornell community, to take accountability for that division, rather than deflect with whataboutism and false equivalency. Only then can we reject hate and division, and build a campus community of trust, responsibility and free expression.

Isaac Chasen is a senior in the Dyson School. He can be reached at [email protected]Cut to the Chase runs every other Sunday this semester.