‘What-aboutism’ and the Universal

by Chris Horner

Two Scenarios

First scenario: you attempt to criticise, condemn or otherwise focus on an unjust regime, act of aggression, atrocity, or cruelty. An example: a school has been bombed and children have died. It is a war crime and you name it as such as an evil, criminal thing. Soon after the words leave your mouth, or get posted online, someone responds with something along these lines: yes, that’s all very well, but why just condemn that? What about..? They then name some other, maybe similar atrocity that you haven’t mentioned. The case you wanted to draw attention to is lost, displaced and deferred to other examples that your interlocutor claims you should be equally concerned about. This is what aboutism, and it can be quite annoying.

Second Scenario: someone criticises, condemns or otherwise focuses on an unjust regime, act of aggression, atrocity, cruelty. Let’s say a school has been bombed and children have died. It is a war crime and they name it as such, as an evil, criminal thing. But it is quite obvious to you that they are being selective in their outrage: they don’t seem to care about the times schools have been bombed in other places, by other militaries. Why just this example? So you point this out. All children matter, and not just the ones your interlocutor seems to care about. This is selective outrage, and it can be quite annoying, to put it mildly.

Clearly, one can find oneself on either side of this kind of exchange. One person’s demand for ethical or political consistency can be just a case of what aboutism to another. So is it just the effect of where one is positioned in an argument? Perhaps, but it would be useful to know how to think things through in such a way as to avoid both selective outrage (where only X seems to matter, but not similar cases Y or Z), and mere ‘what aboutism’, which demands an interest in not only case X but in all the other cases that could be considered – an infinite demand that can never be met.

Good and Bad Faith Arguers

Of course, this can be just the effect of bad faith in one’s interlocutor. Trolls are fond of what aboutism because they know they make an impossible demand, and so are those who are happy to deploy it as a way of not have any attention paid to the evils perpetrated by a regime they support. Likewise selective outrage: don’t look over there, they say, just look at this, here. Both can be mere rhetorical strategies aimed at winning a point. We can all think of examples. It’s also true that in the real world some cases will interest us more than others. If so we had better be honest about that, and prepared to defend our partiality – if we can. Beyond that, one might also want to defend focus on X rather than Y on the grounds that one’s own nation or community is somehow implicated in the atrocity under consideration. Perhaps we sold the bombs that destroyed  the school and the children in it.

I think we ought to try to so better than just winning an argument. We should think better and think justly, if we can. Unfortunately there is no simple formula for that. Somehow we need to think the particular (this school, those children, that bomb = that evil ) alongside the universal (inhumanity, crime and Evil with a capital ‘E’). But how? Permit me a short detour through some philosophy.

Hegel on Universals and Particulars

Everything can be thought of in terms of particulars and universals. The art lies in seeing both together in the individual thing under discussion, and paying the right kind of attention to both. Every individual thing is made of particulars: a tree is green, leafy, deciduous or evergreen, birch or oak, etc. There are no ‘bare’ individuals without particulars – particulars make differences between things. The temptation is to say that only particulars count, that each particular must be seen in its own terms, then added to all the others –  so we get to a forest by going from tree to tree. But we will fail to see the forest for the trees if we do that. 

You can’t identify a particular without grasping the universal that it embodies: ‘tree’ is a universal, as is ‘oak’ and  ‘green’ for instance. However, not all universals are the same. ‘Green’ is what philosophers call a ‘property universal’: lots of things are green and so saying a tree is green is not saying much about it. It’s an abstract universal, a property some trees share with grass and lettuce. But if I say it is an oak then we have a substance universal – we know it will shed its leaves, which will be a certain shape, that it will grow in some soils, not others etc. We’ve said something concrete about it. Note that we can view ‘oak’ as a particular, too: it distinguishes the universal tree as not being a birch or a willow. And the individual tree appears before us in virtue of the unique set of particulars that make it what it is. Every tree, every thing, is individual, particular and universal all at once – each of the three is a perspective from which we grasp the other two. 

Seeing Injustice

When a bomb is dropped on a school it can only be understood as an atrocity because we know what an atrocity is – we grasp the universal which is revealed in this particular case. So it might seem that the ‘what about’ stance has some justification. But the problem with the ‘what about’ approach is that even when uttered in good faith, it is either just substituting one particular for another ad infinitum (never mind case X, what about this other one?) Or it is piously invoking the abstract universal: we should be against all human rights violations. Which is true, but empty. In both cases the children in that particular case gets lost, and we are left with the empty stance of being against atrocities. But this school and these children do matter, as do all children. 

Getting this right is important but difficult. It requires, among other things, understanding the context in which something happens, without only seeing the particular event, for if we do that we cannot see what is wrong in it. Equally, we must not not lose the individual in empty and abstract universals. Particulars matter, as they enable us to pick one thing out as different from another: the material conditions in which events occur. No formula or rule can help us here, as we must use our judgement and our imagination wisely. The universal is revealed in the individual, and it is the universal that allows us to to see the individual case for what it is – this individual school and these dead children in Gaza must be mourned and this crime condemned because we understand that just like that shattered school in the Ukraine a crime has been committed against innocence, and that it must not be allowed to go unseen and unremarked. But this should take us from thought to action: we must not merely interpret the world, we must try to change it, too.