About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, November 15, 2021

The moral power of whataboutism

Lessons from ordinary people on Kampala streets regarding the effect of good example on effective leadership

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | A couple of years back, advocate David Mpanga wrote a powerful article on “whataboutism.” He was criticising people in Africa that respond to Western intrusions into alleged misrule by our leaders by pointing out similar acts of misrule in Western countries. He gave a background of the former Soviet leaders. That whenever America and other nations of the West pointed out its human rights abuses, Moscow would respond by pointing out excesses of the U.S. government and its Western allies.

Whataboutism is thus a logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s argument without directly refuting or disproving the argument he is making. You do not change the substance of an accusation by pointing out the author’s misdeeds. But if I regularly cheat on my wife, and I accuse you of cheating on yours, even making moral exhortations for you to change, doesn’t it make sense for your own defense to point out my cheating escapades?

Mpanga’s article was popular and was widely shared among Uganda’s elites. I read and loved it. But I found it difficult to agree with its dismissal of whataboutism. The hesitation was intuitive, so I never gave the subject much attention – until recently. I was in a television debate when someone pointed out a letter by President Yoweri Museveni about Uganda Airlines. The president had criticised the leaders of the airline for hiring relatives. I responded saying that Museveni lacks the moral authority to accuse his subordinates of such conduct since he has appointed his wife, his brother, his son, his sister-in-law etc. into government.

My phone was filled with messages of support for my response. But what intrigued me the most was that the people congratulating me the most were the same people who had passionately supported Mpanga’s article. This was strange because I had actually discredited the president’s accusations without refuting or disproving it i.e. I was practicing whataboutism. So, I wrote back to all my friends who had praised Mpanga’s article and were congratulating me asking them why they did not criticize my whataboutism but were, on the contrary, celebrating it.

They began making excuses and lame explanations. I suspect even Mpanga, had he watched the television debate, would have congratulated me intuitively without realising that I was practicing the whataboutism he had criticised. Though a logical fallacy, whataboutism is a powerful moral response. It simply states the old principle that charity begins at home and that good leadership is leadership by example. A philosophy of “Do as I say not as I do” is hard to sell. Even Jesus Christ made this argument in Mathew Chapter Seven when he said that “Do not point at a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own.” If you want good conduct from others, set a good example first.

This moral argument has been repeated to me myriad times by ordinary people on the streets of Kampala. I run three times a week on the roads in Luzira or Kampala’s Central Business District. I do so with a stick in my hand, its original aim to fend off dogs or thugs whenever I was running at night.

Since the first COVID-19 shutdown, I took to using my stick to pretend to beat people who are not wearing masks. I just use my stick to tap on them and then ask them to wear masks. Now many people recognise me; boda boda riders even lie on their bikes to feign acceptance of the punishment. But I actually do not wear a mask when running, to avoid re-cycling carbon dioxide, advice I picked from my friend Andrew Rugasira. So, those who do not recognise me or my joke always and almost without exception, respond by saying “Where is yours?”

I often stop and joke that “Only those who have not sinned can see my mask.” Then the person either recognises me and shout out my name – or realises that I am simply joking and they laugh. However, I tell those running with me the moral power of their response: be the example you want us to be. Do not demand that others wear a mask when you do not wear one. That is why many leaders across the world wear masks in public. It is to impress it upon their citizens or workers that mask mandates are important.

There is another power behind whataboutism, and its more than moral. It is about practical necessity. If Uganda abuses some rights of some of its citizens, it could be that governing may at times demand exactly that. It may also mean that governance at a particular time in the life cycle of a country may necessitate certain harsh tactics. Leaders who preside over those actions are not just acting out of psychopathy or self-interest. It could be out of a genuine desire to ensure national stability. Therefore, by pointing out similar practices by a powerful nation like the USA, which claims to occupy a moral high ground that gives it the legitimacy to be a moral judge of others, they are simply saying these are actions of practical necessity imposed on the government by circumstances.

Whataboutism is different from ad hominin arguments. Ad hominin means “to the person.” Instead of responding to my argument, you only respond to my person. I could argue that President Museveni is a poor manager. You could respond by saying “Look at your ugly nose.” Surely, how do my looks relate to my argument. But you can respond by saying that “Even you Mwenda, you have failed to manage your own company.” There may be a lesson behind such a response. It is not ad hominin. It is whataboutism. Managerial incompetence may be a widely spread weakness in the country and Museveni is, therefore, only a reflection of a society-wide malaise.

For instance, many Ugandans accuse Museveni of failing to “build institutions.” But the I wonder which Ugandans, whether in media, private sector (business) or elsewhere have built powerful and independent institutions outside of our traditional and religious sphere. Why is The Independent not Time or Daily Monitor rivaling the New York Times? Why is Godbar Tumushabe’s GLISS not equal to the Brookings Institution or the Council on Foreign Relations? These failures at building institutions is, therefore, not a Museveni problem but a Ugandan one – it is society wide. Museveni is thus a consequence, not a cause, or weak institutions.



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