How to spot a lame, lame argument

Johann Hari in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_10 Nov. 09 09.19 There is one particular type of bad argument that has always existed, but it has now spread like tar over the world-wide web, and is seeping into the pubs, coffee shops and opinion columns everywhere. It is known as 'what-aboutery' – and there was a particularly ripe example of it in response to one of my articles last week.

As a rhetorical trick, it is simple. Anyone can do it, and we are all tempted sometimes. When you have lost an argument – when you can't justify your case, and it is crumbling in your hands – you snap back: “But what about x?”

You then raise a totally different subject, and try to get everybody to focus on it – hoping it will distract attention from your own deflated case.

So whenever I report on, say, atrocities committed by Israel, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: “But what about the bad things done by Muslims? Why do you never talk about them?” Whenever I report on the atrocities committed by Islamists, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: “But what about Israel? Why do you never write about the terrible things they do?” And so it goes on, whatever the subject, in an endless international shifting of blame, united in the cry: “What about them! Talk about them instead!”

This argument is almost always disingenuous. How do I know? Because when you write back and explain that, why, I do actually criticize Islamists/Israel/the US/China/whoever-you-have-picked-out-randomly, and here are the articles where I do it, nobody ever writes back and says: fair enough; you consistently condemn human rights abuses, no matter who commits them. No. They scrape around for another “what about.” What about Tibet? What about Sri Lanka? What about North Korea?

More here.

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