There is a growing tendency to label some argumentative moves commonly performed in public discourse as “whataboutism”. A quick search on Google Trends shows that the term has begun to gain more serious traction in 2017, reaching its peak popularity in June 2020 and March 2022 – likely in the context of debates on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, as Ben Zimmer points out, its roots can be identified much earlier on, first as a charge against defenders of the Provisional IRA’s actions during the Troubles and later as a charge against a particular brand of Soviet-style rhetorical strategy. When whataboutism is pointed at in public speech, it is usually done so as to discredit an objection to an argument not by showing that it fails on its own terms, but rather because it constitutes an illegitimate move aimed at deflecting attention from the topic on which the argument is focused. But is whataboutism, especially when it concerns questions of justice, problematic, or – to the contrary – is the charge of whataboutism largely vacuous?
Author: Alexandru Volacu
Alexandru Volacu is an Associate Professor at the University of Bucharest and Director of the Bucharest Center for Political Theory. His research interests mainly revolve around several topics: the ethics of voting, theories of justice, and the ideal/non-ideal theory debate.
In July 2020 the Romanian Constitutional Court declared that the institution of judicial interdiction, which deprived people deemed to have severe intellectual disabilities of numerous civil rights, is unconstitutional. Thus, while the Constitution itself still requires that people with intellectual disabilities placed under judicial interdiction are to be disenfranchised, the provision is de facto inapplicable, making the next round of elections the first in Romania’s history where people with severe intellectual disabilities will be included in the demos. Other countries have more explicitly embraced this type of enfranchisement, with both France and Spain making legislative changes that grant voting rights to people with intellectual disabilities in 2018. Consequently, about half of EU Member States now endorse the electoral exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, in some form, while the other half fully include them. At a global level, the situation is starkly different, however, with a 2016 study on all 193 UN countries showing that only 11% had provided full enfranchisement up to that point. Thus, it can be said that as of 2022, only a small minority of states abide by Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, according to which states should “ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote […]”.
Of course, the normative force of arguments for or against any form of disenfranchisement cannot be primarily derived from the provisions of international law. And, in fact, even from this perspective any judgement would not be so clear-cut, considering the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold the practice of disenfranchisement for reasons of intellectual capacity as legitimate in the case of Strøbye and Rosenlind v. Denmark. So what can be said in justification of this policy?
A well-known aphorism by George Santayana says that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Less well-known, though, is the sentence used to preface this aphorism, namely that “when experience is not retained […] infancy is perpetual”. While the former is often used to highlight the importance of learning from past mistakes, the latter underlines the importance of learning from the beneficial (albeit defunct) practices of the past. But can historical practices inform contemporary political philosophy? Anthoula Malkopoulou’s insightful analysis of the Athenian institution of ostracism suggests a positive response. On her view, we should understand ostracism as a mechanism of democratic self-defence, which could plausibly be revived in a modern version. In the following lines I will further explore this suggestion.
the costs of pandemic lockdowns should be disproportionately covered by a narrower group, consisting of those individuals and businesses who have already acquired vast amounts of economic resources and have substantially prospered as a consequence of the pandemic lockdowns
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to play a central role in the lives of many people around the world. While initial governmental responses to the pandemic were often forceful, with lockdowns that lasted for several weeks or even months being widely introduced in March and early April, there seems to be little political appetite for renewed lockdowns of the same scale. Even so, several European countries have once again imposed lockdowns in the past few weeks, following a swift rise in cases starting in late-September.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped numerous aspects of our lives during the past few months. Even though it is less immediately felt in our daily routine, one of the most consequential by-products of the pandemic is its impact on the political life of our communities. Elections, in particular, have been heavily affected throughout the world, with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems reporting postponments of elections in 51 countries, as of the 27th of April 2020. In other cases, elections have been held in the traditional fashion, sometimes under heavy criticism and resulting in a severely depressed turnout. All of this prompts the question of what is the appropriate governmental response in respect to holding elections during pandemic times? Should we continue to go about our electoral business as usual? Or should we postpone elections until the outbreak is over? Or should we still hold elections, but under alternative mechanisms, such as postal voting or e-voting?
Electoral turnout is declining. In the past three decades, the average turnout for legislative elections has registered a sharp drop, of about 10% at the global level, a drop which spans across all continents and among both established and emerging democracies. If we find this trend to be concerning, there is one fairly simple mechanism that we could employ in order to reverse it: compulsory voting. In this post I argue that while it might be attractive at first sight, compulsory voting is, however, sometimes inimical to justice, drawing on the recent cases of same-sex marriage referendums held in several Eastern European countries.