Is “Whataboutism” Killing Empathy?

In the Information Age, Criticism of Expressions of Empathy Drives Silos or Silence in Response

In a world where information bombards us every waking moment and we feel an urgency to react to every beep and vibration from our smartphone, a concerning trend has emerged where tribal opinion and empathy clash. Enter Whataboutism.

One of the most troubling consequences of whataboutism is the erosion of empathy. In our rush to defend positions or deflect criticism, we overlook the human component of issues. Instances of social injustice, environmental degradation, and economic inequality represent real struggles real people face. Yet, in the age of whataboutism, empathy has become a casualty of our ideological battles.

What lies beneath this behavioral phenomenon, and what does it say about our capacity to understand or respect one another? Expressing concern for any specific community can now offend supporters of another community and become a trap that suppresses authentic empathy. Whataboutism steers us toward making sure not to offend anyone; it forces us to try and avoid barbs rather than productively discuss a specific, time-pressing, painful issue. The result is that we stay silent rather than speak to one particular person’s needs or community’s plight.

In a world in which urgent communication increasingly informs the tone and tempo of our discourse, when knee-jerk responses encouraged by social media cascade in response to the expression of concern for one community’s difficulties, someone is bound to be outraged and outspoken about it if we fail to acknowledge in tandem the predicament of others. This kind of blowback is all but guaranteed when a business, community or spiritual leader voices that concern. In that case, the wrath of the “X bots” is unleashed. The fear of whataboutism eventually gives birth to siloed tribalism and the fear of saying anything.

Conversation Without Substance

Whataboutism operates on the premise that rather than address a specific issue; our focus should be more expansive — more inclusive.

The problem is that our concern and empathy become diluted and ineffectual. Politicians, in particular, often structure their comments as all-encompassing during debates, speeches, and community visits. Instead of engaging with the substance and acknowledging the validity of a specific concern, whataboutism is deployed as a diversionary tactic to steer the conversation away from the main point.

Suppose you support Black Lives Matter because deadly violence, economic disparities, and well-documented health inequities disproportionately threaten Black Americans. In the wake of the George Floyd murder and protests, responses driven by whataboutism (e.g., “all lives matter”) expressed points of view that would be valid at any other time but, in that specific moment, seemed designed to undermine empathy.

This is equally true of concerns for people suffering outside our communities; however, in the face of an unfolding crisis, expressing concern for ALL people does away with our ability to express empathy or solidarity for any one people. This “all or nothing” mentality also diminishes our ability to feel empathy or solidarity for more than one group.

Can Two “Rights” Occupy the Same Brain Space?

The human mind’s multitasking capacity has limits. But when multimedia — particularly social media — accelerates the flood of information, it diminishes our mind’s analytic ability to move from thought to thought and task to task. This cognitive muscle, termed “parallel processing,” enables individuals to connect varied mental tasks and concepts concurrently. However, how we effectively juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously and consecutively is complex — it’s a gift for some and an impossible struggle for others.

The brain’s architecture paves the way for parallel processing. Different regions of the brain specialize in distinct cognitive functions. Neurologically, the prefrontal cortex handles executive functions like decision-making, while the hippocampus is dedicated to memory.

When two topics don’t heavily overlap in brain regions, it’s easier to think about them in tandem — brain function that employs diverse and expansive thinking is where the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus co-exist harmoniously.

At its core, whataboutism plays psychological games and forces communicators to avoid topical minefields and speak to all points of view at all times or be called out, requiring them to either dig in their heels or acquiesce and admit error.

“Can I express my concern for you alone at this moment? Or, must I write about your suffering or tragedy incompletely so that others feel their struggle is not ignored?”

That has become a unique challenge in a fast-moving information world where partisan politics and tribalism exert outsized influence.

Tribalism Over Empathy

Whataboutism reveals our deep biases and tribal/national instincts. We tend to passionately defend our beliefs and affiliations too often at the expense of understanding the pain and suffering of others. An “us versus them” tribal mentality, in which empathy is reserved only for those within our religion, region or race, calls on us to view outsiders with suspicion or disdain.

The rise of whataboutism coincides with the information overload of the digital age. With a constant stream of news, social media updates, and opinions competing for our attention, it is easy to become overwhelmed. Issues are often reduced to soundbites or headlines, devoid of the depth and nuance they demand. As a result, our ability to understand situations becomes diluted by the sheer volume of competing narratives vying for our attention.

Expressing a Dual Narrative

Whataboutism perpetuates a false equivalency between issues, suggesting that addressing one issue somehow negates the importance of another. This binary thinking fails to recognize the interconnectedness of social problems and the need for multifaceted solutions. Reducing complex issues to simplistic comparisons, whataboutism undermines meaningful dialogue and halts progress.

How do we counteract the effects of whataboutism and reclaim our humanity for continuous dialogue and empathy?

We must cultivate a culture of diversity and inclusion. That will help to lessen the knee-jerk tendency of rejecting the concerns of others. We must foster open-mindedness and acknowledge our biases, blind spots, and areas for psychological growth. This requires a willingness to engage in an uncomfortable conversation, which is essential to feeling genuine empathy and reaching an understanding.

We must resist the temptation to engage in whataboutism ourselves. We should address issues humbly and honestly instead of deflecting criticism or derailing conversations. This means listening actively to others’ perspectives, acknowledging their concerns, and seeking common ground wherever possible. Stephen R. Covey wrote that it calls for patience; “first seek to understand and then be understood.”

Feeling empathy cannot become a lost skill. It is one of the things that makes us human. It means putting ourselves in others’ shoes, even if only for a moment, recognizing their humanity and the validity of their experience. Empathy requires us to move beyond a singular perspective and recognize every individual’s inherent worth and dignity, regardless of their background or beliefs. It does not require us to embrace their ideas or ideals.

We must recover the discipline to sit quietly, listen, and learn to do this. That’s the basis of becoming critical thinkers and skilled communicators who can separate fact from fiction and recognize the manipulative tactics of whataboutism when we encounter them in a world awash with rapid information. By staying informed, questioning assumptions, and actively seeking diverse perspectives, we can immunize our discourse against the polarizing effects of whataboutism and work toward a more compassionate and inclusive society.

The magnitude of misinformation, disinformation, and whataboutism is troubling in our democratic societies, which encourage open discourse. In recognizing the psychological roots of whataboutism and working to neutralize its effects, we may be able to preserve our human capacity for empathy and engage in more meaningful dialogue on the issues that matter at specific moments. We can create space to listen and grow emotionally and organizationally. It’s time to move beyond the distractions of whataboutism toward a more engaged and empathetic world.


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Gil Bashe, Medika Life Editor
Gil Bashe, Medika Life Editor
Health advocate connecting the dots to transform biopharma, digital health and healthcare innovation | Managing Partner, Chair Global Health FINN Partners | MM&M Top 50 Health Influencer | Top 10 Innovation Catalyst. Gil is Medika Life editor-in-chief and an author for the platform’s EcoHealth and Health Opinion and Policy sections. Gil also hosts the HealthcareNOW Radio show Healthunabashed, writes for Health Tech World, and is a member of the BeingWell team on Medium.


Editor in Chief, Medika Life

Meet the Medika Life editor-in-chief, working closely with founding editors Robert Turner and Jeff Livingston, MD.

Not your usual health-industry executive, Gil Bashe has had a unique career shaped by more than three decades in health policy, pharma, life science, digital health, eco-health, environmental innovation and venture capital and informed his determination to ‘give back.’

A champion for health innovation that sustains people’s lives and improves their care, Gil honed his perspectives on both battlefield and boardroom. He started in health as a combat medic in an elite military unit. He went on to serve as a clergyman tending to the ill; as a health products industry lobbyist in environmental affairs; as CEO of one of the world’s largest integrated health marketing companies; as a principal in a private equity-backed venture; as a Medika Life author and Health Tech World correspondent; and as Chair Global Health and Purpose at FINN Partners, a community of purpose dedicated to making a difference.

In the forefront of change, Gil is ranked as a Top 10 Digital Health Influencer; Medical Marketing & Media Top 10 Innovation Catalyst; Medika Life named him a “Top 50 Global Healthcare Influencer,” and PM360 presented him with its “Trailblazer Lifetime Achievement Award.” He is a board member for digital health companies and is an advisor to the CNS Summit, Galien Foundation, Let’s Win for Pancreatic Cancer, Marfan Foundation and other health-centered organizations.





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