I first experienced this “illness” back in 1989, long before it had a name. The concept, someone is dealing with a crisis or tragedy, but someone else feels slighted or jealous about the attention that other person is receiving, whether it be good or bad, did not matter. It was always, “what about me?”
As I dealt with my cancer, I had several co-workers who felt slighted, that I might be receiving favors from management because of my situation. To be honest, I have no ideas what those favors would have been, but I know that I heard the “jealousy.” Yes, that is what we called “whataboutism” back then, “jealousy.” The difficult thing to comprehend about “whataboutism” in my case with cancer, I could not grasp why people would be jealous of what I was going through, or they just felt I had to have been pitied by management which meant I might be getting special attention that they did not get. I really have no idea, because no one ever came up to me personally. I had only heard about this situation through the grapevine.
This was not the first time though that I had experienced “whataboutism.” In 2008, upon learning I was going to die without heart surgery, I was going to experience this phenomenon for the second time. I won’t go into the details of the surgery, other than to say, MY BREAST BONE WAS BROKEN OPEN!!!! So, everyone is on the same page, this is a major trauma to the body, not just the surgery itself.
While the initial and surprising concern by my co-workers I feel was sincere, the shock that I was only 42 years old and had to have a triple bypass, that concern soon faded when I arrived home a week later, and spotted going for a walk, part of my recovery, and just so happened to take every ounce of energy and strength I had just to even walk one hundred yards.
Word had spread at work that I “looked great!” and why wasn’t I back at work. Again, major heart surgery, and my breast bone was cracked in half, now wired together as this broken bone healed. But it did not stop there. When I finally returned to work, my doctor ordered physical restriction accommodations to be made, in accordance with the American With Disabilities Act, as I continued my recovery. I had not been at work in over three months, had lost all of my strength, and needed time to readjust. And then the war cries came out.
“THIS IS NOT FAIR! WHY DO I HAVE TO DO MORE THAN HIM AND GET PAID THE SAME JUST BECAUSE HE HAD SURGERY?” HE ISN’T DOING THE SAME AMOUNT OF WORK AS ME! HE ISN’T WORKING ALL OF THE ASSIGNMENTS THAT I HAVE TO AND IS GETTING PAID THE SAME!” The list of whines of “whataboutism” was long enough to run out of types of cheeses to accompany.
But that is what “whataboutism” is. It is about being slighted because someone cannot reap the perceived benefits that is believed someone else is getting, even if the circumstances are critical or tragic. There is that jealousy to not be able to enjoy the benefits given to someone who might be struggling, just because they are not struggling themself.
Today, “whataboutism” is as common as milk in a dairy. Every day you can hear someone scream out, “what about me? What about this other time? Why is this issue different?” Our country’s citizens suffer from major ADHD, unable to focus on one crisis at a time, often unable to see any need or commonality of situations that they might actually be complaining about. But just because the current issue is not their own issue, “what about me?”
One of the more common times “whataboutism” comes out of course is politics. And I am not going to get into that, because that cycle is one that does not appear to have any end. As political parties trade back and forth in their “whataboutism,” each time a party changes power, there is not interest in saying, “this is when it ends.” They just keep going like the Energizer Bunny.
Heart-breakingly, it is during times like we have been dealing with for the last two months, a major pandemic, and now a super-heightened racial awareness to do a public lynching of an African American, the cries of “whataboutism” are endless and unrelenting. But these cries go beyond a jealousy for the most part. Many times these shouts are more about distraction, realizing that if you can distract enough from the crisis at hand, then just like all of the other times, the problem will go away.
We are witnessing that right now.
What everyone witness over ten days ago, was horrendous. Unless you are a racist, the brutal lynching of George Floyd has given us all an awakening to a struggle that continues to knee cap many of our citizens, and just because of the color of their skin. And sure, it is understandable to ask why did we not respond this way when unarmed Walter Scott was shot in the back by the police, or Eric Garner was choked out and killed by the police. Why is this situation any different than the hundreds of others. “Whataboutism.” The question is, why should it matter? We keep asking how many more. We keep expressing outrage. We keep protesting. But it continues to happen. That means what we are doing is not working. But the cry “what about” is the distraction that makes the issue go away for the ones that do not want to admit that there is a problem.
And do not even get me started on those who really want to dismiss the awareness we are experiencing from people of all colors, not just here in the United States, but now all over the world. They choose to want to label any bad deeds this human being, a father of a small child may or may not have had. Of course they say, “it does not make it right that he was killed that way, but he was a bad dude regardless, so maybe…” You can fill it in from there the shit that comes next.
Do you know how to tell if you suffer from “whataboutism?” Watch the video of George Floyd being murdered, the entire thing, even once. If you have to turn your head because you just cannot watch, or it makes you feel that uncomfortable that when you see people protesting for the rights of a certain part of our population, and complain about “inconveniences” you are dealing with because of such, chances are pretty good, you may have a case of “whataboutism.”
My late brother-in-law died from Lour Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). As he was struggling with the physical issues of the disease, one of the major issues being the ability to swallow, he would often choke as he tried to swallow even his own saliva, let alone actual food. While he was experiencing this, I was struggling with my own swallowing issue from the radiation damage to my esophagus caused by my cancer treatments. We used to joke about who would choke out first. But instead of saying “what about me,” I felt bad. My condition was not likely to be fatal, as uncomfortable as it was, and I felt bad mentioning it, even though the struggle could be seen on my face. My brother-in-law said to me, “we have two different circumstances. Just because our ends will be different, does not make your issue any less relevant to deal with.”
I miss Mike a lot. It was wisdom like that, that I have carried through my life. Yes, my issues are real. They are not any less important. But I do not need to hijack someone else’s situation for my cause.
“Paul’s Heart” is about advocating for health and parenting. I seem to be spending a lot of time now on dealing with race issues. Sure, I have my reasons, obviously. But even without my daughters, standing up for what is right is who I am. It is what I was taught. And as I pointed out the other day, silence is complicitness. You are racist or anti-racist but you cannot be a “not a racist.”
It is time to stop screaming “what about me?” or “what about the other times?” We have two major crisis going on, and the more we distract ourselves with “whataboutisms,” we are just going to continue to have to deal with these issues and more. It is sad to me that we have learned nothing from 1992 when it comes to police brutality and race relations. That was 30 years ago. Oops. See what I mean. What about 1992?
Let’s fix this now. For the sake of everyone. We are better than that.