Five years ago we had the question here about what distinguishes a perspective-expanding comparison from whataboutism. I want to take up the topic again because in the Aiwanger case, various sides pointed out other cases of politicians who have a sensitive past or who made serious mistakes.
Mentioned were, for example, the former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was violent in Frankfurt’s autonomous scene when he was young, or the former Health Minister Ulla Schmidt, once active in the Communist League of West Germany, and the writer Günter Grass, who was a member of the Waffen SS as a young man , or the various ex-Nazis in the early Federal Republic, in which Hans Globke made it to the head of the Federal Chancellery under Adenauer or Kurt Georg Kiesinger even made it to the position of Chancellor. Current cases include Andrej Holm, who resigned as State Secretary in Berlin due to his Stasi past, or Jürgen Baumgärtner, a former right-wing extremist who now represents the CSU in the Bavarian state parliament. With a view to procedures in Bavarian schools, the Christine Schamerl case was also remembered.
The media then brought forward, for example, differences in the goals that the people mentioned pursued, differences in the degree of radicalism, differences in contemporary historical circumstances – and, above all, how they later related to their past. For example, Jürgen Baumgärtner explained in schools how he got into and out of right-wing extremist circles.
Such comparisons are informative precisely because they help shed light on the similarities and differences between the cases. A comparison will therefore reveal new aspects of a situation and help to further develop evaluation criteria. This assessment can then be good or bad for a specific case. At the end of a comparison it is fundamentally unclear how a case should be assessed. The comparison still focuses on the case in question and places it within a more general framework, the categories of which were obtained inductively from juxtaposing several cases with their particularities.
In contrast, citing other cases in whataboutism is not about introducing new aspects into the discussion and better classifying a specific case by comparing it with other cases. The Wikipedia entry on the keyword “Whataboutism” rightly speaks of a relativization strategy. The aim is not to understand the specific case better, but rather to take it out of the final field and to put it into perspective based on the other cases. These are therefore not examined in more detail, but are only introduced across the board in a false balance framework under the motto “they too” in order to take away the individual explosiveness of the specific case.
At the same time, the seriousness of the allegations is intended to be neutralized. In whataboutistic contexts, for example, you will never find an argument along the lines of “the same behavior was allowed to happen at X, but you shouldn’t do that anymore here and now.”
Accordingly, the comparison cases are selected based on the desired evaluation result: in the case of Aiwanger, for example, Fischer, who remained in office, and not Andrej Holm, who resigned. Interestingly, Globke, for example, was not cited, who remained in office but could not serve as a good exoneration case due to his Nazi connection. As far as I could see, Jürgen Baumgärtner was also not mentioned in whataboutistic contexts – because that would have raised the question of the appropriate way to deal with one’s own past and the credibility of dealing with it. Aiwanger primarily had gaps in his memory. What exactly the “important mental processes” triggered by the “far-reaching event” were still remains his secret.
To sum it up in one sentence: A comparison is a pair of glasses to improve vision, whataboutism is a blinder.