Yesterday I saw a post from the secondhand shop Kringloop Zuid. Upon showing their passport, Ukrainian refugees could pick up clothing and toys, free of charge. ‘What a beautiful gesture’, I thought. Yet, the first comment under this post was from a person who wrote (at length) of how they could not respect this decision, that the Netherlands needed to “doe normaal,” and that for years people have suffered from war and the Netherlands “did not care.”
I have seen similar comments elsewhere online, and even in personal conversations. Usually someone shares an action that they are taking to support Ukrainians in Ukraine, or those who leave their country. Then, there is one person to point their finger and the message can be summed up as “What about X? We did not care then, why are we caring now?” The tone is often negative and denigrating. One person aptly called this #whataboutism.
I have a few overarching thoughts in response to this #whataboutism. From a basic level of psychology, it makes sense that we see more people taking action now. According to implicit egotism, we are simply more inclined to like and to care about the things and people that resemble us. That could be as small as having an immediate liking for someone who shares your name or, in this case, feeling more concerned about people in Ukraine because we see them as fellow Europeans. Similarly, research shows that we care more when a situation feels closer to home, and has a perceivable impact on our own lives.
Admittedly, people who use #whataboutism often have a point, and it is important to reflect on the times that we care more vs. less about what is happening in the world. Yet, I wonder whether now is the right time to have these discussions, and what exactly we aim to achieve with them? Afterall, #whataboutism draws away from the immediate task at hand, and can discourage or shame people from taking positive action. Further, research shows that when we observe other people being ‘punished’ for any action, we will be less likely to do the same action ourselves.
It is all too easy to become overwhelmed by the sadness and despair in the world, but we can choose to step back from participating in that, and to instead uplift and contribute to the good in the world, and in each other. What about that?
Jessica Alleva, assistant professor at the faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience