51

For example, you say "These working conditions are subpar. We don't get any breaks." and then someone else says "You're entitled. You know who has it bad? People that work in sweatshops!"

You raised a valid point, but now someone has completely dismissed it by bringing up something unrelated.

A more well known example is "I'm hungry." to which a parent might reply "You're not hungry. Children in Africa are hungry."

I feel like there should be a word for this kind of fallacy.

2

16 Answers 16

111

This is the fallacy of relative privation, which basically argues that you don't really have a problem because there are other people suffering from a much more severe version of the problem.

Here's a quote:

The fallacy of relative privation, or appeal to worse problems, is an informal fallacy which attempts to suggest that the opponent's argument should be ignored because there are more important problems in the world, despite the fact that these issues are often completely unrelated to the subject under discussion.

8
  • I hope you continue here: this was an astute answer. Although Wiki is considered an unreliable source, it is excusable as a good starting point.
    – Cascabel
    Mar 22 at 22:09
  • @Cascabel Thanks for the feedback. I actually looked for something a little more authoritative and couldn't really find anything.Would this be a better reference? It's from the World Heritage Encyclopedia I think.
    – cigien
    Mar 22 at 22:20
  • 3
    Whataboutism is more a response to a criticism of yourself or your group with something the speaker did did which isn't the same at all: "they don't give you breaks? Well what about when you made your kid do homework with no breaks? You're just as bad". It also tends to be political. Mar 23 at 3:06
  • 3
    it's nice to know this is a named fallacy in the domain of logical argument, but that wouldn't register with most people when thinking about this kind of interpersonal interaction. "One-upmanship" or "whataboutism" and other terms might better capture the real-world experience of one's concerns being downplayed because "others have it worse."
    – user8356
    Mar 23 at 14:09
  • 2
    @user8356 It may not be the commonly used term, but it is correct. "One-upmanship" doesn't quite capture the same meaning IMO, though it's related. "Whataboutism" is also not entirely appropriate since it implies that the opponent did something worse than what they're complaining about, rather than there being a worse version of the problem existing somewhere else. There simply may not be a single word that is commonly understood that captures the meaning of this fallacy exactly.
    – cigien
    Mar 23 at 14:17
60

Whataboutism

To answer the question directly with a single word, I would say this is an example of 'whataboutism':

The practice of answering a criticism or difficult question by attacking someone with a similar criticism or question directed at them, typically starting with the words "What about?"

(From Cambridge)

To rephrase your original examples:

"These working conditions are subpar. We don't get any breaks." and then someone else says "You're entitled. What about people who work in sweatshops!"

"I'm hungry." to which a parent might reply "You're not hungry. What about the starving children in Africa?"

13
  • 7
    I can see what you mean. However, whataboutism is surely a slightly different kind of thing. The most famous 'whatabout' argument was back in the 1950's, when "What about the workers" was introduced as a way of discrediting almost any argument about priorities or public policy, as if the workers were the only thing that mattered. The trouble is, the joke was relished most by people of privilege and power trying to hide from a real and pressing issue of equality and distributive justice.
    – Tuffy
    Mar 23 at 13:58
  • 4
    @Tuffy I'm not familiar with that usage - whataboutism is a tactic that highlights the hypocrisy of the speaker by pointing out their tangentially related shortcomings. I haven't seen it used to suggest an overly limited focus on some subset of the problem. In response to a proposed wage increase, "what about sweat shop workers" is whataboutism (current situation compared to something far worse), but I'm not sure that "what about the business owners" is (overly focused, misplaced concern for some subset). Mar 23 at 14:51
  • 14
    Not all uses of the phrase "what about" are examples of "whataboutism". In the modern usage, it's specifically used to deflect a criticism of A by B by saying that B is guilty of the same thing or worse.
    – Barmar
    Mar 23 at 15:09
  • 2
    E.g. If someone says you're bad because you stole something, you respond "But what about when you shoplifted?"
    – Barmar
    Mar 23 at 15:14
  • @Barmar Of course it is only whataboutism if you consider the behavior to be bad. If you consider the behavior to be acceptable its just demonstrating that your behavior is commonly accepted by pointing to the accuser's past similar behavior.
    – Matt
    Mar 24 at 14:23
19

One-upmanship, perhaps - The art or practice of gaining the advantage, the condition of being ‘one up’ (OED); the art or practice of successively outdoing a competitor by discomfiting them (Wiki)

Ridiculously exemplified by Monty Python - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ue7wM0QC5LE

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  • 3
    Yes, that is probably one of the nearest. The trouble with it is, it probably needs to be modified to fit precisely the OP circumstance. Perhaps it should be 'one-downmanship'. If it had not been for the abandonment of Latin tags, I should have proposed the coining of either peiorism (from the Latin 'peior' = ) or perhaps 'peiusism (the neuter version). The most familiar form of one-downmanship, relates to matters of health.
    – Tuffy
    Mar 23 at 13:51
  • @Tuffy - I see your point. I think the 'up' in one-upmanship refers to a person asserting superiority ('over' someone else) because their condition is more extreme (either better OR worse) than the other person's.
    – Dan
    Mar 23 at 14:03
  • I think 'one-upmanship' came into the world at a time of growing prosperity in the late 1950's, and with new and more complicated gadgets and luxuries coming out all the time. The comic musicians wrote a song about it. As so often happens in the natural evolution of language, I am sure the word has become stretched beyond its strict literal sense. Have you looked at the examples provided in the dictionary you use? It would be a good thing to do.
    – Tuffy
    Mar 23 at 14:13
  • 1
    But where's my advantage over you with the sweatshop worker? One-up-manship might be "you guys in the office have it easy, in the warehouse we work longer shifts and get fewer breaks" Mar 23 at 14:19
  • 1
    @northerner - yes I agree. It depends a bit on how the lines are delivered. I did wonder about whether the third person might be putting the first speaker in his place (for 'making a fuss about nothing') rather than being competitive.
    – Dan
    Mar 25 at 14:17
10

"You raised a valid point, but now someone has completely dismissed it by bringing up something unrelated."

This looks like an example of a

false analogy (also questionable)

It's a Faulty Comparison:

If you try to make a point about something by comparison, and if you do so by comparing it with the wrong thing, then your reasoning uses the Fallacy of Faulty Comparison or the Fallacy of Questionable Analogy.

9

Brené Brown calls it Comparative Suffering

Unfortunately, one of the things that’s immediately triggered when we go into fear and scarcity is comparison. Comparison and who’s got more, who’s got it better? What are they doing? What’s crazy about comparison when it’s triggered by fear and scarcity, is that even our pain and our hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked, So, without thinking, we start to rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel. “I can’t be disappointed about my college graduation right now. Who am I to be sad that I’m not going to be able to have this great ceremony, because there are people sick and dying?” Or, “I can’t be angry and afraid about being sick right now, because there are people sicker than me. I can’t be scared for my children because there are homeless kids who have nowhere to sleep tonight. Why should I be tired and angry, I have a job right now and so many people don’t.”

The entire myth of comparative suffering comes from the belief that empathy is finite. That empathy is like pizza. It has eight slices. So, when you practice empathy with someone or even yourself, there’s less to go around. So, if I’m kind and gentle and loving toward myself around these feelings, if I give myself permission to feel them and give myself some resources and energy of care around them, I will have less to give for the people who really need them. “Like what about the healthcare workers on the front line right now or the grocery shop folks or the hourly… The people who are delivering packages?”

7

Since the 1980s, I have called this one-downmanship. The earliest reference I have to this is a 1983 Garfield comic https://www.gocomics.com/garfield/1983/10/17 where it is presumably intended as a neologistical witticism. It has, however been used more broadly as in https://www.lexico.com/definition/one-downmanship which includes the definition - The art or practice of being or appearing to be at a disadvantage. Compare "one-down", "one-upmanship". And has been used in psychology https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/sacramento-street-psychiatry/201603/one-downmanship as well. It is, of course, and obvious play on "one upmanship" and may have been invented earlier than the 1980s by multiple people.

The particular usage the OP is looking for is one-downmanship by proxy, in that the opponent refers to another person, rather than themselves, as being worse off. For me personally, this seems within the scope of the intention.

2
  • Hi @Ponder Stibbons, welcome to the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange. When providing an answer, please accompany it with objectively defensible support such as a dictionary entry with link, a Google usage analysis report, or an etymological report. Supporting inclusions like these can help others have confidence in your answer.
    – R Mac
    Mar 24 at 5:02
  • 1
    @RMac I have added references which I hope will satisfy your requirements. Thanks. If not - let me know. Mar 24 at 5:37
6

A relatively new expression used to describe this is gatekeeping misery.

The metaphor is that there's some kind of special club for the truly miserable, and the gatekeeper doesn't think you're good enough to get in.

4

Several other fallacies may fit, depending on how the reasoning goes:

Red herring – introducing a second argument in response to the first argument that is irrelevant and draws attention away from the original topic. In this case, the original argument is made about poor working conditions in this particular company, and the distracting argument brings up poor working conditions elsewhere.

Appeal to emotions – bringing up emotionally charged facts (starving children, sweatshops) which serve to distract from rational consideration of the original argument.

False dilemma: telling you can either be concerned about your own conditions, or conditions of people who "have it bad", ignoring the fact that you can perfectly care about both at the same time.

Fixed pie fallacy (a.k.a zero-sum fallacy), where the reasoning is based on the assumption that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world, so by asking more wealth for yourself (more food, better working conditions) you necessarily take those things away from someone, in this case, from people in poorer countries.

4

They are trivializing the problem.

Lexico:

trivialize (British trivialise)

VERB [WITH OBJECT] Make (something) seem less important, significant, or complex than it really is.

‘the problem was either trivialized or ignored by teachers’

‘This trivializes the death of thousands of innocent victims.’

3

I've heard it called cause hijacking. Somebody has a problem (their cause) and then somebody else dismisses their problem by bringing up a a bigger problem.

If all the support and energy behind a cause were an airplane, it is as if somebody hijacks that plane to go to another destination.

3

First world problem!

This phrase, often used as an exclamation or interjection, is a brief substitute for the second person's story. It encapsulates the fact that there are many goods and services which are deemed commodities by those living in economically well-developed countries (so-called "first world" countries), but which are in fact not widely accessible among the population of Earth as a whole.

This is a newish slang phrase I've heard used primarily by folks under 40 years old, but it seems widely understood. It's primarily used to in reference to problems that are only possible because of newer technologies.

There are many usages of this phrase out there on the web, but not much in the way of description of it; so the above description is based on my own perspective.

Usage

Person A: "My router went out last night, and I missed the new WandaVision episode! I cannot wait for it to get fixed."

Person B: "First world problem! At least you have running water and electricity [for example]."

0
1

Your conversation partner might say that you have a "First world problem".

"Weird Al" Yankovic wrote a nice song about this phrase. However other people are more critical about the use of this phrase and find it often insulting and condescending.

2
  • 3
    This was my first thought, but it would be good to explain it a bit more, maybe with examples or links to the online literature, if you want upvotes.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 23 at 9:49
  • Except that workers rights being trampled aren't a First World problem, they are a global problem. Just because the rights of some aren't trampled as much as others doesn't mean it's a First World problem. Losing internet, your credit card not working, or the shower going cold are first world problems, being overworked and possibly going against local or federal law isn't a first world problem. Mar 24 at 16:09
0

The other answers so far all have negative connotations. A way to describe this approvingly (Sometimes people really do have a sense of entitlement!) is to put things in perspective or give them a sense of perspective.

Definition 2b of perspective at Merriam-Webster:

the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance

A much harsher way to put it is that self-centered people should get over themselves.

2
  • This would work if the other person wasn't trying to completely dismiss the OP's argument. If this was something on the lines of someone with a hangnail complains about it, then someone with a broken leg is wheeled by and say "Well, it could be worse", that's "putting things into perspective". Talking about your low salary and then someone with less experience and the same job talks about their high salary, it puts into perspective your employment. And "getting over themselves" is when someone brags about something, not when they want something fixed that's broken. Mar 24 at 16:18
  • @computercarguy In my opinion, it’s helpful to have an answer with a different connotation.
    – Davislor
    Mar 24 at 18:33
-1

Non-sequitur. It does not logically follow that your state is related to another person's.

In this case it could also be classified as "concern trolling." They don't really care about hunger elsewhere, they just want to score points on some score-board only visible to them.

-3

Perhaps it's a Straw Man:

The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:

Person 1 asserts proposition X.

Person 2 argues against a superficially similar proposition Y, falsely, as if an argument against Y were an argument against X.

i.e.

  • Exaggerating (sometimes grossly exaggerating) an opponent's argument, then attacking this exaggerated version.
  • Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then denying that person's arguments—thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.

The straw man isn't specifically about picking a similar argument, it's about misquoting the original argument as being something else, and attacking that instead as a straw man: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/lOWAe

I'd say it's a change of subject by way of gross exaggeration to imply wanton self pity as the original cause of the discussion.

1
  • What the OP describes isn't an exaggeration of anything a or using them as an example of how their argument isn't defensible, it's using a very slightly related topic to try to steamroll the other person's argument. It's definitely a fallacy, but not the strawman fallacy. Mar 24 at 16:15
-9

An ad hominem argument

Free dictionary:

  1. Attacking a person's character or motivations rather than a position or argument: The candidates agreed to focus on the issues rather than making ad hominem attacks against each other.
  2. Appealing to the emotions rather than to logic or reason.

Usage Example An ad hominem argument is a personal attack against the source of an argument, rather than against the argument itself. Essentially, this means that ad hominem arguments are used to attack opposing views indirectly, by attacking the individuals or groups that support these views.

1
  • 8
    This is not what the OP described.
    – Graham
    Mar 23 at 8:14

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