What is whataboutism? And why is it so dangerous to discourse?

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What is whataboutism? And why is it so dangerous to public discourse?

July 11, 2023 -

Two people pointing argumentatively © By kieferpix /stock.adobe.com

Two people pointing argumentatively © By kieferpix /stock.adobe.com

Two people pointing argumentatively © By kieferpix /stock.adobe.com

You’ve probably heard this rhetorical trick many times, even if you didn’t realize what it was. It could have been used by politicians on television, friends on Facebook, or even children at home.

Confronted with criticism, they insist others have done things that are just as bad or worse, often using the words what about before naming names.

It’s called “whataboutism,” and it has become so widespread that Merriam-Webster had to formally acknowledge it with an entry in the dictionary in 2021, defining it as “the act or practice of responding to an accusation of wrongdoing by claiming that an offense committed by another is similar or worse.”

The problem with whataboutism

Politicians frequently use whataboutism to deflect criticism. After former President Donald Trump’s federal indictment for allegedly mishandling classified documents, many Republicans sprang to his defense by saying, “What about Hillary?

Hillary Clinton used a private email server to handle sensitive government correspondence while serving as Secretary of State. Interestingly, she admitted making a mistake but also said, “My predecessors did the same thing.”

“One of the problems with whataboutism is that it doesn’t actually refute anything,” Jonah Goldberg of The Dispatch wrote. “If you pay attention, you’ll realize that it actually concedes the point. ‘Everybody does it’ isn’t remotely synonymous with ‘I didn’t do it.’”

Philosopher Merold Westphal said that only people who know they’re guilty “can find comfort in finding others to be just as bad or worse.” Although whataboutism can serve to expose hypocrisy and prompt self-examination, Christians should regard it with suspicion.

“Ultimately, whataboutism is a convenient, lazy, and destructive rhetorical tactic that shrinks Christian faith to the narrow confines of tribalism’s partisan aims,” Brett McCracken wrote for The Gospel Coalition.

The origins of whataboutism

Whataboutism may seem more pervasive today because of social media and extreme partisanship, but it isn’t really new.

“The tactic behind whataboutism has been around for a long time,” Merriam-Webster said. “Rhetoricians generally consider it to be a form of tu quoque, which means ‘you too’ in Latin and involves charging your accuser with whatever it is you’ve just been accused of rather than refuting the truth of the accusation made against you. Tu quoque is considered to be a logical fallacy, because whether or not the original accuser is likewise guilty of an offense has no bearing on the truth value of the original accusation.”

The evolution of the modern term can be traced to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A history teacher wrote a letter to The Irish Times in 1974, complaining about the “Whatabouts” who deflected criticism of the Provisional IRA by pointing out the flaws of its opponents. That gave rise to the terms whataboutery and whataboutism.

The “sacred Russian tactic” of whataboutism

Although the Irish can take credit for naming the rhetorical technique, the Soviets and Russians perfected it. Russian-born journalist Julia Ioffe called whataboutism a “sacred Russian tactic.”

During the Cold War, the Soviets responded to American criticisms of their human-rights abuses by pointing out the lynchings of Black people in the South. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, widely considered the worst in history, the Soviets initially tried to cover it up, then compared it to Three Mile Island, a much less serious accident in the US.

Just a few months ago, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov answered questions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine by pointing out American military interventions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The crowd at a conference in India applauded when he said there was a double standard but laughed at him when he blamed Ukraine for the invasion.

Whataboutism and pushing old ladies around

As Americans, it’s important to examine our actions and acknowledge when we fall short of our ideals. But whataboutism can be like comparing apples and oranges.

The late conservative icon William F. Buckley put it this way when his opponent in a televised debate compared the US invasion of Grenada, a small Caribbean country, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: “To say that we and the Soviet Union are to be compared is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes the old lady into the way of an oncoming bus and the man who pushes the old lady out of the way of an oncoming bus are both people who push old ladies around.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin is a master of whataboutism. In one well-publicized interview in 2017, he responded to allegations of Russian meddling in American elections. “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal election processes,” he said.

When Jesus used whataboutism

There’s nothing wrong with deflecting unwarranted criticism. That’s what Jesus did in a confrontation with a group of Pharisees and scribes when they said, “‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’ Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?’” (Matthew 15:2–3, NIV).

The real issue wasn’t washing hands—or even cleanliness. Jesus put the focus where it belonged, on the failure of the Pharisees and scribes to put God’s commands first.

“Jesus Christ’s teachings offer a virtuous cycle that counters the vicious cycle of whataboutism,” Daniel Ortner wrote in Public Square Magazine. “When we focus on our own flaws and imperfections, we will be less concerned with the faults in others.”

Figuratively speaking, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, we should take the plank out of our own eye before removing the speck of sawdust from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

But many people, like wayward children, just don’t want to admit they’re wrong.

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