What is Whataboutism?
The word can be heard around the internet on all forms of social media as repute to previous comments. But is it used appropriately? Are you using it appropriately? Or are you just engaging in your own form of rebuttal that doesn’t directly attack the reasoning of you adversary’s argument by using the allegation?
A Little History
The term dates back to the Irish and British conflicts in the 1960’s but really came to broader popularity thought it’s usage by the Soviets during the cold war. When the western world accused the Soviet Union of something the Soviet Union would then respone with “What about..”. For instance, if the US accused the Soviet Union of harsh condition in their prisons the Soviet Union would respond with “What about slavery?”.
Whataboutism isn’t as simple as many around the internet worlds would like to believe. It is a form of deflection that accuses the accuser of an equivalent or greater guilt by accusing them of a different or disparate action than what they are accusing you (or another) of. The last part is the important part. The counter must also contain a ‘different or disparate action’. This is the portion of definition that many fail to recognize which ultimately leads to incorrect usage.
What It Is
Let’s say person A accuses politician B of being corrupt because politician B took part in action A. Person B responds indicating that politician A (one person happens to be enamored with and probably has posters taped his bedroom wall of her/him) took part in action B. Action and and action B are not related which introduces the disparity in action making this a clear case of whataboutis. The later action is usually an action that is just as bad or worse which generally brings into question the accusers character in an attempt to discredit her and thereby her accusation. This leap is why this is not considered a credible response.
What It Isn’t
So, what isn’t whataboutism? If person B responds indicating that politician A took part in action A as well. Why not? In short because the action is exactly the same action. This is an attack upon the accuser’s argument, though not a straight forward one. It builds on an assumption that person A accepts the same behavior from politician A. If this is true it is a legitimate response as it attacks the accuser reasoning at its core. The accuser’s reasoning, even though not usually directly stated, is that politician A took part in action A, and that action A is corrupt, therefor politician A is corrupt. This chain can be broken by reasoning that politician A did not partake in action A or that action A is not really considered corrupt. The only real way for accuser A the dismantle this argument is to state that action A is indeed corrupt and accept that both politician A and B are corrupt for taking part in the action.
So, next time you feel you need to sling the insult of whataboutism around and your adversary is using the same action in his rebuttal be sure you understand what it really means and how to use it. Otherwise your just engaging in your own form of whataboutism by trying to discredit your opponent for using an invalid argument!
Zimmer, Ben (9 June 2017). “The Roots of the ‘What About?’ Ploy”. The Wall Street Journal.