Attention World: Your Favorite Comeback Sucks
There are all sorts of retorts people resort to when criticized or called out for a mistake or wrongdoing of some kind. (Heaven forbid anyone just say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong,” anymore.) One of the most maddening kinds is increasingly being referred to as whataboutism.
You know it when you hear it. “Hey, weren’t you supposed to do the dishes last night?” you ask your roommate as you stare at a sink full of crusty dishes. Instead of acknowledging it, apologizing, and jumping to clean up, your roommate opens a fresh can of whataboutism: “But what about that time last week when you were supposed to take out the garbage and you didn’t?” Wait, what? Can’t they just do the dishes?!
The Russians coined whataboutism?!
This kind of doltish deflection is infuriating. Whataboutism is considered a form of the logical fallacy called tu quoque, Latin for “you also”—more like “And so are you!” in contemporary speech. The idea, here, is that a person charged with some offense tries to discredit the accuser by charging them with a similar one or bringing up a different issue altogether—none of which is relevant to the original accusation. It’s basically like blowing a raspberry at someone and saying “I know you are, but what am I?” Classy, right?
The term whataboutism has been dated to 1978, when it applied to propaganda techniques used by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. When the West criticized the Soviet Union, say, over human rights abuses, the Soviet Union would point out crimes committed by the West (e.g., the practice of lynching in the United States). The term whataboutery is found slightly earlier, in 1974, used of the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Both terms are based on the structure of the common retort What about …?
The whereabouts of whataboutism
If we’re being honest, we’re all guilty of whataboutism. It’s often a knee-jerk response or a last-resort defense when we’ve got no good way to answer a criticism or charge. It’s also a pretty good way to shift the attention off your mistake and onto your accuser.
But one man, in particular, has thrust whataboutism—as a word and practice—into the spotlight. You guessed it: President Donald Trump. Search interest in the term jumped during the investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election, including the Trump campaign’s possible collusion and conspiracy with them. In response to various allegations, Trump has often taken to those two very words that give whataboutism its name:
What about all of the contact with the Clinton campaign and the Russians? Also, is it true that the DNC would not let the FBI in to look?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2017
Trump has what-about’ed off Twitter, too. In December 2018, for instance, Trump deflected on allegations his campaign violated campaign finance laws:
Nobody except for me would be looked at like this. Nobody. What about Congress, where they have a slush fund? And millions and millions of dollars is paid out each year. They have a slush fund. Millions—they don’t talk about campaign finance anything. Have you ever heard of campaign finance laws? Have they listed that on their campaign finance sheets? No.
Trump, however, isn’t the only what-about-er about town. Whataboutism has been used, or called out, in the context of some of the other leading issues in the late 2010s, such as the Me Too Movement. After Senator Al Franken, for example, stepped down over sexual misconduct allegations in 2017–18, many accused him of whataboutism when he raised the fact that Trump has faced sexual assault allegations.
I have been bothered all day by @alfranken “whataboutism” in his resignation speech. Take ownership for what you did and don’t point the finger at others to distract from your own abuse of women! #metoo
— Tiffani McCoy (@TiffaniMcCoy1) December 8, 2017
Not all whataboutism roads lead to Trump, we promise … but they do very often lead back to politics and Twitter. Whataboutism gets leveled at topics ranging from race to Brexit to, yes, those original whatabouts, Russia.
— Louisville WBB (23-2) ✊🏾🐸💖📎 (@Timiah_SweetTea) February 15, 2019
Trying to filter out the negative impact of #brexit on the UK and EU economies is senseless. Whatever would have been happening is being exaggerated by the chaos. If recessive, brexit makes it deeper. If growing, the growth rate is being dampened. #whataboutism
— Chris Lowndes (@chrislowndes) February 5, 2019
There's a distinction to be made between torture and murder of a critic and bombing enemies in a combat. Similarly with Putin, the whataboutism is a false equivalence.
The history of US extrajudicial action is worthy of criticism; that doesn't mean others cannot be criticized. https://t.co/qOdm0fl8OS
— realTurkeySandwich (@barmping) February 13, 2019
And, yes, plenty of everyday whataboutism gets called out, too. It seems like the tactic of our times.
But every case of whataboutism and trivialisation of LGBT struggles shows that some people view LGBT struggles as a joke, as not legitimate and not as HUMAN rights pic.twitter.com/BFaBH1o8Kt
— Jonathan Holliday (@jonsholliday) February 18, 2019
Personal responsibility—remember that?
Whataboutism is worrisome because it pushes aside personal responsibility. Apologies—at least apologies done right—seem to be a dying breed when everyone seems to point fingers and dodges, ducks, or dances around any admission that they may not be perfect. Might someone be hypocritical calling you out for something they’ve done too? Yes, but that doesn’t excuse your refusal to act responsibly and offer a genuine, thoughtful apology.
How do you point out hypocrisy without engaging in whataboutism?
— Armin Navabi (@ArminNavabi) February 14, 2019
We’re never going to completely wipe out whataboutism, but we can work to change our own behavior. The next time someone calls you out, you might say, “Yes, you’re right”… then go do those dishes. One little step forward at a time.