What’s The Problem With Whataboutism?

WATCH: These Words Are Guaranteed To Ruin An Apology

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?! 

Whataboutism has a Russian link?!

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 dates back 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 and oppression, the Soviet Union would point out crimes committed by Western nations (e.g., racism, lynchings). This type of whataboutism, journalist Luke Harding noted, is “practically a national ideology” for the Soviet Union.

The term whataboutery is found slightly earlier, in 1974, used during the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A letter published that year in The Irish Times described the “Whatabouts” as “people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy’.”

Both whataboutery and whataboutism are portmanteaus that combine two words: what and about, 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.

Critics who claim “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement are engaging in whataboutism. They deflect attention from the original issue (Black people are almost three times as likely to be killed by police, for example) to another issue without addressing the first. Bringing reverse racism (or the rights of non-marginalized groups) into the conversation is basically whataboutism distracting from the original issue and grievances.

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 President Donald Trump has faced sexual assault allegations.

Speaking of Trump, he pushed whataboutism—as a word and practice—into the spotlight. 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 took 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?” he tweeted on March 20, 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.

And, yes, plenty of everyday whataboutism gets called out, too. It seems like the tactic of our times.

Doing more than finger-pointing

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 for 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.

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.

If you’re ready to own up to that little mistake, you can first brush up on whether “my apology” or “my apologies” is correct.

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