|Cogito ergo sum
Logic and rhetoric
“”This tweet is to give notice that the argument "there are bigger problems than this!" will no longer be an acceptable diversion unless you are personally working to stop the inevitable Heat Death of the Universe.
Whataboutism (also known as Whataboutery especially in the UK) is a deflection or red herring version of the classic tu quoque logical fallacy — sometimes implementing the balance fallacy as well — which is employed as a propaganda technique. It is used as a diversionary tactic to shift the focus off of an issue and avoid having to directly address it. This technique works by twisting criticism back onto the critic and in doing so revealing the original critic's hypocrisy. The usual syntax is "What about...?" followed by an issue on the opponent's side which is vaguely, if at all, related to the original issue. An old favorite of the Soviet Union, and Marxists/the extreme left in general, the strategy was originally used in the form of "And at your place, they hang black people." In recent years, whataboutism made a comeback in Vladimir Putin's Russia (since the Russians seemingly learned all the wrong lessons from the Cold War), and has also seen a rise in usage by Donald Trump, his support base, and the rest of the far-right.
Simply put, whataboutism refers to the bringing up of one issue in order to distract from the discussion of another. It does not apply to the comparison and analysis of two similar issues in terms such as why some are given more social prominence than others. Whataboutism can be found in many walks of life, not just the political arena, but among religious apologists, and even within rival factions of sports fandom.
- As mentioned, one of the most common examples of this fallacy was Soviet responses to criticism by pointing out the United States' own failings, such as the mob lynching of blacks. "And you are lynching Negroes" (or "And you are hanging blacks", as the term Negro fell into disrepute) was a common joke in the Soviet Union at the United States' expense,[note 1] used when Americans accused the Soviets of violating human rights. While often just an informal joke, sometimes this argument was used seriously. It's a tu quoque argument and a type of whataboutism. Instead of attempting to justify the behavior of the Soviet Union, this argument is an easy way to deflect blame onto America by implying they're hypocrites.[note 2]
- Another similar term, whataboutery, was coined during The Troubles to describe deflection of criticisms of the Provisional IRA.
- During the 1970s, American political satirist Art Buchwald coined the phrase "What about Chappaquiddick?", in reference to Richard Nixon's supporters deflecting the Watergate scandal by bringing up Democratic scandals, namely the Chappaquiddick incident.
- In the current era, a rather common use of whataboutism is seen from defenders of Israel. No matter what Israel does to inspire global protests and objections — such as the 2014 "Operation Protective Edge" that killed over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, a quarter of them children — many Israel-defenders try to change the conversation by asking "What about [fill in the blank with Iran, Ukraine, etc.] Some even admit to the whataboutism, but think it is nevertheless at least partially justified: "It is whataboutery, yes, but a legitimate piece of whataboutery I believe."
- Russia invading a country is okay because IRAQ and LIBYA.
- A complaint about the excessive bureaucracy involved in getting some clothes dry-cleaned was met with a complaint about the difficulty in getting a UK visa for Russian citizens.
- In a rare reversal, Russia was accused of hypocrisy after highlighting the war crimes committed by Australian military personnel in Afghanistan.
- In response to criticism of China's human rights record at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, Chinese diplomat Fu Cong told the Council, “The US is notorious for prison abuse at Guantanamo prison, its gun violence is rampant, racism is its deep-rooted malaise. The United States conducts large-scale extra-territorial eavesdropping, uses drones to attack other countries’ innocent civilians, its troops on foreign soil commit rape and murder of local people. It conducts kidnapping overseas and uses black prisons."
- Cuba will often criticize various (admittedly bad) United States domestic policies to direct attention away from its own domestic policy failures. One example comes in the form of a reprimanding of American treatment of Puerto Rico, an island with over a century of American control under its belt.
- Augusto Pinochet's secret police DINA took several photos of British prisons in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, in order to deflect from British criticisms of the Pinochet regime's human rights abuses at the United Nations.
- Whenever criticism of Islam comes up, its apologists typically tend to do the following.[note 3]
- 1. Randomly invoke US foreign policy (the textbook definition of whataboutism).
- 2. Appeal to the Crusades as if they were recent events (while handwaving contemporary Islamist terrorism).
- 3. Recite (admittedly horrible) quotes from the Old Testament, even when their opponent is neither Jewish nor Christian, nor has even invoked the Bible to begin with and despite the fact that many Muslims actually tend to believe in the Old Testament too.
- 4. (Specifically when discussing Islamic antisemitism) Ask why the Jewish person asking isn't concerned about white Christian antisemitism, even if the Jewish person is.
- At home in the rationalism community, the "Dear Muslima" or "Elevatorgate" kerfuffle was an incident where Richard Dawkins used whataboutery to dismiss a woman's conference-creep experiences, implying that her complaint wasn't justified because Muslim women suffer more than her.
- Donald Trump: "What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?"
- On the rare event in presidential debates when US imperialism is criticized, the politicians bring up 9/11 for no reason except to derail the discussion and have the mindless audience cheer.
- Feminism isn't needed in the first world because The Middle East.
- On the same note, MRAs will oftentimes derail conversations on women's issues by screaming "what about men's issues?" when it's not relevant.
- Noam Chomsky has an occasional bad habit here, despite being the source of one of the most famous quotes regarding the issue — see his comments on the atrocities in Cambodia and Charlie Hebdo attacks in particular.
- Neo-Nazi American Front leader Bob Heick responding to Geraldo Rivera's evocation of the Holocaust by literally shouting "What about Josef Stalin?!"
- Ann Coulter defended Roy Moore’s alleged molesting of teenage girls by accusing John F. Kennedy of doing the same.
- Defenders/enablers of the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot often deflect criticism by pointing to real or perceived (but mostly the latter) riots by Antifa and Black Lives Matter in an attempt to justify the riot without actually addressing the Capitol riot itself. This is also factually inaccurate, since almost all of at least the BLM protests were peaceful and the rioters generally did not associate themselves with the protestors. As for Antifa, the right has been known to overdramatize and overexaggerate the violence, which is usually just confined to things like setting wastebins on fire. Additionally, neither of them have tried to take down a democratically elected government.[citation NOT needed]
- The USA's admittedly horrid for-profit prison system is often used by tankies and anti-American nationalists to justify their own mass incarcerations and abuses. For instance, "China is just doing standard counter-terrorism by incarcerating a few million Uighurs! If you have a problem with the usage of imprisonment, why don't you do something about the 3 million people in the AmeriKKKan prison system!"
- Robert E. Kelly and Brian Reynolds Myers attract North Korean war crimes issues that are not directly related to World War II to criticize South Koreans' anti-Japanese sentiment caused by Japanese war crimes and Japanese historical revisionism during World War II. They argue that South Korea should abandon its anti-Japanese sentiment and be close to Japan, and instead show anti-North Korean hostility. Similarly, when South Korean liberals make legitimate anger-based accusations of Japanese ultra-nationalist historical revisionism, Shin Ki-wook attacks South Korean liberals' anti-Japanese "Korean ethnic nationalism".
- In the wake of the racist mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo NY, connection were drawn between the shooter's belief in the Great Replacement theory which was echoed by Tucker Carlson. Glenn Greenwald and Tucker's defenders online brought up the shooting at a congressional baseball game by a Bernie Sanders supporter and Rachel Maddow watcher.
- America shouldn't have to do anything about climate change because China.
- China shouldn't have to do anything about climate change because America.
Several commentators have also noted that whataboutism accusations themselves can be used as method of deflection in debates. Professor of journalism Christian Christensen argued that whataboutism accusations can enable double standards by dismissing criticisms of one's own behavior by focusing on those of others, while whataboutism itself can be useful in pointing out double standards and contradictions present in society. Christensen cited the example Noam Chomsky being accused of whataboutism when Chomsky pointed out the double standards in Western leaders' condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo attacks by Islamic extremists, and their eulogies for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, in spite of their shared views in Islamic fundamentalism and disregard for human rights. In such cases, state violence and human rights violations by "them", i.e. opponents of the Western world, are often framed as innate and systemic, while similar violence by "us" i.e. the Western world and its allies, are framed as necessary evils to defend the democratic system.
The general rule of thumb is that it's OK to point out hypocrisy if there actually are double standards being applied rather than just a diversion tactic, though the demarcation is not well defined. For instance, if Alice steals a lawnmower from Bob, and Bob takes Alice to court, Alice would not be in the right for pointing out that Charlie stole Denise's car without repercussion, because stealing a lawnmower is still a crime even if a lesser crime than car theft, nor is the law being applied unfairly when it comes to Alice. But if Bob had stolen Alice's snow-blower a few months prior without any repercussions, Alice would indeed have a legitimate grievance as the law is clearly only being applied in one direction. The question arises whether that grievance remains legitimate if it was Charlie instead of Bob who stole the snow-blower from Alice; one crime is being pursued over another to Alice's disfavor, but Bob is not being treated unfairly by the law in this case.
So let's say Russia placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, to which the US responds rather aggressively, it could indeed be a legitimate complaint to say "what about your missiles pointed at the USSR in Turkey?", as it's virtually the same scenario with the parties reversed. It would become less legitimate of a grievance if the defense was "what about China pointing missiles at the USSR?" as it's a similar scenario but doesn't involve one of the parties, a much less legitimate argument if it's "what about India's missiles pointed at Pakistan" as they are both separate parties, and completely illegitimate if it's "what about racism in Brazil" as it's both a completely different scenario with no connection to either original party.
- See the Wikipedia article on And you are lynching Negroes.
- The Economist article that popularized the term
- Article criticizing overuse of the term
- In reference to organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
- This joke first began in the 1920s and carried on to the 1960s; after that, the US civil rights movement started to make the argument seem less and less relevant.
- A distinction between criticizing Islam and Islamophobia must be made, however. For instance, Islamophobia would be picking a few violent verses from the Quran and then concluding that Islam and its followers are evil. Criticism would be how violent and cruel the Quran is and how it conflicts with modern society's morals.
- The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West. Lucas, Edward (2009). Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 307.
- See the Wikipedia article on And you are lynching Negroes.
- Trump Embraces One Of Russia's Favorite Propaganda Tactics — Whataboutism
- It is in fact the first usage of the term "Whataboutism", used by the Economist
- Oh yeah? Well, what about Chappaquiddick?
- Russia accused of 'hypocrisy' after attacking Australia over Afghanistan war crimes report
- Activities of Virgilio Paz in Northern Ireland during 1975, National Security Archive
- Schwartz, Ian. Trump to "Fake News": What About The Alt-Left That Came Charging At The Alt-Right? Do They Have Any Guilt? RealClearPolitics. August 15, 2017.
- "Demonstrations & Political Violence in America: New Data for Summer 2020". September 3, 2020.
- "The View's Sunny Hostin Under Fire for Equating US and China's Moral Standards in Controversial Statement". 2023-04-03.
- Kruta, Virginia (2023-03-28). "Sunny Hostin Blows Off China’s Concentration Camps, Says It’s Worse That America Puts Black People In Jail".
- Kelly, Robert E. (4 June 2015). "Why South Korea is So Obsessed with Japan". Real Clear Defense.
- See Brian Reynolds Myers#Japanese war crimes issues
- Monbiot, George (2015-06-12). "Stop using China as an excuse for inaction on climate change".
- Brown, Matthew; Press, Associated (2021-11-02). "China envoy defends emissions at climate summit, criticizes U.S. under Trump".
- Rhode, Jason (August 1, 2018). "There's No Such Thing As "Whataboutism"".
- Christensen, Christian (January 26, 2015). "We need ‘whataboutism’ now more than ever".