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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) is a 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, 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 and his support base.
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.
- 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 Murica's 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 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.
- Whenever criticism of Islam comes up, its apologists typically tend to do the following. 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.
- 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.
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.
- See the Wikipedia article on And you are lynching Negroes.
- The Economist article that popularized the term
- Article criticizing overuse of the term
- 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?
- 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.
- Rhode, Jason (August 1, 2018). "There's No Such Thing As "Whataboutism"". https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/08/theres-no-such-thing-as-whataboutism.html.
- Christensen, Christian (January 26, 2015). "We need ‘whataboutism’ now more than ever". http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/whataboutism-charlie-hebdo-king-abdullah.html.