“Whataboutism” September 1, 2022

“Whataboutism” is the relatively new and frequently used trope, offered up in public discourse.  It is almost impossible to miss, if you spend any time on social media at all.  There are even Whatabout pages on Facebook (though I don’t have the energy or the time to dip into that water).

The difficult thing with “Whataboutism” is that it works both as an opening gambit and as a means of forestalling a larger conversation.  One can use it first in an exchange of ideas, in order to avoid the implications of an observation being made: “Yes, but whatabout…?”  Or it can be used further into a discussion as a means of discounting observations that argue a larger more consistent application of a principle: “Go ahead, just make the whatabout argument…”

In both cases, however, it is typically used by people who share a number of characteristics and fall into one more categories:

  • They tend to be people who are trying to forestall or divert attention from a problem.
  • They might be people who refuse to acknowledge that they or their intellectual allies are guilty of the same errors or shortcomings.
  • They fail to consider the larger implications of their arguments.
  • They refuse to consider the inherent contradictions of their position.
  • They often simply do not like the fact that someone has disagreed with them, and they don’t have a convincing counterargument to make.
  • Or they are people who don’t really care about the principle at stake in their argument but were looking for a bit of leverage or a way to score a few points against “the other side”.

It is difficult, if not impossible to make any headway in a conversation with people who make this kind of argument, because there is a willful element embedded in both uses of the appeal.  One can name the tendency to deflect from attention to an issue that you try to raise, and one can name the refusal to consider the larger implications or applications of a point that is raised.  But the willful refusal to entertain a point of view is not likely to evaporate, simply because you name the “whataboutism” that someone invokes.

This does not mean that it isn’t worth naming “whataboutism” where you find it.  One of the insidious features of a gambit like this is that – thanks to social media – a practice of this kind quickly finds root in public discourse, and once it acquires a tag that is brief and memorable, it proliferates.  One way to stave off its influence is to name the practice early and often, and note how the practice short-circuits public discourse.

Long term, however, the only lasting solution is integrity: a commitment to discourse, including a desire to listen, and a willingness to consider the larger questions that we face.  In both of the ways in which it is used, “whataboutism” is not just logically deficient, it is born of a spirit that is incompatible with this kind of integrity.

And while it is important to flag its use, the only sure cure is more, not less conversation, among people who – though they may differ – are committed to the free exchange of ideas and the thorough consideration of the issues that we face.  If enough of us make that effort, those who rely on “whataboutism” and embrace the attitudes that prompt its use will marginalize themselves.


Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

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