Have you come across the idea of “whataboutism” or “whataboutery”?
It seems to be cropping up on lots of places for me right now. And it’s challenged my behaviour and attitude.
In essence it is an effort to discredit a critic’s argument by accusing them of hypocrisy without directly addressing or disproving their point of view. It is a solid response that can be used against almost any criticism: “yeah but what about that thing you/they/everyone did?” A classic tool of deflection to avoid responsibility, and move focus onto the other person (or group of people).
The Opposite of Self-Growth
Whataboutism is a pretty crappy reaction. It’s a back-against-the wall kind of response that we use when we have no real defence or answer. And it enables us to stop reflecting on what we’ve done, how we can solve problems, and where we might be able to grow.
Whataboutism uses moderately unrelated stuff to create a charge of hypocrisy against a person.
For example…Ed receives a criticism: “you turn up late to work too often”. He deflects it by saying: “yeah but…”what about John, he told me he drinks a bottle of wine every night – what impact must that be having on his performance!”
Ed essentially asks his boss to decide, which is worse? There is no link between John’s alcohol consumption and Ed’s lateness. However, through whataboutism a strange point is raised to deflect away from his lateness. “So what I’m a little late, at least I’m not hungover”.
It turns reality into some bizarre mix of relativism and manufactured moral equivalencies where we are sales-people, attempting to sell the fact that “if you think this is bad, look at this other person/situation”. It gives us a platform to quietly justify our own course of action by saying “yeah but what about what they’re doing, that’s worse” as our defence. And so begins the race to the bottom of the morality barrel.
No Second Chances. No Forgiveness
Whataboutism works because no human is perfect. Everyone carries hypocritical moral failings.
Whataboutism thrives by removing perspective and nuance. It exclaims that “any bad is ALL bad”.
Upon a dualistic backdrop where we need a filter that provides clear binary, black and white, right and wrong, goodies and baddies framework, it allows us to pick one another apart and shoot down conversations with bombastic irrelevance.
This leads us to throw the baby out with the bath water. For example, when someone is an advocate for a particular cause (eg fighting for better conditions for clothing producers), and someone says “you can’t listen to him, he pretends to care but he still eats meat”.
There is a growing tendency to attempt discrediting peoples’ ideas/messages because of subjective whataboutery, where we cast abstract moral judgements. We ignore and reject the message, however good and necessary it might be, because we’ve found a reason to call them out as a hypocrite.
When no human is perfect, we will be able to find a reason to reject any message that challenges us to think or act differently, as hypocritical.
What About Responsibility?
Political leaders teach us an insidious lesson about responsibility through their use of whataboutism. We unconsciously follow this example. If someone questions you, don’t attempt to understand to see their perspective. Instead say “OK, but what about you/that/them!?”
The Value of Whataboutism
When used to justify ourselves or excuse substandard and even deplorable choices, whataboutism is dangerous. However, there is some value that it can bring to our discussions and way of understanding the world when it is part of a larger response.
It would be just as silly to say “never ask what about” because there are times it is necessary. It is valuable when it comes AFTER we take responsibility for our own actions first, and most importantly, when it’s RELEVANT.
To come back to the example of Ed and John. Ed should acknowledge his own wrongdoing before asking about John.
If Ed feels like he’s unfairly criticised then it’s quite alright to ask the question. But only after he recognises his own responsibility. To hold his hands up, apologise, and acknowledge that he hasn’t been adhering to the rules. RATHER than using the what about to deflect and distract so that he can continue behaving in the same way without consequence.
There is a significant difference here. To stop with the whataboutism isn’t to ignore the past actions of a person. Instead it is to hold all things in perspective. To look at things more objectively for what they are rather than what we want them to be in order to feed a particular agenda we might have.
We look at this in further detail in this episode of the show.