Most of us have engaged in conversations deflated by the prongs of “whataboutism,” or at least can identify the device when we see it. Recently defined in the Oxford dictionary as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue,” the term “whataboutism” has risen in popularity in both political discourse and everyday conversation.
The rhetorical device is often associated with Soviet Union propaganda techniques used during the Cold War, which pointed to U.S. hypocrisy in their treatment of African Americans. However, the concept is not in the least bit uniquely Russian, as convenient as that would be for critics of Trumps’ relationship with Putin.
Whataboutism was originally used by Sean O'Conaill in a 1974 publication of The Irish Times, referring to the “Whatabouts” with regards to “people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional IRA with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy’.” To delve even further, the Romans had their own word for it as well: “tu quoque,” meaning “you, also” in Latin. Even without a definition, though, the basis of whataboutism falls in line with people’s general instinct to remain consistent or follow a coherent line of logic.
The term and technique are everywhere, and when identified, it’s typically met with harsh scrutiny. For instance, in a 2017 interview, Bill O’Reilly stated “but he’s a killer” regarding the president’s relationship to Vladamir Putin. Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?” Roasted! Criticism terminated; another big win for big man Trump. Following the interview, NPR published an article titled “Trump Embraces One Of Russia's Favorite Propaganda Tactics — Whataboutism.” Blast. Score, NPR.
Just as whataboutism can be employed to silence a valid point or criticism, so can the identification of it. Trump was actually right about the blood on our country’s hands, although I don’t think his intention was to slam American exceptionalism, rather to distract from the matter at hand. Sometimes whatabouters accidentally raise a valid point. Like conservatives who challenge critics of Trump’s immigration policies. “Well, what about Obama’s record amount of deportation?” Yeah, those are despicable too. Or those who bring up Bill Clinton in reaction to critics of how Trump treats women; yes, these are both bad.
Nevertheless, the technique is frequently (and irrationally) abused. For example, 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg endures substantial scrutiny from climate change skeptics: right-wing media personalities and Reddit users. Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza attempted to whatabout her activism by comparing her blue-eyed and braided pigtail appearance to Nazi propaganda. Way to fight the good fight, D’Souza.
Whataboutism tends to be criticized as a method of removing the nuances of a situation, deflecting attention from the issue at hand and dismissing any possibility of moral judgement on the grounds of hypocrisy. The pot calling the kettle black, if you will. But isn’t recognizing with the duplicity of one’s own argument – to recognize the contradiction between their morals and actions – effectively adding nuance? If whataboutism intends to call out previous deviations from moral standards, it can be a valuable reckoning of context. How else are we to understand our current circumstances without understanding the moral failings in our history?
When Obama’s deportation numbers come up in political discussion, it doesn’t deflect the center of the issue: it just reinforces that the U.S. government has always been shameful. Writing off these additional talking points as propagandic whataboutisms stifles actual reflection. In this sense, scorning whataboutisms is a propaganda technique in and of itself.