Critical Thinking Glossary: Whataboutism
by Grace Taotua·
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The Foreword's Critical Thinking Glossary
With the internet at our fingertips, we have more access to ideas than ever before. Concepts that were once relegated to the world of academia are accessible to any app-dweller who takes an interest.
In our Critical Thinking Glossary series, we'll deep dive into a term, idea or phrase that might help you better understand a concept and unpack your ways of thinking. Sometimes the vocab we use online can be a touch overdone (Normalise! Gaslighting! Problematic!), but hey, that's the nature of our fast-paced, illuminated internet culture. We don't necessarily subscribe to every one of these notions, but it's fun to explore the sea of ideas floating around out there. At the very least, you'll look super smart at your next function (team with Flex Conversation Cards for extra points). We'll take a look at the concept from different angles and give you some prompts in which to challenge yourself, giving you: the good, the bad and the puzzling.
Next up: Whataboutism
WTF is it?
Whataboutism, also known as whataboutery, is a technique that attempts to discredit an opponent's position by accusing them of hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. It's basically a rhetorical diversion.
Sean O'Conaill originally used the term in a 1974 publication of The Irish Times during The Northern Irish Conflict with regards to "people who answer every condemnation of the IRA with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the 'enemy'."
In our last instalment of the Critical Thinking Glossary, we explored the Straw Man Fallacy, which is similar but has some distinct differences. A straw man argument occurs when someone takes another person's point, distorts it or exaggerates it, and then attacks the distortion. Whataboutism, on the other hand, directly weaponises an action or belief of the other person, which may or may not be related to the argument at hand.
If we're going to get fancy, whataboutism is a variant of tu quoque (Latin for "you also"), or the "appeal to hypocrisy". It intends to discredit the opponent's argument by attacking their own personal behaviour as inconsistent with the argument's conclusion.
Friend A: Hey, I just saw you shoplift those shoes. This is a small business, that's not very cool.
Friend B: Oh, come on. Don't pretend you've never stolen anything before.
See what we mean? A classic tu quoque!
While whataboutism has been used by the likes of Soviet dictators to global media to, duh, Donald Trump, we see it day-to-day in our online and IRL communications. Does something like this ring a bell?
Person A on the internet: Here's a link to donate to a mental health charity, a cause I care a lot about.
Person B on the internet: What about the famine in Yemen?? I haven't seen you post once about that!
Some more examples of whataboutism…
Person A: Black Lives Matter
Person B: All Lives Matter!
Housemate A: I noticed you didn't take the bins out this week. Can you please make sure you do it next week?
Housemate B: What about you! You've had your dishes in the sink all day!
Friend A: I'm working on reducing my ecological footprint, so I've gone vegan, have started composting at home and am no longer using single-use plastics.
Friend B: You're literally wearing fast fashion right now; you're not in a position to preach about the environment.
The good (how can this term be used to instigate positive reflection)
This term puts a name to one of the most used argument techniques across all societies and platforms. It can help us reflect on how we remove nuances from a situation as a way of deflecting attention from the issue at hand and dismissing any possibility of moral judgement on the grounds of hypocrisy.
Whataboutism skirts personal responsibility by pointing the finger at others and putting the moral onus back on them. It can defend the status quo by suggesting there is no point in solving one issue when other problems exist. If we accept whataboutism arguments, nothing could ever be deemed wrong, as long as we can make accusations of things that are worse.
The bad (how could this term be counterproductive)
In certain situations, whataboutism can provide necessary context into whether a particular line of critique is relevant or fair.
Let's get meta. Could the accusation of whataboutism itself be a tu quoque fallacy, as it creates a double standard by dismissing criticisms of one's own behaviour?
It could be a valuable tool to expose contradictions and hypocrisy, and when used thoughtfully, it can add nuance to a debate rather than deflection. Calling people out on their hypocrisy can help them see their own sanctimony and double standards.
The puzzling (how can I interrogate this concept and my own actions?)
- Do I tend to twist criticism back on people I disagree with?
- Have I ever used my own sense of morality to shame others into seeing my point of view?
- How willing am I to accept that I may be just as imperfect as the person I'm arguing with?
- We are all hypocrites; accepting this and doing our best to work on ourselves is crucial. Other people's past actions and flaws don't render all their points invalid.
- Remember, whataboutism will always exist, and we are really only responsible for our own behaviour. The next time someone calls you out, rather than retorting with their flaws and transgressions, it might be better to make a genuine apology.
Phew! That was a big one. What are your thoughts on whataboutism? DM us at @the.foreword. We bloody love a chat. And stay tuned for more bite-sized idea explorations as part of our Critical Thinking Glossary series here on the Flex Factory blog. Bye!