By Benjamin Curtis
Whataboutism is an argumentative tactic where a person or group responds to an accusation or difficult question by deflection. Instead of addressing the point made, they counter it with “but what about X?”.
As bickering couples and parents of siblings will know, this happens in daily life all too often. “You lied about where you were last night!” a person feeling wronged will say. To which, instead of owning up, the partner replies: “Well, what about you? You lie to me all the time!”
Similarly, in response to being told off for the state of her room, one child’s whataboutist reply will be to say: “But what about my brother’s room? His is worse.”
It happens on social media, in politics and in societal and international conflict too. To wit, UK prime minister Boris Johnson, in February 2022. In response to Keir Starmer’s accusation of wrongdoing in relation to the partygate affair, Johnson sought to deflect attention by (falsely) accusing Starmer of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile during his time as director of public prosecutions.
Media commentators have rightly pointed out that Johnson was simply adopting what one journalist called Donald Trump’s “favourite dodge”. When criticised, Trump would routinely deflect attention by claiming that someone else was worse.
The rise of social media and increasing political polarisation may well have made whataboutism more visible. But it is certainly not a new tactic. It was, in fact, taught by the sophists, a group of lecturers, writers and teachers in Greece, over 2,500 years ago.
In some limited circumstances it may be a legitimate tactic, for example, when it is relevant to highlight that the person making the accusation has a bias. For the most part, however, even if the person making the accusation is a hypocrite or has double standards, this does not mean that their accusation is false.
Origins of whataboutism
The exact term was first used in print by a reader named Lionel Bloch in 1978 in a letter to the Guardian. “Sir,” writes Bloch, “your leader [article], East, West and the plight of the warring rest (May 18), is the finest piece of ‘whataboutism’ I have read in many years.” He goes on to decry the use of this tactic as a “Soviet import” used by “progressive minds” to defend communism.
But Bloch’s usage derives from earlier uses of similar terms. In a letter to the Irish Times published on January 30 1974, reader Sean O’Conaill complains about the use of the tactic by IRA defenders, to whom he refers to as “the Whatabouts”. Three days later, the Irish journalist John Healy published a column in the same paper, on the same topic, dubbing the tactic “Whataboutery”.
Formally speaking, whataboutism is a fallacy most closely related to the ad hominem fallacy, wherein a person responds to an accusation by attacking the person making it.
It is a fallacy because even if the counter-accusation is true, it doesn’t defend whoever is being accused (the lying partner, the messy child, Donald Trump) in the first place. At best, it shows that both parties behaved shamefully. And, of course, two wrongs do not make a right.
In philosophy, an argument is a reasoned debate aimed at truth. But in many other contexts, people often do not view arguments in this way. They view them, rather, as battles to be won. Their goal is to get their opponent to concede as much as possible without their conceding anything themselves.
Viewed in this way, whataboutism is an effective strategy. It works on the principle that offence is the best form of defence. By launching a counter-attack, you place your opponent on the back foot.
Why whataboutism is so popular
Psychologists suggest that this view of arguments is prevalent in political debate because it is driven by partisan bias. When confronted by an opponent with a different political viewpoint, you are more likely to view what they say as an attack to be countered, rather than a point to be debated.
More pernicious is when whataboutism is put to work as a misinformation tool.
Since the cold war era Russian propagandists have responded to criticism of Russian policies by immediately pointing out that western countries have similar policies.
The same ploy is routinely seen in other conflict situations. Chinese propagandists have used it to deflect criticism of how China’s Uyghur population is treated. Junta propagandists in Myanmar have used it similarly when criticised for the regime’s treatment of Rohingya muslims. The list goes on.
The sophists were the propagandists of ancient times. They prided themselves on being able to convince an audience – using any means available, including whataboutism – of any conclusion, irrespective of its truth.
Plato was an ardent critic of the sophists. He vehemently made the point that arguments should be aimed at truth. His most famous work in this respect is the Gorgias dialogue, which sees Socrates and Callicles debate the good and evil of man. Fittingly, it contains the earliest example of whataboutism that I have been able to find and the best response to it:
Socrates: You’re breaking your original promise, Callicles. If what you say contradicts what you really think, your value as my partner in searching for the truth will be at an end.
Callicles: You don’t always say what you think either, Socrates.
Socrates: Well, if that’s true, it only makes me just as bad as you …
Benjamin Curtis is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Ethics, Nottingham Trent University
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Steven Neale Gosney says
Interesting topic. I have discussed this issue with office mates many times. I am not sure the concept of “what about ism” is a useful concept. Fairly, this concept may be employed when a person wishes to deflect a question that they do not want to answer. However, isn’t the whole basis of law based on analogy? If so, then “what about …” is a way to analogize similar situations. The Constitutional Equal protection clause is based on this entirely. For example, John Smith is offered 15 years in prison for his joint participation in a robbery with Joe Blow. Joe Blow was offered probation. Is it not fair for the defense attorney to respond, “But what about the sentence of John Smith?” Similarly, in politics, if one says, “R are for corporate welfare” is it not a fair comeback to say, “What about Disney?” Turning that around, if one says, “Ds are against corporate welfare” the response would be “what about Disney.” The point is that what should be avoided is jingoism to dismiss legitimate arguments and questions. Brushing aside good faith arguments with a slogan is polarizing and not forwarding meaningful debate.
Bill C says
Have you ever heard of a closing argument where the attorney said “Your Honor, Joe Blow got probation therefore John Smith should get the same? Nonsense. Relativism is not a legal argument that supersedes the facts of the case. That argument occurs after the case is decided. “The law doesn’t do what’s right but what’s legal”.
Steven Neale Gosney says
Why actually, yes. Defense attorneys often argue co defendant sentences at the sentencing hearing. Further, defense attorneys negotiate plea agreements based on sentences of co-defendants.
Steven N G: The point is distraction. Try talking to a Trump supporter about anything Trump has done wrong, and that person will, almost invariably, state “What about Biden?” That way, they don’t have to face the possible truth in the topic. I find that I have to say “We can talk about Biden another time, right now we’re talking about Trump” in an attempt to stay on topic. Unfortunately, if they cannot deflect, they end the conversation.
Bill C says
@Gosney so you’re saying relativism (whataboutism) DOES supersede the facts of the case. IMO a winning case relies on the skill of the attorney in presenting the facts persuasively. Maybe Joe Blow, in your example, was an unwitting taxi driver?
Bill C says
@Gosney PS That’s not to say that judges don’t have their own prejudices. When Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barret were appointed to the Supreme Court it was assumed they would overturn Roe v Wade. My personal opinion is they already decided the case in their minds and it was their job to overturn it by reverse engineering it with legal justifications.
Steven Neale Gosney says
Is that not also true for the left wing justices?
@ SNG Let me ask you this. . . precisely what vitally personal sacred right has a “left wing” justice of the Supreme court taken away from you?
@ SNG. . . BTW. . . you just wrote a whataboutism in question form. Get It?
Steven Neale Gosney says
Yes – as you can tell, i am skeptical of the concept of “whataboutism” — I think it is an ideological trick to avoid consistency. So the question is: what is the standard? Should the standard be evenly applied to all? Or only to our political opponents … I think we need to be fair to both. I am against applying different standards to ourselves than we apply to others.
As to the question “precisely what vitally personal sacred right has a “left wing” justice of the Supreme court taken away from you?” I thought we were discussing philosophical concepts, not personal issues. I have nothing personal against any Justice. (maybe a few local judges) :)
@SNG. . . This particular thread started with your defensive (whataboutism) response to Bill C’s comment about the intent of “new” Supreme court Justices to overturn Roe V Wade. An act that leaves ZERO doubt that the Supreme court is nothing but another “political” powerhouse within our government.
Absolutely, all judges are flawed human beings and therefore come to each and every bench with their personal life perspective and filters. “Judgement” is just that. . . just as imperfect as humans. To a certain extant, we swallow hard and quietly accept those judgments we disagree with. . . It’s a matter of degree though. . .
When the highest court in our nation overturns a 50 YEAR “settled judgement”, which will massively damage a woman’s rights to privacy and control of her own body, this is far beyond what ANY OF US us should just roll over and accept. Especially with a flippant remark like “is that not also true of left wing justices?”
While I’m far beyond child bearing age. . . this ruling is “personal” to me, for the sake of ALL women! When THREE judges “completely mislead” us all during their Senate confirmation hearings claiming that Roe V Wade is “established precedent”. . . it is personal to me! When McConnell has spent over 20 years stacking ALL Federal courts with “conservative” judges. . . it is personal to me! When McConnell would not even allow a Senate hearing for President Obama’s choice for Supreme Court justice (judge Garland) . . . YET, he shoved through trump’s choice (Barrett) less than a month before the 2020 election. . . it is personal to me!
Even if we were only speaking of “philosophical” concepts. . . I would say our democratic processes are being massively eroded by powerful right winged extremist strategies which are rapidly leading to very dangerous authoritarian fascism, and that our moral code of TRUTH,ethics and integrity has been all but demolished. . . to say nothing of vanished compassion, peace and love. Is that philosophical enough for you?
Funny, that the “Whataboutism” is referenced as a Trump thing, not a Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Biden swamp thing ? I don’t believe that Biden-Harris will ever own these 1st 16 months, or anything going forward fro that matter unless there is some relative positivity from it. The grocery store mass shooting happens under Trump, that makes Trump-Pence racists. Putin invades the Ukraine, Biden gets the pass. You can bet if that happened under Trump, it would be spun as Trump-Putin Russia, Russia, Russia, Because that’s Whataboutism that a certain party in power across the board has always been about. America was supposed to heal under the great unifier, yet crime, inflation, etc. continue to get worse under the Biden-Harris. These are facts, I had a gut feel that the article would always find a way to negatively represent Trump-Pence and absolve Biden-Harris of any of this current state of affairs. really, baby formula shortages. Didn’t have any on 2021, but now this is a pandemic Covid thing. This is a Biden-Harris crisis that’s being mishandled really.
Bill C says
What about the Trump insurrection to overthrow democracy?
LOL! A really great “whataboutism” Bill!
Unfortunately, there is no way to get through to “cult” members like ole’ jimbo. They care nothing for facts, and their current obsession is to blame “absolutely EVERYTHING” on President Biden and VP Harris. . . and, I mean everything! They senselessly post FOX talking points, disregard ANY and ALL negative facts about trump, while twisting themselves knots talking in nonsensical circles. . . never citing any credentialed source. . . essentially proving no reasonable or logical point at all. Just a lot of negative emotional nonsense.
Why do I feel you’ve just proved their point?
Your comments and posts are the epitome of Whataboutism. IMO
Jimbo99: You repeatedly see the world through Trump colored glasses. Maybe you should take those glasses off and see the rest of what’s going on.
That being said, for you, I will rewrite what I wrote here before. If you try to talk to a Biden supporter about something he has done wrong, the supporter will say “What about Trump?” Deflection is a tactic to preserve one’s belief that they are correct.
I don’t see it as Trump colored glasses. This inflation is Biden-Harris pure & simple. Trump may have been POTUS at the time. This video was Dec 2020. That was Biden and the rest of those that duped America with Covid in 2020. watch it, pay aatention the plan was to remove Trump, then appeal to those voters and”not really give them anything” It’s no deflection it’s the Biden agenda. FCOL they actually admitted to the coup of Trump in 2020.
If you don’t hear & see it for your very eyes, I can’t help you on that. I have to take Biden & everyone that was in on that video conference call at face value when they thumping their chests over the win, strategy going forward, one month after pulling it off at the election date. I mean, if you love this inflation, then more power to you. More folks are being left behind in it. People need to stop using the T word for what B is doing to everyone of us. As for the video fast forward to the 1:30:30 mark of the video if you can’t sit thru nearly 1 hour 40 minutes of it. I just recommend watching the whole thing. Biden was more than a month away from being inaugurated at this date stamp of the video upload. If this man’s words & deeds aren’t the evidence of his true motives & agenda I just can’t help you with that. I believe in the goodness of mankind, but there’s a group of individuals here that are plotting out exclusionary diversity here.
I have no idea whether Trump will be the guy vs Biden in 2024, or whether there’s another, I hear DeSantis and a name or few. What I predict we’ll see, Biden will try to make this look as good as he can for the election years. I think it’s too late for 2022 mid terms, but he still has until 2024 to make you forget about $ 4.50/gallon gasoline, baby formula shortages and even the Roe vs Wade fail here in 2022. If you can hold trump accountable & responsible, Biden is held to that same standard, that’s not whataboutism, it’s just holding everyone to the same level standard that Biden & the D’s claim they are better than the rest at doing.
You lost me with “Duped with C19 ” wont waste any more time. BTW Amazing Joe can control Inflation all over the World. WOW Still seething over Election loss. The Standard if there was one under the orange bloated gloat was set pretty low, No? I bet you still have signs up at the end of your driveway. One more item, What do you think tfg was doing by ignoring C19. Trying to make it look better for the Election and lost more jobs than ALL the POTUS combined. There chew on that WHATABOUTISM. Its the Twilight Zone FPC