When my sons were young and I caught one of them doing something questionable (e.g. taking one more cookie than we had said he could have, or surreptitiously playing videogames on a school night) one of their go-to responses was always, “but [insert other brother name here] did [some other form of malfeasance] and you didn’t say anything when he did it!” The strategy being deployed by the son in question was obvious, but it was also effective: take the focus off of the specific transgression being discussed and raise the level of abstraction to supposed systemic injustices, with the implication that the rules were hopelessly random and unfair. The inconsistency of enforcement was presented as evidence of a clear parenting double standard.
This is understandable behavior for a four and a six year old. They came upon the strategy organically, and used it liberally. Fortunately, over time, they’ve pretty much grown out of it. But if I’m ever feeling nostalgic for the challenges of parenting kindergarteners, I can see the same strategy deployed on any cable news channel 24×7. For, my friends, we are deep in the golden age of whataboutism.
Whataboutism is the strategy of countering criticism by pointing to other actions supposedly more worthy of criticism. The Brits used to call it whataboutery, but by now the term “whataboutism” has taken over on both sides of the Atlantic. The Oxford Dictionaries define whataboutism as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.” But at base, it’s a sleight of hand trick.
The fundamental element of whataboutism is avoiding a narrow criticism by escalating to a claim of hypocrisy. There is a logical fallacy known as “tu quoque” that describes the tactic of countering your opponent’s argument not with facts, but with an argument that it’s hypocritical of the opponent to make that argument in the first place. Whataboutism is the weaponization of tu quoque in the political sphere.
For example, Hillary Clinton supporters, when confronted with criticisms about Benghazi, say: What about the soldiers who died in Mali during the Trump administration? Where were the hearings on those deaths? Or, what about the soldiers who died in embassy attacks under Secretary Powell or Secretary Rice? Why weren’t those fatalities treated with the same degree of seriousness?
Or conservatives, when discussing Trump’s overtures to North Korea, say: what if Obama had met directly with Kim Jong Un during his Presidency? Progressives would be singing his praises and nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Or liberals, when discussing Trump’s continuing profits from donors paying dues at Mar a Lago, say: what if Obama was in office and he tried something similar? The Republicans in Congress would insist on impeachment.
Why does whataboutism work? Well first, it takes the focus off of the specific transgression in question. The debate migrates to weighing the severity of different imagined activities, which are nearly impossible to objectively compare. Second, because it relies on imagined scenarios instead of real world events, it plays upon the implicit biases of the listeners. If you think Republicans are unreasonable, then whataboutism that invokes scenarios of Republican hypocrisy will likely be persuasive. If you think Democrats are unreasonable, then it’s likely that you’ll find imagined scenarios of Democratic hypocrisy more credible. Because these are all imagined equivalencies, untested by reality, listeners can craft their own nefarious narratives in their mind’s eye, shaped primarily by their biases. Third, it is true that examining issues in a broader historical context can be helpful — and whataboutism seems initially to be about such context, even though it’s really about fogging up the discussion.
As I said, the strategy is depressingly effective. I’d be remiss in this post if I didn’t note that Russia is the world headquarters of whataboutism. It is Putin’s favorite rhetorical technique. Once, when asked about President Bush’s criticism of Russian democracy, Putin replied, “I’ll be honest with you: we, of course, would not want to have a democracy like in Iraq.” That’s what the sleight of hand trick looks like when demonstrated by a practiced professional. Whataboutism in Russia is primarily used for propaganda purposes, bludgeoning the opposing side with a barrage of arguments possessing only the flimsiest of relationships to the original concern expressed. The Guardian has even argued that whataboutism has been elevated to the level of national ideology in Russia. Let’s hope that’s not where we’re headed.