Do you indulge in whataboutism? The chances are you have at some point. If you have ever been a squabbling child in the back of a car, being told off for some mischief, and you said: “But what about So and So, she blah blahed first..” or “It’s not fair, what about him…” you have indulged in whataboutism.
This deflection strategy, often linked to the former Soviet Union, is so childish that I also call it the ‘busted six-year-old dumping the focus on someone else strategy’. However, that isn’t as easy to hashtag as #whataboutism.
In politics, and especially in discussion of state atrocities, an apparent hypocrisy or claimed equivalency is invoked as a deflection. For example, I could criticise Russia for helping Assad crush rebellion, and then someone might say: “But you are English, look what the British Empire did”. It’s a point - but a pointless point. It does little but deflect. It does nothing for Syria, except support Assad.
Despite whataboutism being a childish technique which makes adults using it look foolish, I notice it more and more. This could partly be due to social media, where short posts favour lazy attacks, but I think it’s also due to the prominence of those commonly using it. If you do not idolise those mentioned, here are some good reasons not to indulge in it:
1. Trump Does It a LOT
After civil rights campaigner and legal professional Heather Heyer was killed at a far-right rally in Charlottesville this year, Trump was quick to resort to whataboutism, combatively asking: “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” In the same press conference, asked about a previous statement, when he drew an equivalency between protesters and white nationalists, Trump stated: “Well, I do think there’s blame - yes. I do think there’s blame on both sides.”
Trump used the technique in a way that made nobody look good when asked about his respect for Vladimir Putin. After Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly asserted: “Putin’s a killer”, Trump nodded thoughtfully and said: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
In a recent tweet to UK prime minister Theresa May, after she criticised him for repeatedly retweeting far-right group Britain First, Trump broke out the whataboutism yet again, writing: “@Theresa_May, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom.”
2. Aping the KGB is NOT a Good Look
Given that Putin is a KGB man through and through, him doing it is unsurprising, but it is fascinating that his rhetorical deflection gets echoed so much by Trump and supporters of both. Putin gave a textbook example of whataboutism when asked about Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Instead of tackling the question, he said: “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal electoral processes”. Such blatant whataboutism that he might as well have said: “Course I did it, but what about Blah”.
3. Deflection is Revealing
The far-right has frequently been linked to violence. But suggest that they are anything other than decent patriots defending the rest of us from violent forces and they might turn to whataboutism. The ‘ism’ in question these days is usually Islam, with Muslims in general often blamed for crimes of a tiny minority. For those far-right ranters with a violent background, the whole journey to antagonism towards a specific target is a lived form of whataboutism. Rather than face up to being thugs, finding a target to blame for all the ills of the world tends to deflect from one’s own crimes. However, other authoritarian thugs murdering people somewhere else doesn’t make it okay to throw concrete at police.
4. Don’t be Like Ann Coulter
The infantile approach of whataboutism comes easy to this vitriolic commentator. Reacting yesterday to May criticising Trump for retweeting Britain First tweets containing questionable videos to attack Islam, Coulter nestled her whataboutism in sarcasm in a sneering tweet: “Apparently, instead of verbally taunting Muslims, Britain First should have blown up a tube. Then Theresa May would be stoutly defending them.”
Last month, amid allegations of child abuse against fellow conservative Roy Moore, Coulter drew a bizarre equivalency between that and long-dead Democrat president John F. Kennedy’s alleged consensual relationship with a younger woman. She tweeted: “Hey, MSM - this would be a great time to revisit JFK’s affair, as a 45-year-old man, with 19-year old Mimi Alford.”
5. Whataboutism Looks Desperate, Dodgy and Daft
What about contending with distinctive issues raised rather than using the distraction of false equivalencies?