We live in an age of change. New phrases and new concerns appear every day. Transgenderism. The menace of insurrectionists. One of the more subtle entrants is “whataboutism.” I don’t recall hearing this phrase until a couple of years ago. Now it appears everywhere.
What does it mean? According to the whataboutism haters at the Huffington Post, “Whataboutism refers to the practice of deflecting criticism by pointing to the misdeeds of others. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as ‘the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.’”
Critics say whataboutism deflects from the issue at hand and fobs off responsibility. Donald Trump, the Irish Republican Army, and even the KGB have been described as some of the greatest purveyors of whataboutism.
Now, any attempt by those on the Right to explain, defend themselves, or provide context is reflexively dismissed with the incantation, “Whataboutism!”
Credibility and Consistency Matter
This is unfortunate. Stigmatizing such defenses shuts down a normal discussion, where relative degrees of moral harm and fidelity to principle matter.
Ranking evils in competing systems, for example, is a type of whataboutism. It is a way of saying that it matters who is doing the accusing. The KGB—like the modern Left—labeled America a fundamentally evil nation because of slavery and racism. But it was highly relevant that the Soviet Union had legions of political prisoners in the gulag. While any system has flaws, some people, some governments, and some systems are manifestly better than others. Context shows that the bad thing allegedly discrediting one system—the McCarthy-era blacklists, for example—pales in comparison to the evil alternative of the critic.
Personal character also matters. Hypocrisy is a marker of bad character that essentially everyone understands. A hypocrite’s pleas are better understood as another tool in his arsenal of manipulation, rather than something worth taking at face value. As Alexander Hamilton said, “Who talks most about liberty and equality? . . . Is it not those who hold the bill of rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?”
Even critics of “whataboutism” resort to contextualization rather instinctively, as in, for example: “When someone denounces the hatred and violence at a white supremacist rally, people say, ‘What about the violence at Black Lives Matter marches?!’ Of course, they forget—or haven’t bothered to pay attention to—the hundreds upon hundreds of BLM rallies and marches that have been nothing but peaceful . . . .”
So, in a way, either side can use whataboutism in a discussion. Sometimes it is the obvious response and a persuasive one. Sometimes it shows a deformed moral sense and abject hypocrisy. Consider the vicious criminals who play the victim and complain about the prison food. Whataboutism or not, the behavior that landed someone in prison is relevant in determining what he deserves and whether he has standing to complain.
The Case for Whataboutism in Politics
Particularly in politics, consistency and context should matter. One of the hoariest principles of justice is to treat the same classes of people the same. Abandoning this pursuit as “whataboutism” would sweep the corruption and hypocrisy of our ruling class under the rug.
Consider whether or not someone should wear a mask. This is a factual question and also involves one’s personal appetite for risk. But when the governor of a state that punishes people to enforce social distancing is seen at a fancy restaurant without a mask, along with a gaggle of elite friends, it reveals several important things at once.
First, it suggests maybe this threat is not as serious as the authorities say. And, second, it reveals that these are fake and venal people, whose appeals to community spirit do not tug at their own consciences, as they feel no obligation to follow the rules they’ve imposed on others. In other words, it shows that they lack the moral authority to lead.
Similarly, whataboutism is surely relevant when comparatively minor crimes like trespassing are elevated to a national crisis, while real dangers such as murder and arson are ignored. Federal law enforcement and the U.S. military are now being deployed against phantom threats of domestic right-wing extremists.
In the meantime, ordinary crime (by the usual suspects) is up substantially. As the armed forces “stand down” to be indoctrinated in the dangers of “extremism,” gang members and Islamic fanatics within the military have, more than once, decided to murder their compatriots. Looking at context is part of critical thinking. Here, it reveals an agenda built on shaky premises. It is no less unreasonable to consider this than to scoff at the serial killer whining about the prison food.
Symmetry and consistency are important parts of our intellectual heritage, as well as our legal regime. The common law proceeds from the concept of precedent, where records of decisions are recorded and authoritative, so that like cases can be treated alike. Understanding the ways two situations are similar and how they are different is part of developing sophistication and a more granular understanding of the world around us. This is as true for an intellectual system, as for a legal and moral one.
There is good and bad whataboutism. Blanket calls to ignore comparisons are usually done in bad faith. The better question to ask is whether a principle being advanced is correct, whether the standard is being applied fairly and consistently, and whether the speaker is credible to the extent the argument depends on credibility.
If you do this you’ll be in good company. Jesus had a lot to say about hypocrisy, including, “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”
I suppose one could say he was doing a whataboutism, but, then again, what about it?