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Whataboutism

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Whataboutism
TacticPropaganda technique
TypeTu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy)
LogicLogical fallacy
Active periodThe Troubles–present

Whataboutism or whataboutery (as in "what about…?") denotes in a pejorative sense a procedure in which a critical question or argument is not answered or discussed, but retorted with a critical counter-question which expresses a counter-accusation. From a logical and argumentative point of view it is considered a variant of the tu-quoque pattern (Latin 'you too', term for a counter-accusation), which is a subtype of the ad-hominem argument.[1][2][3][4]

The communication intent here is often to distract from the content of a topic (red herring). The goal may also be to question the justification for criticism, the legitimacy, integrity, and fairness of the critic, which can take on the character of discrediting the criticism, which may or may not be justified. Common accusations include double standards, and hypocrisy.

Whataboutism can also be used to relativize criticism of one's own viewpoints or behaviors. (A: "Long-term unemployment often means poverty in Germany." B: "And what about the starving in Africa and Asia?").[5]

Accusing an interlocutor of whataboutism can also in itself be manipulative and serve the motive of discrediting, as critical talking points can be used selectively and purposefully even as the starting point of the conversation. (cf. agenda setting, framing, framing effect, priming, cherry picking). The deviation from them can then be branded as whataboutism.

Related manipulation and propaganda techniques in the sense of rhetorical evasion of the topic are the change of topic and false balance (bothsidesism).[6]

Common phrases of whataboutism, besides the typical "And what about...?" are the proverbs "He who sits in glass houses should not throw stones", "When you point a finger at others, three fingers point back at yourself", "You see the mote in another's eye, you do not see the beam in your own", and "Sweep in front of your own door."[7]

Etymology

The term whataboutism is a portmanteau of what and about, is synonymous with whataboutery, and means to twist criticism back on the initial critic.[8][9][10][11]

Origins

According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer,[12] the term originated in the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1970s. Zimmer cites a 1974 letter by history teacher Sean O'Conaill which was published in The Irish Times where he complained about "the Whatabouts," people who defended the IRA by pointing out supposed wrongdoings of their enemy:

I would not suggest such a thing were it not for the Whatabouts. These are the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the “enemy”, and therefore the justice of the Provisionals’ cause: “What about Bloody Sunday, internment, torture, force-feeding, army intimidation?”. Every call to stop is answered in the same way: “What about the Treaty of Limerick; the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921; Lenadoon?”. Neither is the Church immune: “The Catholic Church has never supported the national cause. What about Papal sanction for the Norman invasion; condemnation of the Fenians by Moriarty; Parnell?”

— Sean O'Conaill, "Letter to Editor", The Irish Times, 30 Jan 1974

Three days later, an opinion column by John Healy in the same paper entitled "Enter the cultural British Army" picked up the theme by using the term whataboutery: "As a correspondent noted in a recent letter to this paper, we are very big on Whatabout Morality, matching one historic injustice with another justified injustice. We have a bellyfull [sic] of Whataboutery in these killing days and the one clear fact to emerge is that people, Orange and Green, are dying as a result of it."[13] Zimmer says the term gained wide currency in commentary about the conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland.[12] Zimmer also notes that the variant whataboutism was used in the same context in a 1993 book by Tony Parker.[12]

In 1978, Australian journalist Michael Bernard wrote a column in The Age applying the term whataboutism to the Soviet Union. Bernard explains that he is lifting this term from "a letter writer in a leading British Daily." The piece comments on "the weaknesses of whataboutism — which dictates that no one must get away with an attack on the Kremlin's abuses without tossing a few bricks at South Africa, no one must indict the Cuban police State without castigating President Park, no one must mention Iraq, Libya or the PLO without having a bash at Israel".[14] This is the first and only recorded instance of the term being applied to the Soviet Union during the Soviet era.[15]

Zimmer credits British journalist Edward Lucas for beginning regular common use of the word whataboutism in the modern era following its appearance in a blog post on 29 October 2007,[12][16] reporting as part of a diary about Russia which was re-printed in the 2 November issue of The Economist.[17] On 31 January 2008 The Economist printed another article by Lucas titled "Whataboutism."[18] Ivan Tsvetkov, associate professor of International Relations in St Petersburg also credits Lucas for modern uses of the term.[19]

Use in political contexts

Soviet Union and Russia

Although the term whataboutism spread recently, Edward Lucas's 2008 Economist article states that "Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'. Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a 'What about...' (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth)." Lucas recommended two methods of properly countering whataboutism: to "use points made by Russian leaders themselves" so that they cannot be applied to the West, and for Western nations to engage in more self-criticism of their own media and government.[18]

Following the publication of Lucas's 2007 and 2008 articles and his 2008 book The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West, which featured the same themes,[20] opinion writers at prominent English language media outlets began using the term and echoing the themes laid out by Lucas, including the association with the Soviet Union and Russia. Journalist Luke Harding described Russian whataboutism as "practically a national ideology".[21] Writing for Bloomberg News, Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition",[22] while The New Yorker described the technique as "a strategy of false moral equivalences".[23] Julia Ioffe called whataboutism a "sacred Russian tactic",[24][25] and compared it to accusing the pot of calling the kettle black.[26]

Several articles connected whataboutism to the Soviet era by pointing to the "And you are lynching Negroes" example (as Lucas did), in which Soviets deflected criticism by referencing racism in the Jim Crow United States. Ioffe, who has written about whataboutism in at least three separate outlets,[27][25][28] called it a "classic" example of the tactic.[29] Some writers also identified more recent examples when Russian officials responded to critique by, for example, redirecting attention to the United Kingdom's anti-protest laws[30] or Russians' difficulty obtaining a visa to the United Kingdom.[31] In 2006, Putin replied to George W. Bush’s criticism of Russia that he "did not want to head a democracy like Iraq's."[32] In 2017 Ben Zimmer noted that Putin also used the tactic in an interview with NBC News journalist Megyn Kelly.[33]

The term receives increased attention when controversies involving Russia are in the news. For example, writing for Slate in 2014, Joshua Keating noted the use of "whataboutism" in a statement on Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, where Putin "listed a litany of complaints about Western intervention."[34]

China

A synonymous Chinese-language metaphor is the "stinky bug argument" (traditional Chinese: 臭蟲論; simplified Chinese: 臭虫论; pinyin: Chòuchónglùn), coined by Lu Xun, a leading figure in modern Chinese literature, in 1933 to describe his Chinese colleagues' common tendency to accuse Europeans of "having equally bad issues" whenever foreigners commented upon China's domestic problems. As a Chinese nationalist, Lu saw this mentality as one of the biggest obstructions to the modernization of China in the early 20th century, which Lu frequently mocked in his literary works.[35] In response to tweets from Donald Trump's administration criticizing the Chinese government's mistreatment of ethnic minorities and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials began using Twitter to point out racial inequalities and social unrest in the United States which led Politico to accuse China of engaging in whataboutism.[36]

Donald Trump

After receiving a question about the alt-right, president Trump replies "What about the alt-left?"

In early 2017, amid coverage of interference in the 2016 election and the lead up to the Mueller Investigation into Donald Trump, several people, including Edward Lucas,[37] wrote opinion pieces associating whataboutism with both Trump and Russia.[23] "Instead of giving a reasoned defense [of his health care plan], he went for blunt offense, which is a hallmark of whataboutism", wrote Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR, adding that he "sounds an awful lot like Putin."[38]

When, in a widely viewed television interview that aired before the Super Bowl in 2017, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly called Putin a "killer," Trump responded by saying that the US government was also guilty of killing people. He responded, "There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?"[39][15] This episode prompted commentators to accuse Trump of whataboutism, including Chuck Todd on the television show Meet the Press[40] and political advisor Jake Sullivan.[39]

Use by other states

The term "whataboutery" has been used by Loyalists and Republicans since the period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.[41][42][43] The tactic was employed by Azerbaijan, which responded to criticism of its human rights record by holding parliamentary hearings on issues in the United States.[44] Simultaneously, pro-Azerbaijan Internet trolls used whataboutism to draw attention away from criticism of the country.[45] Similarly, the Turkish government engaged in whataboutism by publishing an official document listing criticisms of other governments that had criticized Turkey.[46]

According to The Washington Post, "In what amounts to an official document of whataboutism, the Turkish statement listed a roster of supposed transgressions by various governments now scolding Turkey for its dramatic purge of state institutions and civil society in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July."[47]

The tactic was also employed by Saudi Arabia and Israel.[48][49] In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "the [Israeli] occupation is nonsense, there are plenty of big countries that occupied and replaced populations and no one talks about them."[50][51] In July 2022, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman engaged in this tactic by raising the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers during the Iraq War, after US President Joe Biden raised the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 by agents of the Saudi government, during a conversation with Mohammed as part of Biden's state visit to Saudi Arabia.[52]

Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used the tactic in the Zurich Security Conference on February 17, 2019. When pressed by BBC's Lyse Doucet about eight environmentalists imprisoned in his country, he mentioned the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Doucet picked up the fallacy and said "let’s leave that aside."[53]

The government of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has been accused of using whataboutism, especially in regard to the 2015 Indian writers protest and the nomination of former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi to parliament.[54][55]

Hesameddin Ashena, a top adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted about the George Floyd protests: "The brave American people have the right to protest against the ongoing terror inflicted on minorities, the poor, and the disenfranchised. You must bring an end to the racist and classist structures of governance in the U.S."[56]

Analysis

Psychological motivations

The philosopher Merold Westphal said that only people who know themselves to be guilty of something "can find comfort in finding others to be just as bad or worse."[57] Whataboutery, as practiced by both parties in The Troubles in Northern Ireland to highlight what the other side had done to them, was "one of the commonest forms of evasion of personal moral responsibility," according to Bishop (later Cardinal) Cahal Daly.[58] After a political shooting at a baseball game in 2017, journalist Chuck Todd criticized the tenor of political debate, commenting, "What-about-ism is among the worst instincts of partisans on both sides."[59][60]

Intentionally discrediting oneself

Whataboutism usually points the finger at a rival's offenses to discredit them, but, in a reversal of this usual direction, it can also be used to discredit oneself while one refuses to critique an ally. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when The New York Times asked candidate Donald Trump about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's treatment of journalists, teachers, and dissidents, Trump replied with a criticism of U.S. history on civil liberties.[61] Writing for The Diplomat, Catherine Putz pointed out: "The core problem is that this rhetorical device precludes discussion of issues (ex: civil rights) by one country (ex: the United States) if that state lacks a perfect record."[61] Masha Gessen wrote for The New York Times that usage of the tactic by Trump was shocking to Americans, commenting, "No American politician in living memory has advanced the idea that the entire world, including the United States, was rotten to the core."[62]

Concerns about effects

Joe Austin was critical of the practice of whataboutism in Northern Ireland in a 1994 piece, The Obdurate and the Obstinate, writing: "And I'd no time at all for 'What aboutism' ... if you got into it you were defending the indefensible."[63] In 2017, The New Yorker described the tactic as "a strategy of false moral equivalences",[23] and Clarence Page called the technique "a form of logical jiu-jitsu".[64] Writing for National Review, commentator Ben Shapiro criticized the practice, whether it was used by those espousing right-wing or left-wing politics; Shapiro concluded: "It's all dumb. And it's making us all dumber."[65] Michael J. Koplow of Israel Policy Forum wrote that the usage of whataboutism had become a crisis; concluding that the tactic did not yield any benefits, Koplow charged that "whataboutism from either the right or the left only leads to a black hole of angry recriminations from which nothing will escape".[66]

Usage in the Soviet Union and Russia

In his book The New Cold War (2008), Edward Lucas characterized whataboutism as "the favourite weapon of Soviet propagandists".[20] Juhan Kivirähk and colleagues called it a "polittechnological" strategy.[67] Writing in The National Interest in 2013, Samuel Charap was critical of the tactic, commenting, "Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of 'whataboutism'".[68] National security journalist Julia Ioffe commented in a 2014 article, "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union knows about a phenomenon called 'whataboutism'."[29] Ioffe cited the Soviet response to criticism, "And you are lynching negroes", as a "classic" form of whataboutism.[29] She said that Russia Today was "an institution that is dedicated solely to the task of whataboutism",[29] and concluded that whataboutism was a "sacred Russian tactic".[69][24][25] Garry Kasparov[better source needed] discussed the Soviet tactic in his book Winter Is Coming, calling it a form of "Soviet propaganda" and a way for Russian bureaucrats to "respond to criticism of Soviet massacres, forced deportations, and gulags".[70] Mark Adomanis commented for The Moscow Times in 2015 that "Whataboutism was employed by the Communist Party with such frequency and shamelessness that a sort of pseudo mythology grew up around it."[71] Adomanis observed, "Any student of Soviet history will recognize parts of the whataboutist canon."[71]

Writing in 2016 for Bloomberg News, journalist Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition",[22] while The National called the tactic "an effective rhetorical weapon".[72] In their book The European Union and Russia (2016), Forsberg and Haukkala characterized whataboutism as an "old Soviet practice", and they observed that the strategy "has been gaining in prominence in the Russian attempts at deflecting Western criticism".[73] In her book, Security Threats and Public Perception, author Elizaveta Gaufman called the whataboutism technique "A Soviet/Russian spin on liberal anti-Americanism", comparing it to the Soviet rejoinder, "And you are lynching negroes".[74] Foreign Policy supported this assessment.[75] In 2016, Canadian columnist Terry Glavin asserted in the Ottawa Citizen that Noam Chomsky used the tactic in an October 2001 speech, delivered after the September 11 attacks, that was critical of US foreign policy.[76] Daphne Skillen discussed the tactic in her book, Freedom of Speech in Russia, identifying it as a "Soviet propagandist's technique" and "a common Soviet-era defence".[77] In a piece for CNN, Jill Dougherty compared the technique to the pot calling the kettle black.[26] Dougherty wrote: "There's another attitude ... that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union 'whataboutism', in other words, 'who are you to call the kettle black?'"[26]

Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev told GlobalPost in 2017 that the tactic was "an old Soviet trick".[78] Peter Conradi, author of Who Lost Russia?, called whataboutism "a form of moral relativism that responds to criticism with the simple response: 'But you do it too'".[79] Conradi echoed Gaufman's comparison of the tactic to the Soviet response, "Over there they lynch Negroes".[79] Writing for Forbes in 2017, journalist Melik Kaylan explained the term's increased pervasiveness in referring to Russian propaganda tactics: "Kremlinologists of recent years call this 'whataboutism' because the Kremlin's various mouthpieces deployed the technique so exhaustively against the U.S."[80][81] Kaylan commented upon a "suspicious similarity between Kremlin propaganda and Trump propaganda".[80][81] Foreign Policy wrote that Russian whataboutism was "part of the national psyche".[82] EurasiaNet stated that "Moscow's geopolitical whataboutism skills are unmatched",[83] while Paste correlated whataboutism's rise with the increasing societal consumption of fake news.[84]

Writing for The Washington Post, former United States Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul wrote critically of Trump's use of the tactic and compared him to Putin.[85] McFaul commented, "That's exactly the kind of argument that Russian propagandists have used for years to justify some of Putin's most brutal policies."[85] Los Angeles Times contributor Matt Welch classed the tactic among "six categories of Trump apologetics".[86] Mother Jones called the tactic "a traditional Russian propaganda strategy", and observed, "The whataboutism strategy has made a comeback and evolved in President Vladimir Putin's Russia."[87]

Defense

Some commentators have defended the usage of whataboutism and tu quoque in certain contexts. Whataboutism can provide necessary context into whether or not a particular line of critique is relevant or fair. In international relations, behavior that may be imperfect by international standards may be quite good for a given geopolitical neighborhood, and deserves to be recognized as such.[16]

Christian Christensen, Professor of Journalism in Stockholm, argues that the accusation of whataboutism is itself a form of the tu quoque fallacy, as it dismisses criticisms of one's own behavior to focus instead on the actions of another, thus creating a double standard. Those who use whataboutism are not necessarily engaging in an empty or cynical deflection of responsibility: whataboutism can be a useful tool to expose contradictions, double standards, and hypocrisy.[88][89]

A number of commentators, among them Forbes columnist Mark Adomanis, have criticized the usage of accusations of whataboutism by American news outlets, arguing that accusations of whataboutism have been used to simply deflect criticisms of human rights abuses perpetrated by the United States or its allies.[90] Vincent Bevins and Alex Lo argue that the usage of the term almost exclusively by American outlets is a double standard,[91][92] and that moral accusations made by powerful countries are merely a pretext to punish their geopolitical rivals in the face of their own wrongdoing.[93]

The scholars Kristen Ghodsee and Scott Sehon posit that mentioning the possible existence of victims of capitalism in popular discourse is often dismissed as "whataboutism", which they describe as "a term implying that only atrocities perpetrated by communists merit attention." They also argue that such accusations of "whataboutism" are invalid as the same arguments used against communism can also be used against capitalism.[94]

Scholars Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere noted the prevalence of whataboutist arguments as well as essentialist counterarguments[further explanation needed] in the context of political debates between China and the US. They argue that it is not whataboutism to document and denounce authoritarianism in different countries, and noted global parallels such as the role Islamophobia played in China's Xinjiang internment camps and the US's War on terror and travel bans targeting Muslim countries, as well as influence of corporations and other international actors in the documented abuses which is becoming more obscured. Franceschini and Loubere conclude that authoritarianism "must be opposed everywhere", and that "only by finding the critical parallels, linkages, and complicities can we develop immunity to the virus of whataboutism and avoid its essentialist hyperactive immune response, achieving the moral consistency and holistic perspective that we need in order to build up international solidarity and stop sleepwalking towards the abyss."[95]

See also

References

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  63. ^ Austin, Joe (1994). "The Obdurate and the Obstinate". In Parker, Tony (ed.). May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast. Henry Holt and Company. p. 136. ISBN 978-0805030532. And I'd no time at all for 'What aboutism' – you know, people who said 'Yes, but what about what's been done to us? ... That had nothing to do with it, and if you got into it you were defending the indefensible.
  64. ^ Page, Clarence (10 March 2017), "How long can President Trump's art of deflection work?", NewsOK, The Chicago Tribune, retrieved 4 July 2017, 'Whataboutism' is running rampant in the White House these days. What's that, you may ask? It's a Cold War-era term for a form of logical jiu-jitsu that helps you to win arguments by gently changing the subject. When Soviet leaders were questioned about human rights violations, for example, they might come back with, 'Well, what about the Negroes you are lynching in the South?' That's not an argument, of course. It is a deflection to an entirely different issue. It's a naked attempt to excuse your own wretched behavior by painting your opponent as a hypocrite. But in the fast-paced world of media manipulation, the Soviet leader could get away with it merely by appearing to be strong and firm in defense of his country.
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  93. ^ "Риторика холодной войны на фоне нарушения прав человека в США" [Cold War rhetoric against a backdrop of human rights abuses in the USA]. 1 News Azerbaijan (in Russian). 26 August 2014. Retrieved 16 August 2018. «Права человека – это дубинка в руках сильных мира сего, которую они используют, когда кто-то вокруг проявляет непослушание», - убежден азербайджанский политический деятель Араз Ализаде, возглавляющий Социал-демократическую партию Азербайджана. (Translation: "'Human rights is a stick in the hands of the powers of the world, that they use to beat anyone who disobeys them' says Araz Alizade, leader of the Social-Democratic Party of Azerbaijan")
  94. ^ Ghodsee, Kristen R.; Sehon, Scott (22 March 2018). "Anti-anti-communism". Aeon. Retrieved 1 October 2018. But the problem for the anti-communists is that their general premise can be used as the basis for an equally good argument against capitalism, an argument that the so-called losers of economic transition in eastern Europe would be quick to affirm. The US, a country based on a free-market capitalist ideology, has done many horrible things: the enslavement of millions of Africans, the genocidal eradication of the Native Americans, the brutal military actions taken to support pro-Western dictatorships, just to name a few. The British Empire likewise had a great deal of blood on its hands: we might merely mention the internment camps during the second Boer War and the Bengal famine. This is not mere ‘whataboutism’, because the same intermediate premise necessary to make their anti-communist argument now works against capitalism: Historical point: the US and the UK were based on a capitalist ideology, and did many horrible things. General premise: if any country based on a particular ideology did many horrible things, then that ideology should be rejected. Political conclusion: capitalism should be rejected.
  95. ^ Franceschini, Ivan; Loubere, Nicholas (7 July 2020). "What about Whataboutism?". Made in China Journal. Retrieved 1 December 2021.

Further reading

External links