From The Editors: What About Whataboutism?
Columns / November 25, 2017
A parent catches one of their kids misbehaving—let’s say, bullying someone on Twitter. In addition to telling him that online harassment is wrong, the parent decides to give the child a punishment. No Twitter for a week.
The kid says, “What about my sister? Last week she cheated on her homework and you haven’t punished her.”
Deciding to let the first kid off with a warning, the parent sits down with their other child and lectures them on the perils of cheating. To drive the lesson home, they take away their daughter’s weekly allowance.
The kid says, “What about my brother? He’s been taking money out of your wallet all year and you haven’t punished him.”
On and on this goes, with no one being punished and no one learning a lesson. The parent is so concerned with making things “fair” amongst their misbehaving children that either everybody who’s done wrong pays for it or they all get off scot-free.
No good parent would operate like this, yet politicians have been using this childlike tactic to escape blame for years. When confronted by the media for their immoral behavior, politicians all-too-frequently deflect criticism onto others, and even attack journalists for having the audacity to come after them and not their political rivals.
Unfortunately, “Whataboutism” has taken on newfound relevance in the era of fake news. The public is so endlessly inundated with information about our elected officials—much of it legitimate, still a lot of it made up—that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of any one story or scandal.
This is why, every time news breaks about someone from the Trump administration having colluded with Russia to rig the election, the American President takes to social media to point the finger of blame at an opponent. On Oct. 30, the day that the FBI’s Special Counsel filed charges against two former Trump staffers, Trump wrote, “why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
Four days later he was still trying to shift attention onto Clinton, this time literally name-checking the “whataboutism” technique. “What about the deleted E-mails, Uranium, Podesta, the Server, plus, plus,” he tweeted.
By reminding people of any negative connotation they might have with Clinton, Trump distracts the public and drowns out his critics. The minute someone criticizes him, bam! “What about Clinton? What about the Democrats?” Suddenly the conversation isn’t about him possibly being a criminal. It’s about anything he can fire off a 140-character tweet at.
Ironically, given the allegations of Trump’s ties to Russian meddling, “whataboutism” is typically considered a holdover from Russia’s Cold War-era moral relativism. Whenever a Western official would criticize the USSR for its human rights violations or war mongering, the Russian response was a sly, “What about you?”
The most famous example is from the 1950s, when the Russian ambassador to the United States responded to claims that his country was persecuting Jewish people by telling America, “Meanwhile, you are lynching blacks.”
The most insidious aspect of “whataboutism” is that it’s very near to the vicinity of legitimate criticism. The Soviet official was correct in pointing out that the United States was throwing stones while living in a glass house, but America’s history of racial violence in no way excuses Russian anti-semitism. Whether or not other countries have their own issues of discrimination, prejudice, or genocide should have no relevance in holding nations—and by extension, the leaders of those nations—to account.
So what can we do to cut through the fog of “whataboutism”? I recommend finding one story about a public figure’s misdeeds, one scandal that outrages you personally, and following it through to the end. Do you find it heinous that Justin Trudeau defends Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia? Don’t shut up about it. Don’t get distracted when people tell you that it’s really Stephen Harper’s fault, or that the NDP wouldn’t end the deal either. Continue to criticize the Prime Minister for his choices until you cannot criticize anymore—or until, ideally, a change is made.
Why should we let politicians get away with a logical fallacy that we wouldn’t tolerate from our kids?