OnWords: Whataboutism

Feb 5, 2019

We’ve probably all been there. In the middle of a heated debate, our frustrated opponent hauls out the ol’ “what about . . .” followed by some horrible thing someone on our side once did.

An atheist, for example, might premise a comeback with “What about the Crusades?” and her devout opponent might counter with “What about Mao’s China?”

As a sometime teacher of rhetoric and English composition, I run across entire papers structured around what about arguments that oppose other sides imagined or real.

It turns out this turn of phrase is so common that it has a name: whataboutism.

Most historians of the term agree that the Soviets perfected the form, substituting minor issues for indefensible retorts. A characteristically dark example is a Russian Cold War era joke that has a communist party spokesperson answering a complaint about bread lines with, “But in the US, they lynch black people.”

Whataboutism commits the fallacy of hypocrisy, wherein legitimate criticism is dismissed by attacking the critic’s own inconsistencies.

Yet in the actual world to which philosophical discussion applies, hypocrisy can be a real problem, eroding moral authority and creating conflicting interests. Those whatabouts may represent dollars spent by an organization to defend a star employee from sexual harassment charges and, worse yet, the destruction of the trust leadership requires to carry on.

So while whataboutism is logically flawed and bad form overall, it may demonstrate genuine issues we need to address.