|Type||Tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy)|
|Active period||The 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.
The communication intent is often to distract from the content of a topic (red herring). The goal may also be to question the justification for criticism and 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, but it 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?"). Related manipulation and propaganda techniques in the sense of rhetorical evasion of the topic are the change of topic and false balance (bothsidesism).
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, and behavior that may be imperfect by international standards may be appropriate in a given geopolitical neighborhood. 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.
Both whataboutism and the accusation of it are forms of strategic framing and have a framing effect.
The term whataboutism is a portmanteau of what and about, is synonymous with whataboutery, and means to twist criticism back on the initial critic.
According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, the term originated in Northern 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." Zimmer says the term gained wide currency in commentary about the conflict between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. Zimmer also notes that the variant whataboutism was used in the same context in a 1993 book by Tony Parker.
In 1978, Australian journalist Michael Bernard wrote a column in The Age applying the term whataboutism to the Soviet Union's tactics of deflecting any criticism of its human rights abuses. Merriam-Webster details that "the association of whataboutism with the Soviet Union began during the Cold War. As the regimes of [Joseph] Stalin and his successors were criticized by the West for human rights atrocities, the Soviet propaganda machine would be ready with a comeback alleging atrocities of equal reprehensibility for which the West was guilty."
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, reporting as part of a diary about Russia which was re-printed in the 2 November issue of The Economist. On 31 January 2008 The Economist printed another article by Lucas titled "Whataboutism." Ivan Tsvetkov, associate professor of International Relations in St Petersburg also credits Lucas for modern uses of the term.
Main article: And you are lynching Negroes
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.
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, 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". Writing for Bloomberg News, Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition", while The New Yorker described the technique as "a strategy of false moral equivalences". Julia Ioffe called whataboutism a "sacred Russian tactic", and compared it to accusing the pot of calling the kettle black.
Several articles connected whataboutism to the Soviet era by pointing to the "And you are lynching Negroes" example (as Lucas did) of the 1930s, in which the Soviets deflected any criticism by referencing racism in the segregated American South. The tactic was extensively used even after the racial segregation in the South was outlawed in the 1950s and 1960s. Ioffe, who has written about whataboutism in at least three separate outlets, called it a "classic" example of whataboutism. 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 or Russians' difficulty obtaining a visa to the United Kingdom. In 2006, Putin replied to George W. Bush’s criticism of Russia's human rights record by stating that he "did not want to head a democracy like Iraq's," referencing the US intervention in Iraq. In 2017, Ben Zimmer noted that Putin also used the tactic in an interview with NBC News journalist Megyn Kelly.
The Soviet government engaged in a major cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. When they finally acknowledged the disaster, although without any details, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) then discussed the Three Mile Island accident and other American nuclear accidents, which Serge Schmemann of The New York Times wrote was an example of the common Soviet tactic of whataboutism. The mention of a commission also indicated to observers the seriousness of the incident, and subsequent state radio broadcasts were replaced with classical music, which was a common method of preparing the public for an announcement of a tragedy in the USSR.
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."
Further information: Propaganda in China and Human Rights Record of the United States
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. 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.
Further information: Veracity of statements by Donald Trump
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, wrote opinion pieces associating whataboutism with both Trump and Russia. "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."
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?" This episode prompted commentators to accuse Trump of whataboutism, including Chuck Todd on the television show Meet the Press and political advisor Jake Sullivan.
The term "whataboutery" has been used by Loyalists and Republicans since the period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 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. Simultaneously, pro-Azerbaijan Internet trolls used whataboutism to draw attention away from criticism of the country. Similarly, the Turkish government engaged in whataboutism by publishing an official document listing criticisms of other governments that had criticized Turkey.
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."
The tactic was also employed by Saudi Arabia and Israel. 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." 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.
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."
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.
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."
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." 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. 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."
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. Writing for The Diplomat, Catherine Putz pointed out: "The core problem is that this rhetorical device precludes discussion of issues (e.g. civil rights) by one country (e.g. the United States) if that state lacks a perfect record." 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."
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." In 2017, The New Yorker described the tactic as "a strategy of false moral equivalences", and Clarence Page called the technique "a form of logical jiu-jitsu". 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." 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".
See also: Russian political jokes
In his book The New Cold War (2008), Edward Lucas characterized whataboutism as "the favourite weapon of Soviet propagandists". Juhan Kivirähk and colleagues called it a "polittechnological" strategy. 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'". National security journalist Julia Ioffe commented in a 2014 article, "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union knows about a phenomenon called 'whataboutism'." Ioffe cited the Soviet response to criticism, "And you are lynching negroes", as a "classic" form of whataboutism. She said that Russia Today was "an institution that is dedicated solely to the task of whataboutism", and concluded that whataboutism was a "sacred Russian tactic". 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". 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." Adomanis observed, "Any student of Soviet history will recognize parts of the whataboutist canon."
Writing in 2016 for Bloomberg News, journalist Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition", while The National called the tactic "an effective rhetorical weapon". 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". 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". Foreign Policy supported this assessment. 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. 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". In a piece for CNN, Jill Dougherty compared the technique to the pot calling the kettle black. 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?'"
Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev told GlobalPost in 2017 that the tactic was "an old Soviet trick". 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'". Conradi echoed Gaufman's comparison of the tactic to the Soviet response, "Over there they lynch Negroes". 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." Kaylan commented upon a "suspicious similarity between Kremlin propaganda and Trump propaganda". Foreign Policy wrote that Russian whataboutism was "part of the national psyche". EurasiaNet stated that "Moscow's geopolitical whataboutism skills are unmatched", while Paste correlated whataboutism's rise with the increasing societal consumption of fake news.
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. 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." Los Angeles Times contributor Matt Welch classed the tactic among "six categories of Trump apologetics". 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."
The practice of labelling whataboutism as typically Russian or Soviet is sometimes rejected as russophobic. Glenn Diesen sees this usage as an attempt to delegitimize Russian politics. As early as 1985, Ronald Reagan had introduced the construct of "false ethical balance" to "denounce" any attempt at comparison between the US and other countries. Jeane Kirkpatrick, in her essay The Myth of Moral Equivalence (1986) saw the Soviet Union's whataboutism as an attempt to use moral reasoning to present themselves as a legitimate superpower on an equal footing with the United States. The comparison was inadmissible in principle, since there was only one legitimate superpower, the USA, and it did not stand up for power interests but for values. Glenn Diesen sees this as a framing of American politics, with the aim of defining the relationship of countries to each other analogously to a teacher-pupil relationship, whereby in the political framework the USA is the teacher. Kirkpatrick invoked Harold Lasswell's understanding of the enforcement of an ideological framework using political dominance to analyze the semantic manipulations of the Soviet Union. According to Lasswell, every country tries to impose its interpretive framework on others, even by the means of revolution and war. For Kirkpatrick, however, these interpretive frameworks of different states are not equivalent.
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.
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. For example, one's opponent's action appears as forbidden torture, one's own actions as "enhanced interrogation methods," the other's violence as aggression, one's own merely as a reaction. Christensen even sees utility in the use of the argument: "The so-called 'whataboutists' question what has not been questioned before and bring contradictions, double standards, and hypocrisy to light. This is not naïve justification or rationalization [...], it is a challenge to think critically about the (sometimes painful) truth of our position in the world."
In his analysis of Whataboutism, logic professor Axel Barceló of the UNAM concludes that the counteraccusation often expresses a justified suspicion that the criticism does not correspond to the critic's real position and reasons.
Abe Greenwald pointed out that even the first accusation leading to the counteraccusation is an arbitrary setting, which can be just as one-sided and biased, or even more one-sided than the counter-question "what about?" Thus, whataboutism could also be enlightening and put the first accusation in perspective.
In her analysis of whataboutism in the US Presidential Campaign, Catherine Putz notes in 2016 in The Diplomat Magazine that the core problem is that this rhetorical device precludes discussion of a country's contentious issues (e.g., civil rights on the part of the United States) if that country is not perfect in that area. It required, by default, that a country be allowed to make a case to other countries only for those ideals in which it had achieved the highest level of perfection. The problem with ideals, he said, is that we rarely achieve them as human beings. But the ideals remain important, he said, and the United States should continue to advocate for them: "It is the message that is important, not the ambassador."
Gina Schad sees the characterization of counterarguments as "whataboutism" as a lack of communicative competence, insofar as discussions are cut off by this accusation. The accusation of others of whataboutism is also used as an ideological protective mechanism that leads to "closures and echo chambers." The reference to "whataboutism" is also perceived as a "discussion stopper" "to secure a certain hegemony of discourse and interpretation."
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. Vincent Bevins and Alex Lo argue that the usage of the term almost exclusively by American outlets is a double standard, and that moral accusations made by powerful countries are merely a pretext to punish their geopolitical rivals in the face of their own wrongdoing.
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.
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."
Jesus' statement, "Let he who is without fault cast the first stone" (John 8:7), the similar parable of the beam in the eye (Matthew 7:3) and proverbs based on it such as "He who sits in a glass house should not throw stones" are sometimes compared to whataboutism. Nigel Warburton sees the difference in the fact that the point of view in the Bible and in Proverbs is different from that in politics. Jesus is in the right to remind the sinner of his own guilt, because he himself has no guilt, he is on the side of good. Although a wrongdoer can sometimes be in the right by pointing out an actual shortcoming, this does not change the difference in principle.
The whataboutery move seems to rest on the false assumption that wrongdoing is mitigated if others have done something similar, and the feeling that accusers need to be innocent of the crime of which they are accusing others. ‘You think I’m doing something terrible, so look around you at all the others doing much the same as me. What is more, you don’t have a credible position from which to attack me.’ At best that is just self-serving rationalisation, but as a tactical move it can work.
Origin - 1990s: from the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by 'What about —?'. ... Also called whataboutery
"Whataboutism" is another name for the logical fallacy of "tu quoque" (Latin for "you also"), in which an accusation is met with a counter-accusation, pivoting away from the original criticism. The strategy has been a hallmark of Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda, and some commentators have accused President Donald Trump of mimicking Mr. Putin's use of the technique.
It is not a bad tactic. Every criticism needs to be put in a historical and geographical context. A country that has solved most of its horrible problems deserves praise, not to be lambasted for those that remain. Similarly, behaviour that may be imperfect by international standards can be quite good for a particular neighbourhood.
Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'.
Origin - 1990s: from the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by 'What about —?'
The term was popularized by articles in 2007 and 2008 by Edward Lucas, senior editor at the Economist. Mr. Lucas, who served as the magazine's Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002, saw 'whataboutism' as a typical Cold War style of argumentation, with "the Kremlin's useful idiots" seeking to "match every Soviet crime with a real or imagined western one".
The association of whataboutism with the Soviet Union began during the Cold War.
Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'.
Russia's president is already a master of 'whataboutism' – indeed, it is practically a national ideology.
Russian officials protested that other nations were no better, but these objections – which were in line with a Russian tradition of whataboutism – were swept aside.
officials in Moscow have long relied on discussions of racial inequality in the United States to counter criticism of their own human rights abuses. 'The now sacred Russian tactic of "whataboutism" started with civil rights,' Ms. Ioffe wrote. 'Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. "Well, you," they said, "lynch Negros."'
The now sacred Russian tactic of 'whataboutism' started with civil rights: Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. 'Well, you,' they said, 'lynch Negros.'
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?'
Soviet-watchers called it 'whataboutism'. This was the Communist-era tactic of deflecting foreign criticism of, say, human rights abuses, by pointing, often disingenuously, at something allegedly similar in the critic's own country: 'Ah, but what about…?'
In his interview with NBC's Megyn Kelly on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin employed the tried-and-true tactic of 'whataboutism'.
28 April – Monday 09:30 – Staff at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, Sweden, detect a dangerous surge in radioactivity. Initially picked up when a routine check reveals that the soles shoes worn by a radiological safety engineer at the plant were radioactive. [28 April – Monday] 21:02 – Moscow TV news announce that an accident has occurred at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant.[...] [28 April – Monday] 23:00 – A Danish nuclear research laboratory announces that an MCA (maximum credible accident) has occurred in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. They mention a complete meltdown of one of the reactors and that all radioactivity has been released.
'Whataboutism' was a favorite Kremlin propaganda technique during the Cold War. It aimed to portray the West as so morally flawed that its criticism of the Soviet empire was hypocritical.
This particular brand of changing the subject is called 'whataboutism' – a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used by the Soviet Union and, later, Russia.
Now something new is happening. The American president is taking Putin's 'what about you' tactic and turning it into 'what about us?' He is taking the very appealing and very American impulse toward self-criticism and perverting it. It's simplistic, even childish – but more importantly, it's dangerous.
Folks, comments like these are reminding some people of an old Soviet tactic known as whataboutism. ... Whataboutism is the trick of turning any argument against the opponent when faced with accusations of corruption, they claim the entire world is corrupt.
The parliamentary hearing appeared to be an exercise in so-called 'whataboutism', the Soviet-era rhetorical tactic of responding to criticism about rights abuses by citing real or imagined abuses committed by the West.
Whataboutism is the most popular tactic against foreign critics; 'how dare you criticise Azerbaijan, get your own house in order!'
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.
This stance has breathed new life into the old Soviet propaganda tool of 'whataboutism', the trick of turning any argument against the opponent. When accused of falsifying elections, Russians retort that American elections are not unproblematic; when faced with accusations of corruption, they claim that the entire world is corrupt. This month, Mr. Trump employed the technique of whataboutism when he was asked about his admiration for Mr. Putin, whom the host Bill O'Reilly called 'a killer'.
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.
'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.
whataboutism from either the right or the left only leads to a black hole of angry recriminations from which nothing will escape.
Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of 'whataboutism' – responding to U.S. statements on human rights in Russia with laundry lists of purported American shortcomings.
Writer Julia Ioffe said, in a New Republic article last week, that Moscow authorities typically counter criticism of Russia's human rights abuses with comparisons to racial inequality in the United States, noting, "The now sacred Russian tactic of 'whataboutism' started with civil rights. Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. 'Well, you,' they said, 'lynch Negroes.'"
During the Cold War, such 'whataboutism' was used by the Kremlin to counter any criticism of Soviet policy with retorts about American slavery or British imperialism. The strategy remains an effective rhetorical weapon to this day. Whatever threadbare crowds of remaining anti-government activists are still occasionally allowed to protest in Moscow, they pale in the public imagination against the images, repeatedly shown on Russian TV, of thousands of Europeans angrily upbraiding their own governments and declaring support for Putin.
the old Soviet whataboutism whenever they were challenged on the gulag: 'But in America, you lynch Negroes.'
In a country where 'whataboutism' is part of the national psyche, Russia was quick to point to Washington's alleged failures after the strike in Syria.
Moscow's geopolitical whataboutism skills are unmatched
As for 'whataboutism', Trump himself champions these kinds of cynical arguments about our country – not Russia.
a traditional Russian propaganda strategy called 'whataboutism' ... In Trump's version of whataboutism, he repeatedly takes a word leveled in criticism against him and turns it back on his opponents—sidestepping the accusation and undercutting the meaning of the word at the same time.
Constituted authority perpetuates itself, by shaping the consciences of those born into its sphere of control.
Tu quoque is a subset of the so-called ad hominem argument: a strike against the character, not the position, of one's opponent. Ad hominem gets a bad press, but it isn't without merit, when used in good faith. It's useful in an argument to show that the stance being taken against you is inconsistent or hypocritical. It doesn't win the day, but it chips away at your opponent's moral standing and raises doubt about the entirety of his or her position.
The core problem is that this rhetorical device precludes a country (e.g., the United States) from discussing issues (e.g., civil rights) unless that country is perfect. It requires a state to advocate abroad only those ideals that it has achieved to the highest degree of perfection. The problem with ideals is that we as human beings almost never live up to them. If the United States waited to become a utopia before advocating freedom abroad, it would never happen. What matters are the ideals - that all men are created equal and have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - not that we have managed to live up to them perfectly. This is a struggle that the United States shares with the entire world: try, fail, and try again. The United States may not be a "very good" ambassador, but there may never be a better ambassador. It's the message that really matters.'
«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")
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.
Ioffe and Elder explain 'whataboutism' and other vocabulary lessons from their time reporting in Moscow.