what is it and why is it such a popular tactic in arguments

Whataboutism is an argumentative tactic where a person or group responds to a difficult accusation or question with deflection. Instead of addressing the point raised, they contradict it with “but what about X?”.

As bickering couples and parents of siblings know, it happens all too often in everyday life. “You lied about where you were last night!” say a person who feels aggrieved. To which, instead of confessing, the partner replies, “Well, how about you? You lie to me all the time!”

Similarly, in response to a reprimand for the state of his room, a child’s whimsical response will be to say, “But what about my brother’s room?” His is worse.

It happens on social media, in politics and in societal and international conflicts too. Namely, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in February 2022. In response to Keir Starmer’s accusation of wrongdoing in the Partygate affair, Johnson sought to distract by (falsely) accusing Starmer for not suing Jimmy Savile during his tenure as manager. public prosecutions.

A close-up of the heads of Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson seen in profile in an indoor setting.
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Media commentators rightly pointed out that Johnson was simply adopting what one reporter called Donald Trump’s “favorite dodge.” When criticized, Trump would regularly deflect attention by claiming that someone else was worse.

The rise of social media and growing political polarization may well have made whataboutism more visible. But this is certainly not a new tactic. It was, in fact, taught by the Sophists, a group of lecturers, writers and teachers in Greece, over 2,500 years ago.

In certain limited circumstances, this may be a legitimate tactic, for example, when it is relevant to point out that the person making the accusation is biased. For the most part, however, even if the person making the accusation is a hypocrite or has double standards, that does not mean that their accusation is false.

Origins of whataboutism

The exact term was first used in print by a reader named Lionel Bloch in 1978 in a letter to the Guardian. “Sir,” wrote Bloch, “your leader [article], East, West and the sort of the warring rest (May 18), is the finest piece of “whataboutism” I have read in many years. He goes on to decry the use of this tactic as a “Soviet import” used by “progressive minds” to defend communism.

But the use of Bloch stems from earlier uses of similar terms. In a letter to the Irish Times published on January 30, 1974, reader Sean O’Conail complains about the use of the tactic by IRA defenders, whom he calls “the Whatabouts”. Three days later, Irish journalist John Healy published a column in the same newspaper, on the same subject, calling the tactic “Whataboutery”.

Formally speaking, whataboutism is a fallacy most closely related to the ad hominem fallacy, in which a person responds to an accusation by attacking the person who makes it.

This is a mistake because even if the counter-accusation is true, it does not defend the accused (the lying partner, the disorderly child, Donald Trump) in the first place. At best, it shows that both parties behaved shamefully. And, of course, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Donald Trump in a black suit and blue tie stands behind a lectern in front of American flags and gestures of disbelief.
Whataboutism was, as one journalist put it, Donald Trump’s favorite dodge in the face of tough questions.
Evan El-Amin | Shutterstock

In philosophy, an argument is a reasoned debate aimed at the truth. But in many other contexts, people often don’t see arguments that way. Rather, they view them as battles to be won. Their goal is to get their opponent to concede as much as possible without them conceding anything themselves.

Seen from this angle, whataboutism is an effective strategy. It works on the principle that attack is the best form of defense. By launching a counterattack, you place your opponent on the back foot.

Why whataboutism is so popular

Psychologists suggest that this view of arguments prevails in political debate because it is driven by partisan bias. When you’re up against an opponent with a different political view, you’re more likely to see what they say as an attack to counter rather than a point to debate.

More pernicious is when whataboutism is used as a tool of misinformation. Since the Cold War era, Russian propagandists have responded to criticism of Russian policy by immediately pointing out that Western countries have similar policies.

A vintage color block poster in red, black, white and yellow featuring two uniformed soldiers in Cyrillic script.
JJs / Alamy Stock Photo

The same stratagem is regularly observed in other conflict situations. Chinese propagandists have used it to deflect criticism of how China’s Uighur population is treated. Junta propagandists in Myanmar have similarly used it when criticized for the regime’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims. The list continues.

The sophists were the propagandists of ancient times. They boasted of being able to convince an audience – using any means available, including whataboutism – of any conclusion, no matter how true.

Plato was an ardent critic of the sophists. He argued vehemently that arguments should aim for the truth. His most famous work in this regard is the Dialogue of Gorgias, which sees Socrates and Callicles debating the good and evil of man. Fittingly, it contains the first example of whataboutism I could find and the best answer to it:

Socrates: You are breaking your original promise, Callicles. If what you say contradicts what you really think, your value as a partner in the search for truth will come to an end.

Callicles: You don’t always say what you think either, Socrates.

Socrates: Well, if that’s true, that makes me as bad as you…

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