Observations of an ex pat: Whataboutery

I have discovered a new word—Whataboutery. I would like to claim that I coined it. But that would be a lie. It is in the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary which says the word has been around since the 1970s.  I just missed it.

However, it is missing from the pages of America’s premier lexicon Webster’s. So perhaps I can claim the credit for introducing it into the American vocabulary.

All that is by the by, the real issue is what is it about whataboutery that has struck my fancy and what is its definition.

The OED defines whataboutery as follows: “The technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.”

If you want to use it in a sentence you could say: “All too often, well-intentioned debate descends into whataboutery.”

There is even a useful ism synonym—Whataboutism.

Both words are very close to the well-known morality phrase: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” This is a sentence I heard from mother throughout my childhood. It was uttered every time  I tried to justify a usually nefarious action by whining: Johnny’s,/Sam’s/Joe’s…(fill in the blank) mother let them…(fill in another blank)”

I never got away with it. But it seems that all too often politicians are being allowed to get away with sentences that start with “Whatabout”—and they are supposed to responsible, respected, adult leaders. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Let’s be clear, Whataboutery is a smokescreen, distraction, diversion . Sometimes it is obvious. I have often heard Americans justify Donald Trump’s immigration policies  with the words “Whatabout the immigration policies of Britain, Poland, Hungary, Australia, Switzerland, Japan….”

Or perhaps we are talking about the death penalty and the fickle finger of whatabout is turned around to point at those well known bastions of human rights such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Iraq, or Turkmenistan.

Then there is the more subtle whataboutism. The word is not clearly stated but is implied in the action. A good example of this might be President Trump’s use of the FBI to repeatedly investigate Hillary Clinton for her misuse of emails during her tenure as Secretary of State. Twice she has been investigated and twice she has been cleared.

Why does Trump persist? Because he is implicitly shouting: “Whatabout Hillary” every time someone accuses him of collusion with the Russians, racism, sexual harassment, corruption, nepotism or just plain bad taste. His whataboutism—is a smokescreen to divert public attention away from  questionable policies and actions.

Donald Trump is probably the most glaring exponent of whataboutery. But he is not alone. Just tune into the BBC for Prime Minister’s Question Time every Wednesday. You will hear Theresa May employing her own brand of whataboutism. It may be more subtle than the current occupant of the White House, but it is clear that she is saying: “Well, if you think things are bad now, whatabout when Labour was in government or whatabout you just see what happens if Labour returns to government.”

You can hear the echoes of whataboutery bouncing off the walls of Westminster and parliaments around the world.

The most amazing thing about this political phenomenon is that the public allows its political leaders to get away with it. The history of the world has never enjoyed such a highly educated population. From the streets of New York to the jungles of Uganda and mountains of Tibet, there have never been so many literate, numerate and educated people in the world.

The reason  political leaders escape censure for whataboutery is that their grassroots supporters are—if anything—even more guilty of the offence. Whatboutery is rampant at every level of political discourse. It poisons debate and creates divisions. The proponents of whataboutery aim to turn the argument around so that the other side is forced into justifying another wrong action or, at the very least, diluting their own wrong actions. In doing so, they accentuate and reinforce differences  when both sides should be focused on finding a consensus.  After all, as my mother said, two wrongs don’t make a right.


* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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  • Jane Ann Liston 26th Jan '18 - 9:17am

    Or ‘whitabooterie’ as we say in Scotland.

  • The problem with “whataboutery” as a charge against arguments is that it can rapidly become a defence of contradiction, obfuscation and hypocrisy.

  • Long been part of the Northern Irish political vocabulary.

  • John Marriott 26th Jan '18 - 10:04am

    I vividly remember when, living in Germany some years ago, and when, after a few beers, polite conversations occasionally impinged on the Holocaust, the normal response from my German friends was to point out that the British actually ‘invented’ the concentration camp during the Boer War. As the recipients of our imperial hospitality might have said ; “Jy kan dit nie ontken nie” (English version available on Google Translate)

  • Phil Beesley 26th Jan '18 - 1:41pm

    At its worst, the allegation of “whataboutery” is used to shut down an argument without addressing any counter points. Along with the “straw man” accusation, it’s one of the more recent tricks of debating. It’s one of those ploys that are used to score points rather than to maintain a debate to understand truths.

    In 1910, my great grand father might have protested “what about my right to vote”. If middle class women, who had limited voting rights at local elections unlike him, were fighting for something, “what about me”. Sometimes a what about claim can make us aware of other injustice.

    The skill is to understand when “what about” illuminates the debate or is being used as a distraction. And to see when the person who proclaims “this is just whataboutery” is trying to close down valid avenues of discussion.

  • “the British actually ‘invented’ the concentration camp during the Boer War”.

    Yes, to ‘concentrate’ the Boer civilian population, and remove the support base for the Boer combatants. Thousands died of disease brought on by overcrowding and insufficient hygiene and sanitation… Thoughtless neglect, and shameful. But not actually intended. Just like hundreds of thousands died (more than died of battle-related wounds) in over-crowded mass camps (not prisoner-of-war camps – still with their own side) in the American civil war, less than 40 years earlier.

    The term ‘concentration camp’ was used by the Nazis as a COVER STORY to explain why they were accumulating jews etc in camps, before ‘shipping them to Palestine/The Ukraine’… wherever.

    The ‘cover’ was of course for slave labour and industrial-scale, purposeful, human extermination camps. The term ‘concentration camps’ already associated with these after their true nature was made public, and took on it’s current-day meaning.

    Industrial-scale, modernized, mass murder is something to be definitely attributed to the Germans, not the British, however popular this ‘the British invented the concentration camp’ meme is in some quarters.

  • @John Marriott

    Sorry – re-reading your post, you were using the point to illustrate German ‘whataboutary’ to diminish their responsibility for the holocaust? I didn’t pick up on this immediately.

  • It drives me mad. I agree that there are times when the ‘what about xxxx’ can be valid to illustrate other injustices, but sometimes that is a decoy to avoid dealing with the specific injustice in question (as we see with the Black Lives Matter campaign). It is of most concern is when a politician in power thinks it’s OK to not answer questions about what they are doing with that power and all of the resources available to them, because they can just point at someone or something else.

    In the last couple of days, I’ve seen a lot of people responding to the concerns about the Presidents Club scandal along these lines by saying ‘whatabout Rotherham’ as if you can’t be angry about both. Worse, that mistakes made in the past means that any robust response to contemporary concerns is evidence of a lack of respect for those who were previously let down.

    More often than not, ‘whataboutery’ is just a ploy to avoid the issue at hand, and we shouldn’t let them get away with it, and tempting as it is, we must be careful not to fall into a similar trap when facing tricky questions ourselves.

  • Just this week we have Theresa May point to unflattering figures in Wales as an excuse for not answering a question about her own management of the NHS, and it seems to happen on a weekly basis at First Ministers Questions in Scotland. It makes a mockery of our democracy when our political leaders refuse to answer questions about problems in the services they are charged with providing using this tactic.

    You don’t need ‘whataboutery’ to give background to a situation. If the NHS is failing to meet your own targets, then instead of saying that it’s worse elsewhere, just explain that it’s seasonal flu or people getting unexpectedly older, or just admit that when you set the target you did it for show, or something, something about Brexit or any other excuse. Whataboutery might be a good temporary diversion, and you might even get away with it amongst your own supporters for a while until they realise that if you need to use the NHS and the facilities aren’t up to scratch, then knowing that something might be worse elsewhere, or at some other time, is of no comfort.

    Whataboutery works within, and encourages tribal politics, but it is the enemy of evidence-based decision-making. Vince Cable has made many excellent and practical statements and suggestions on issues surrounding the Carillion failure, all of which are designed to protect the public interests. Virtually none of the criticism was about the ideas themselves, but there were plenty of ‘what about the Post Office’ remarks from the very people who should be livid about Carillion. Similarly, I’ve lost count of how many people refuse to acknowledge any of the good policies that happened under Tony Blair because ‘what about Iraq?’

    First Past the Post and our media’s love of someone or something to blame must accept a lot of responsibility for the effectiveness of Whataboutery, but at the end of the day, each time any of us use it, we’re only fooling ourselves. In doing so, we allow bad policy to linger, and we deny ourselves the benefit of good ideas.

  • This style of debate is used to death by Trump apologists Coulter and Conway. They almost seem unable to answer any question put to them without resorting to whataboutery. In fact Tony Benn was another master of this dubious craft.

  • The doubt comes from who is defining what exactly is a “different issue”. Death tolls in a war and an unwillingness to acknowledge suffering inflicted by “our” team being a prime example. The point being that the “what about” argument rather than being deployed to deliberately confuse the issue often comes from genuine outrage/puzzlement about double standards and shirking uncomfortable questions. Also the accusation of “whataboutery” are most often wielded by those in a position of power or who were recently in a position of power against those questioning that power.

  • Does ‘whataboutery’ include blaming the Labour Government post 2010 for the consequences of the Lehmann brothers collapse and the Federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September, 2008 ?

    Somehow seems to be a familiar echo somewhere.

  • David Raw
    That’s not whataboutery. That’s more to do with trying to bamboozle people by turning correlation into causation. Some whataboutery does involve this, but is usually more to do with moral questions. To me it’s very different when political parties cry “whataboutery” than when members of the public point to the contradictory behaviour and convenient justifications of those in power. Noam Chomsky is good on that kind of thing.

  • A certain amount of whataboutery is expected and indeed provides some context to discussions. It can however get out of hand. I wouldn’t condemn it automatically.

  • Denis Loretto 27th Jan '18 - 2:32pm

    @Peter Hirst
    I think “what about….?” is legitimate if added after fully answering the point initially put. In Northern Ireland – where I reckon the term “whataboutery” was coined – it is often necessary in acknowledging wrongs done by one side to make it clear how much culpability exists on both sides.

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