Ask yourself if you think the following are ridiculous questions:
What about the behavior of the most powerful state in history, the country which is most responsible for shaping the “liberal international order”?
What about the sincerity of the person who is speaking to you?
What about your right to decide on a topic of conversation, rather than have it forced on you?
If you do, if you think posing them is downright irresponsible, you might be the perfect candidate for using the term “whataboutism” to attack your enemies and appear sophisticated. If, however, you care about intellectual honesty and basic moral consistency, you might want to leave the term in the Cold War where it belongs. By pointing to injustice, the people engaged in “whataboutery” are often performing a very useful act indeed.
The term “whataboutism” is basically the same as the phrase “Don’t change the subject” but with Russian notes and a heavy whiff of moral condescension. Country A accuses Country B of something serious. Instead of responding directly, Country B turns the lens back on Country A’s own failings, which Country A does not like one bit. The prototypical cases went like this: The United States denounces the Soviet Union for human rights abuses — it doesn’t matter which, there were many. As part of its response, Moscow reminds the world that the U.S. is a racist settler colony which has denied blacks full citizenship since its foundation. The classic “What about” counter-attack might mention Jim Crow laws, or lynchings in the ’50s and ’60s.
The term “whataboutism” is basically the same as the phrase “Don’t change the subject” but with Russian notes and a heavy whiff of moral condescension.
Understandably, this kind of thing was very annoying for U.S. officials. They didn’t want to talk about that; they were talking about how communism is evil! Moreover, the accusation really did make them look bad, and they knew that their global reputation did suffer because of those issues. According to (probably apocryphal) accounts, anglophone “Soviet-watchers” began to use the term to denote a dastardly tactic developed by the Soviets, when it is really just a bog-standard, thousands-of-years-old accusation of hypocrisy.
In recent years, as Russia has become the Big Bad country again, lots of commentators rushed forth to show off that they knew about this dark Slavic art, and to say that anyone who used it was being double bad, because they were using a “Soviet Union propaganda technique.” Most recently, Trump is doing whataboutism in saying that Joe and Hunter Biden are corrupt.
In the realm of pure logic, there is indeed a fallacy which is somewhat adjacent to whataboutism. It has its own name in Latin, so you know it’s real: Tu quoque. It means “You too” and it works like this: Person A is trying to make the claim that X is true. Person B is trying to prove that X is not. As part of this effort, Person B says that Person A has said, or said, something, that contradicts X. Appeal to hypocrisy.
If the real topic of conversation really is the truth or falsity of that one claim, the hypocrisy doesn’t matter. Hypocrites can be right. Just because you organized the Flat Earth Convention and you are wearing a shirt that says, “The Earth is flat,” it does not mean that you are wrong when you say that the Earth is round.
However. Real-world conversations do not take place in the realm of pure logic. Unless you are at, like, a high school debate — where the whole thing is structured around proving or disproving a single sentence — nothing is ever about one thing. Moreover, just because you start a conversation doesn’t mean you have declared, ad infinitum (Latin again!) what it is really about. The other person gets to decide if and how to participate, and how to shift the topic. Unless you are literally on trial — where the judge sets the terms and it’s usually a bad idea to bring up her moral failings — you get to decide what you want to talk about.
Just because you organized the Flat Earth Convention and you are wearing a shirt that says, “The Earth is flat,” it does not mean that you are wrong when you say that the Earth is round.
That’s why you usually hear “whataboutism” used by people who are punching down, not punching up. The nation that is more powerful, or more assured of their moral superiority, tells a Bad Nation it is Bad. When the Bad Nation wants to strike back, or say, “You don’t actually care about human rights, you just want to crush your enemies,” or, “We are actually the least bad option here,” the Officially Good Nation is shocked by their impertinence. How dare you. I set the terms of the discourse, not you. I’m not on trial here. You are.
Try to imagine the following world: the Chinese Communist Party accuses the U.S. of crimes against humanity in the Middle East, and Washington does not turn around and say something like, “What are you talking about! You have one million people in re-education camps in the Xinjiang Province!” In this imaginary world, I guess, US officials would respect the fact that China is only talking about the Middle East right now, and out of politeness refuse to talk about anything else. To do so would be crude whataboutism.
Can you imagine that happening? Of course not. English-language commentators would contest the right of Xi Jinping to set the terms of the debate, and they’d use the opportunity to draw attention to human rights violations in China, which would be a good thing. Because, I think, it’s good when we expose and condemn any crimes against humanity, no matter the motivations for the revelation.
Let’s try an arena much smaller than the geopolitical. What if a man comes home, and says to his wife:
“Susan, you didn’t take out the trash!” he says.
“Brad, you have never taken out the trash once in your life,” she replies.
Would it be fair for him to turn, smugly clutching a copy of The Economist, and say, “Susan, this is not about me. I can’t believe you are doing whataboutism”?
When the Soviet Union accused the U.S. of committing serious human rights abuses during the Cold War, they were not wrong. In addition to the racial discrimination baked into its founding institutions, the U.S. government took the side of European colonial powers and attempted to suppress independence movements (Vietnam is the most famous example), dropped bombs all over North Korea (killing up to 20 percent of that country), sponsored coups and death squads in Latin America, and, well, the list goes on and on and on.
This was not a “propaganda technique.” These were facts that were well known and taken as given in most of the world. As part of a book project, I spent the last two years meeting elderly people, mostly in Asia, who like much of the globe were forced to take sides in the Cold War. Looking out at the two superpowers from postcolonial locales, they said they saw on the one hand, a socialist project that had failed to live up to its ideals but which at least had never done anything to them directly; and a rich and successful country that was explicitly racist and had recently taken to allying with their former colonial overlords.
Usually, the more people in the Third World learned about the U.S. from direct experience, the more they were convinced it is a white supremacist project. They could see quite clearly that early cowboy movies often celebrated genocide. African ambassadors got to D.C. and were shocked that they couldn’t order food at the restaurants along Highway 40, on the way to the United Nations. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghanaian independence leader and neo-colonial theorist, studied in Pennsylvania. The world didn’t need Nikita Khrushchev to tell them that America is racist.
Whataboutism is annoying to those in power because it is effective. Don’t let them use a faux-erudite and frankly incoherent Frankenstein term to discredit their critics.
But here’s the thing. Both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were profoundly aware that the Soviets were scoring propaganda victories by bringing up the conditions of African Americans. This made themmore supportive of the civil rights movement. In this case, “whataboutism” (though, as this excellent 2019 Citations Needed investigation demonstrates, no one actually called it that at the time) might have done a lot of good. In other cases I’ve been investigating, I wish people around the world would have made a bigger stink about U.S. abuses, no matter how impure their intentions may have been. No one has pure intentions.
Whataboutism is annoying to those in power because it is effective. Don’t let them use a faux-erudite and frankly incoherent Frankenstein term to discredit their critics. Yes, like everything else, “whataboutism” will be used and misused by bad people. The best defense against this is to simply not be hypocritical or morally monstrous in the first place. If Joe Biden is the nominee, yes, absolutely, Trump is going to attack him for corruption. Just because the president is entirely disingenuous doesn't mean he can’t be right. The thing to do is not be corrupt.
I think someone quite a long time ago might have put it best: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is still a beam in your own eye?”