While you may not instantly recognise the term ‘whataboutism’, you will surely feel your eyes roll to the back of your head in painful realisation when you hear it.
You know, when you say to your partner, “You didn’t wash those dishes I asked you to do!” And they respond, “Well what about you? You didn’t put the bedding on like you were supposed to either!”
Ah, there it is. The eye roll.
This defensive, knee-jerk response to criticism is a strategy which has been around since ancient times.
Sophists – teachers of philosophy and rhetoric in ancient Greece – were proud ‘whataboutists’, who boasted that they could convince any audience of any conclusion, irrespective of the truth, with tactics such as whataboutism.
One of the earliest recorded examples of whataboutism comes from the Gorgias dialogue, written by the sophist Plato, in which Socrates and Callicles debate the good and evil of man:
Socrates: You’re breaking your original promise, Callicles. If what you say contradicts what you really think, your value as my partner in searching for the truth will be at an end.
Callicles: You don’t always say what you think either, Socrates.
Socrates: Well, if that’s true, it only makes me just as bad as you …
The term whataboutism was first used in print in a letter to the Guardian from Lionel Bloch, which read, “Sir, your leader [article], East, West and the plight of the warring rest (May 18), is the finest piece of ‘whataboutism’ I have read in many years.”
Similar terms such as ‘whatabouts’ and ‘whataboutery’ appeared in print even earlier.
The trouble with whataboutism, is that while it may be an effective strategy for ‘winning’ an argument, it does not justify the action of the accused.
This form of deflection is usually emotion-based and lacks the critical thinking that is, well, critical to resolution. Furthermore, an inability to reach resolutions and take ownership of one’s mistakes can be detrimental to relationships and mental health. Therefore, it’s important that we learn to recognise and avoid whataboutism.
Here are some pointers:
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