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Demosthenes's avatar

Can a charge of "whataboutism" itself be a deflection?

Asked by Demosthenes (12738points) October 18th, 2020

“Whataboutism” is a form of the “tu quoque” fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent by pointing out hypocrisy without addressing the actual argument. “A is wrong for doing X”. “Well, B does X too so it doesn’t matter!” Whataboutism is often used to shut down discussions.

Whataboutism is a problem when the argument has not been discredited, as in:

Russia shouldn’t meddle in U.S. elections.
The U.S. meddles in elections too.

Pointing out that the U.S. has meddled in elections does not mean Russia can be excused for doing so. It doesn’t disprove the argument that Russia shouldn’t meddle in U.S. elections.

But here’s the problem: pointing out that the U.S. has meddled too is not necessarily an attempt to absolve Russia. Sometimes pointing out hypocrisy is an important demand for consistency. It’s often brought up that the Soviets basically invented whataboutism. When the U.S. would criticize Soviet brutality, they would say “what about the way you treat blacks?” Now we can be certain the Soviets were not sincere in their concern for black Americans and misdeeds on the part of Americans do not absolve the Soviets of their own misdeeds.

But saying “that’s whataboutism” is a way to avoid discussing the hypocrisy. America could dismiss the Soviet claims, but the elephant in the room is that we did treat blacks horribly. Just because the Soviets were insincere in bringing it up doesn’t mean it ceases to be a problem. In this way a charge of “whataboutism” is a way of deflecting from one’s own hypocrisy and inconsistency. So in a sense, charging “whataboutism” can shut down discussions in the same way whataboutism itself does.

What are your thoughts?

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6 Answers

Demosthenes's avatar

@hmmmmmm I actually like that podcast even if they are a bit too left for me sometimes :)

I’ll give that episode a listen.

hmmmmmm's avatar

@Demosthenes – It really is an amazing podcast.

Anyway, regarding the question, as Adam Johnson accurately describes….

“But what if the term whataboutism isn’t describing a propaganda technique, but is in fact one itself. A zombie phrase that’s seeped into everyday liberal discourse that — while perhaps useful in the abstract — has manifestly turned any appeal to moral consistency into a cunning Russian psyop. From its origins in the cold war as a means of deflecting and apologizing for Jim Crow to its contemporary usage as a way of deflecting and not engaging any criticism of the United States and its supposed status of arbiter of human rights, the term whataboutism has become a term that, 100 percent of the time, is simply used to defend and legitimize American empire’s moral narratives.”

KNOWITALL's avatar

Obviously I agree with the wise OP. :)

Demosthenes's avatar


@hmmmmmm So I did listen to it. I found it interesting that they so strongly connected it to the Russia narrative. It’s true that virtually every article I could find about “whataboutism” calls it a Soviet tactic, which it certainly was. But I hadn’t thought of its connection to the modern “Russiagate” nonsense. I’m not sure that I agree that it’s unwaveringly used to shut down scrutiny of American imperalism, but cleary it is used that way sometimes. I don’t want to excuse whataboutism as if it’s always a useful tactic, because it simply is a bad faith tactic much of the time. But other times it is a deflection no different than the deflections it claims to be decrying.

instead of figuring out a way of, I dunno, not killing a million Iraqis or not supporting apartheid regimes or not slaughtering Yemeni schoolchildren, the easier route, instead of addressing those issues, is to simply say, ‘wait, you pointing it out is somehow sinister.’

That’s the kind of thing I think I was getting at. That pointing it out to someone is not to excuse the behavior they’re condemning but to ask them to reckon with the similar behavior they engage in (and are not condemning).

Kropotkin's avatar

Yes, the charge of ‘whataboutism’ is a deflection, a type of thought-terminating cliche, and practically an admission of guilt.

I think in the case of the US, it pretty much relies on American exceptionalism and a popular civic nationalism for it to work as a rhetorical tactic, otherwise people would take the next step and actually think about the opposing accusation rather than simply stop thinking.

Nationalists of any sort tend to deny and block out any criticisms or negative facts about their country.

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