What About 'Whataboutism?'
If everyone is guilty of something, is no one guilty of anything?
Some of the terms we use to describe political rhetoric are as old as politics itself (see ad hominem attacks, or such devices as synecdoche, metonymy, or zeugma). Others are more recent additions, driven by the evolution of the news cycle (like fake news and dog whistles).
But hey, aren’t we ignoring a bigger subject here? How can we talk about rhetorical devices and not mention whataboutism?
Whataboutism gives a clue to its meaning in its name. It is not merely the changing of a subject ("What about the economy?") to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.
The tactic behind whataboutism has been around for a long time. Rhetoricians generally consider it to be a form of tu quoque, which means "you too" in Latin and involves charging your accuser with whatever it is you've just been accused of rather than refuting the truth of the accusation made against you. Tu quoque is considered to be a logical fallacy, because whether or not the original accuser is likewise guilty of an offense has no bearing on the truth value of the original accusation.
Whataboutism adds a twist to tu quoque by directing its energies into establishing an equivalence between two or more disparate actions, thereby defaming the accuser with the insinuation that their priorities are backwards. The CNN correspondent Jill Dougherty, in a 2016 article about allegations of Russian doping during the Olympics, defined whataboutism in terms of a more familiar English idiom:
There's another attitude toward doping allegations that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union "whataboutism," in other words, "who are you to call the kettle black?"
—Jill Dougherty, CNN.com, 24 July 2016
The association of whataboutism with the Soviet Union began during the Cold War. As the regimes of Josef Stalin and his successors were criticized by the West for human rights atrocities, the Soviet propaganda machine would be ready with a comeback alleging atrocities of equal reprehensibility for which the West was guilty.
The weaknesses of whataboutism—which dictates that no one must get away with an attack on the Kremlin's abuses without tossing a few bricks at South Africa, no one must indict the Cuban police State without castigating President Park, no one must mention Irak, Libya or the PLO without having a bash at Israel, &c. – have been canvassed in this column before.
—Michael Bernard, The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), 17 Jun. 1978
Before the 2016 presidential election, more instances of whataboutism applied to criticism among regimes than between individual politicians:
Events in Ferguson have caused whataboutism to go global. As Robin Wright notes in the Wall Street Journal a whole bunch o' authoritarian states have seized on Ferguson to criticize the United States…
—Daniel W. Drezner, Slate, 20 Aug. 2014
Since the Cold War, Moscow has engaged in a political points-scoring exercise known as "whataboutism" used to shut down criticism of Russia's own rights record by pointing out abuses elsewhere. All criticism of Russia is invalid, the idea goes, because problems exist in other countries too.
—Max Seddon, Buzzfeed, 25 Nov. 2014
The term is seeing a bit of a renaissance in our current political climate. Philip Bump writes in The Washington Post that President Donald Trump has utilized whataboutism frequently as a way of deflecting criticism for his actions, such as his pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.
“[I]f you look at, as an example, President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, who was charged with crimes going back decades, including illegally buying oil from Iran while it held 53 American hostages — wasn’t allowed to do that, selling to the enemies of the United States,” Trump said at a news conference on Monday. “He was pardoned after his wife donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clintons.” He went on with his list: pardons of “dangerous criminals,” of drug dealers, President Barack Obama’s commutation of the sentences of Chelsea Manning and Oscar López Rivera. What about them, he asked? Why is he being maligned when what Clinton and Obama did was so bad?
—Philip Bump, The Washington Post, 29 Aug. 2017
The specific application of whataboutism to Donald Trump might be prompted in part by his fondness for language that alerts to the tactic itself:
What about all of the contact with the Clinton campaign and the Russians? Also, is it true that the DNC would not let the FBI in to look?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2017
...What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches etc.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017
Time will tell if whataboutism can persuade its way into the language, but its recent upswing in usage suggests it may have staying power. At least until someone changes the subject.
Words We're Watching talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.