These types of rhetorical tricks are nothing new. Recall, for instance, the Ming emperor who, faced with a dangerous river situation, sought not to build a dam, but to implement a semantical flood control project by changing the name of the river from “The Wild One” to “The Peaceful One.” Problem solved.
The strategy behind whataboutism is longstanding, and rhetoricians consider it to be a variant of the tu quoque (you too) logical fallacy where one attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy rather than refuting the truth of the accusation made by the opponent. Whataboutism goes beyond tu quoque by establishing an equivalence between two or more unrelated actions thereby defaming the opponent as duplicitous.
The origin of whataboutism is associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda. During the Cold War, when criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, the Soviet response would often be in the form of a “What about…” comeback alleging reprehensible atrocities for which the Western World was guilty. According to Russian chess grandmaster and political activist Garry Kasparov, the term whataboutism was coined to describe the frequent use of a rhetorical diversion by Soviet apologists and dictators who would counter charges of their oppression, by invoking American slavery, racism, etc. The technique was also mastered by the Cuban government who, for example, often responds to criticism with some form of “What about the U.S. blockade?”
Critics of President Trump point out the President’s frequent use of whataboutism as a way of deflecting criticism for his actions, thus the renewed interest in this rhetorical device. The renaissance of whataboutism in the United States is unfortunate because, inherent in the “what about” defense is a moral relativism typical of illiberal regimes. Even more unfortunate is the use of forms of whataboutism by journalists apparently unaware that the use of this obfuscating rhetorical device compromises their journalistic objectivity.
Whataboutism degrades the level of discourse from rational criticism to petty bickering. I suppose it is natural to find forms of whataboutism in many domestic arguments. But notice how Vladimir Putin, Raul Castro, Nicolas Maduro and other heads of illiberal regimes use whataboutism as their default answer to any criticism.
Our society already faces the daunting challenge that our democratic institutions were built in an era with very different and limited information technologies. Then, as today, opinions differed, but most arguments were authentic debates conducted within agreed rhetorical parameters. There appear to be no such parameters today. And, whataboutism is used as a diversionary tactic to subvert genuine deliberation. We seem to be engaged in a practice of national misology, or hatred of reasoning, where truth-seeking has been abandoned.
Unlike the peoples of many other nations, Americans, and the Founders of our country, were skilled at thoughtful debate and compromise as a result of their long experience of representation in the colonial period. Other countries, unlearned in representative government, have not had even a beginner’s democratic experience to inform and guide their political class. I had this in mind, when I sought to bring together eighty essays on my understanding of what it means to be free in my book “Liberty for Beginners.”
Unfortunately, as Americans, we seem to be unlearning the give-and-take of representative democracy and to be losing our appreciation for pluralism. For me, the real issue with the prevalence of whataboutism in our national discourse is that it distracts from the national conversation and impedes genuine democratic debate. Democracy has always been noisy and strident, but if we follow the rules, democratic consensus eventually emerges. By replacing debate with whataboutism something essential to our democracy disappears.
Dr. Azel’s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”
“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”.