In day-to-day conversations, when we wish to articulate our ideas and beliefs to others, we often both commit and encounter errors that make our arguments easier to defeat. These mistakes are also called logical fallacies – errors in reasoning that weaken the argument.
Whataboutism is a type of logical fallacy that occurs when a person attempts to divert the focus away from the current issue by making a counter-accusation. It’s a specific form of the tu quoque fallacy in which someone’s claim is discredited due to alleged hypocrisy by the arguer.
Sometimes, we are aware of the fallacies, but more often than not, they end up flying under our radar. And, consequently, we may be persuaded to believe in something for the wrong reasons and lose a debate even though the evidence was clearly on our side. As such, learning to identify and counter various fallacies can be extremely useful for almost anyone.
In this article, we will cover the whataboutism fallacy in detail, explaining when and how it is committed and illustrating it with examples from different situations.
What Is Whataboutism?
Whataboutism, also called whataboutery, is a logical fallacy and rhetorical technique in which people respond to a difficult concern or question with a counter-accusation in order to divert attention to a different topic.
As the name suggests, it’s characterized by the phrase “what about…?”, which would be followed by an issue that may be only remotely related to the original one.
It’s typically used when one is charged with a harmful accusation regarding their past actions; one counters the charge by bringing up something negative about the opposing side and thus attempts to downplay the magnitude of their own actions.
It is classified as a variant of the tu quoque fallacy, but it’s also closely related to the red herring fallacy.
Origin of the Term
British journalist Edward Lucas is credited for popularizing the term in his 2007 blog post in which he wrote about the use of “whataboutism” during the Cold War “to match every Soviet crime with a real or imagined Western one”.
The term is perhaps most often used in association with the Soviet Union and Russian style of argumentation. Notably, Garry Kasparov, a Russian chess world champion and political activist, said that it was created to describe the oft-used technique by Soviet figures to counter various charges made against them.
This error in reasoning occurs in a wide variety of situations, from our everyday arguments with family members to quarrels between nations. As such, here are various examples along with explanations to better illustrate it.
Whataboutism is a commonplace technique to justify or belittle one’s mistakes and wrongdoings. This is, perhaps, because we human beings tend to compare ourselves to other people in our surroundings; if another person has committed the same offense it may, in some cases, appear as less unacceptable.
As an example, if a student gets caught cheating on an exam, their first course of action may be to point out that their fellow student also cheated. This can seem to them as a reasonable refuge, even though it doesn’t do anything to justify their behavior.
Politicians and state leaders use whataboutism to defend themselves from accusations of not solving certain problems by bringing up the existence of other problems or the shortcomings of other individuals and nations.
For example, we know that climate change is a global issue that requires international intervention. A president of one country may plainly refuse to take actions to mitigate climate change in his country because some other countries are not doing it either.
Also, as in many other domains of high competition, it’s a popular tactic in the political arena to bring the mistakes of one’s opponents to the surface whenever faced with accusations. For instance, if a politician is caught off-guard lying, they may use a “what about him?”- ploy to divert the focus to someone else by reminding that he has lied about something even more serious.
The tactic is frequently employed to counter criticism at the nation level: If a certain nation finds itself as a target of criticism, say, for violating human rights, they may note that the opposing side has practiced slavery in the past, and therefore is not entitled to criticize other nations.
It may also appear in the business context. One example: A business customer complains that a particular production company provided them with substandard products. However, when questioned regarding the incident, the production company claims that companies X and Y too have a history of producing and distributing defective products; therefore, the mistake is not quite as bad as it would be otherwise.