“Whataboutism”– Why It’s Ineffective And Delays The Discussion For Change

by Lauren Sanchez

whataboutism

This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s fall editorial intern Lauren Sanchez. Find her on Instagram at @lauren.sanchezz. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at thezillennialzine@gmail.com.

If you have ever been in an argument with someone, you have probably used the tactic or been the victim of whataboutism. For those who have never heard of that term before, let me give you a brief scenario of how you could’ve experienced it at some point in your life.

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Imagine you and your sibling were assigned to do chores around the house during the week. To your sibling, you’ll say something like, “Hey, weren’t you supposed to take out the trash?” to remind them of their chores. However, instead of your sibling going to do that chore, they’ll reply with, “Well what about the dishes last night? Wasn’t that your job to do?” You’ll sit there confused and rightfully annoyed over this small encounter because what did taking out the trash have to do with the dishes? This is an example of what whataboutism is.

If you’re like me and thought “Oh wow, there’s an ACTUAL word for this?” do not worry – this tactic, although very much used in daily life, can be incredibly subtle and hard to notice at first. Yet with the continuous rise of social and political activism on all types of social media platforms and significant polarization between groups of people, whataboutism has never been a more visible concept till now.

What is Whataboutism: A Brief Definition and History Lesson

 
 
 
 
 
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According to Dictionary.com, whataboutism is “a conversational tactic in which a person responds to an argument or attack by changing the subject to focus on someone else’s misconduct, implying that all criticism is invalid because no one is completely blameless.” In other words, it is a way for others to avoid talking about the topic at hand and an extremely powerful tactic to derail a conversation from happening.

Whataboutism is considered to be a logical fallacy (an error in the logic you use that hurts your argument) and is a quick way for others to place blame on someone other than themselves and deflect from the issue entirely. It’s giving very much “I know you are, but what am I?” and arguments you hear between little kids on the playground kind of vibes, and honestly, I am not here for it.

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Whataboutism or whataboutery originated in the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1970s and has been used in much political propaganda to criticize the actions of a country while trying to turn the blame away from another. During the age of the Cold War, whataboutism was often tossed around between the United States and the Soviet Union. While the United States would often criticize the leadership of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union would clap back by addressing the racism in America even though the two topics are not entirely related.

While we can see that it’s extremely prominent in politics nevertheless, every single person has been guilty of doing this. Whether it’d be a simple argument with your parents about staying out too late when they do the same or within a relationship with your partner about forgetting anniversaries only for them to turn it around and blame you for missing last week’s date night, whataboutism is difficult to escape.

Examples Of Whataboutism In The Social and Political Climate of Today 

#BlackLivesMatter vs #AllLivesMatter

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Created in 2013 after the murder of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter is a political and social movement dedicated to changing racial inequality, discrimination and the social and systemic racism against Black individuals. Through numerous protests in cities all across the United States, the movement gained national recognition and has become a significant force in encouraging people to vote and be active in human rights.

However, it wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 that it gained further national and international attention where over 26 million people from across the world protested against police brutality and advocated for political, legal and social reform for the Black community.

Yet in trying to find ways to combat the horrible treatment of the Black community and advocate for better equity and equality for these individuals, an opposition called All Lives Matter was created in retaliation against the Black Lives Matter movement. This group with a large support system consisting of white conservatives argues that ALL lives should matter no matter what by rejecting the ideas of Black Lives Matter and going to extreme measures to discredit and derail the conversation meant to help aid Black individuals who are constantly affected by racism and discrimination.

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All Lives Matter is a perfect example of whataboutism. The Black Lives Matter movement seeks equity and equality for Black people, criminal justice reform and protection of Black people from societal and political systems that are rooted in racism. All Lives Matter seeks to dismantle the chance of having a conversation or for any sort of justice to be served by assuming that because of this movement, Black needs, rights and interests will be immediately placed above theirs when that is simply not the case.

No one is saying that another life is more important than yours, and no one is saying that your life should not matter. Black Lives Matter was not intended to disregard the lives of others who aren’t Black. In a world where Black people are constantly marginalized, targeted and discriminated against, the organization demonstrates that Black lives matter and everyone must do better to eradicate racism.

Using “all lives matter” ignores and belittles the conversation around helping Black people and acknowledging that racism and discrimination are very much alive. This whataboutism in All Lives Matter seeks to dismiss and deny these problems and hurts the chances of finding a solution to an extremely important issue.

#StudentDebtForgiveness vs #WhatAboutMe

On Aug. 24, 2022, President Biden announced a student loan relief plan that will help millions of families and college students who struggle with paying back loans. And while I was jumping up and down in happiness that part of paying my NYU tuition might be relieved, others who have already suffered through the loan payments were not as happy.

The cost of college, both public and private, has tripled since 1980 according to the College Board. Yet financial support from Student Aid and the federal government has hardly risen — pell grants in the past have covered up to 80 percent of tuition and room and board. Now, these pell grants cover less than a third of the costs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, leaving many students to borrow insane amounts of loans to obtain a college education.  As the federal student loan debt increases to $1.6 trillion and millions are dealing with the burden of student loans, this relief plan will help out tremendously.

However, with millions of people who have already paid off their loans, many of them are asking “Well, what about me? Why did I have to pay?”

I understand the frustration that people who have paid their loans off feel. I would be so upset if I paid them off only to have others be relieved moments later. But one thing I think this fails to mention is that this whataboutism mentality over student loans and repaying them derails from the fact that college is a MILLION times more expensive now than it was 30-40 years ago (I might be exaggerating just a bit, but you get the idea). Instead of arguing against each other, what we should really be fighting against are these tuition costs and the price-gauging that these universities do.

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In my opinion, no college degree is worth these insane price tags. Especially because these price tags keep low-income students from attending college and discourage millions from getting a better education. The path toward relieving people from student loan debt can be incredibly beneficial for future generations and lead to the chance of having free/low-cost and accessible education, and I wouldn’t want to be on the side of history that prevents something as great as this from happening.

#MeToo vs #NotAllMen

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In the United States, one in five women have experienced a completed or attempted rape during their lifetime, and 81% of women have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

The #MeToo movement is a social movement dedicated to combatting sexual abuse, sexual harassment and rape culture in every aspect of life. Whether that’d be in the workplace, at school, at home or any place for that matter, sexual violence is a problem that needs to be addressed.

However, because sexual violence and sexual harassment impact women and people who identify as female at a higher percentage than men, men often feel excluded from the conversation because most fail to acknowledge how their actions contribute to this culture of sexual violence.

Sayings like “Not all men” and bringing up “What about men?” when a woman comes out with her experience of being assaulted is a perfect example of whataboutism. Sexual violence against men only becomes a topic of importance when rape culture and violence toward women are addressed. Not only does it dismiss the survivor’s story of being assaulted, but it seeks to diminish the actual problem of sexual violence and how NOBODY, regardless of gender or sex, should ever be a victim of such crimes.

Absolutely no one is saying that men cannot be victims of sexual violence or harassment. About 25% of men in the United States have experienced some form of contact or sexual violence in their lifetime, and 43% of men have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime. But only bringing up the fact that men can be abused or men can be assaulted ONLY when sexual violence against women is being discussed, is extremely problematic and hinders the progress toward stopping sexual violence against everyone.

In Conclusion, Whataboutism Does More Harm Than Good

The whole point of whataboutism is to delay any possibility for change and derail the conversation from any chance of finding solutions. It makes people not want to work together and ends up polarizing and dividing us more than it actually should. It is not helpful to constantly acknowledge problems that derail the actual conversation and hinders all progress from occurring.

It’s important to recognize that we all can acknowledge all kinds of issues without having to stack them in levels of “importance,” and it’s silly to even think that way. Avoiding difficult conversations about significant issues prevents us from addressing those issues in a meaningful way. For us to address such important topics, we need to start listening to each other and work together respectfully to come up with solutions that are beneficial to everyone.

So the next time you find yourself about to use the whataboutism tactic in an argument with a friend, a parent, colleague, partner, etc., think about the level of productiveness that could come out of it and whether it creates more of a problem than a solution.

Do you agree with the ineffectiveness of whataboutism? Have you ever found yourself using whataboutism in an argument that caused more harm than good? Let us know in the comments below!

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