Whataboutism, a method of self-justifying focus-shifting commonly associated with the Soviet Union, is as old as the hills. In fact, if the hills could talk, they would probably object, “What about the valleys? They’re old too.”
When someone excuses scandals (or worse) by bringing up the misdeeds of others, the idea is to create a moral landscape with no hills or valleys at all. Since everyone has done something wrong, the whatabouter pleads, why get worked up about any particular violation? It may take years to work out what exactly the Trump administration is guilty of, if anything, but it’s no wonder “whataboutism” has made a comeback now: Trump and company have been besieged by scandal from day one, and scandal is a petri dish for whataboutism.
In The Atlantic, David A. Graham describes the shell game of whataboutism: “Any flaw or critique is parried by pointing to some other individual’s own sins, imagined or real, equal or worse. The technique is a logical fallacy, since one person’s crimes do not excuse anyone else’s.” The Soviet’s penchant for whataboutism during the Cold War makes whataboutism a curious tactic for the White House to deploy to refute allegations of Russian meddling in the election. Yet it seems to have a receptive audience.
Consider this July 24 tweet from the president: “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?” In the midst of the ongoing investigation into his own campaign’s ties to Russia, Trump shifted focus to his opponent from that election, along with his favorite nickname for her.
The term whataboutism was popularized by The Economist, particularly by senior editor (and former Moscow bureau chief) Edward Lucas. A 2008 Economist editorial titled “Whataboutism” explains, “Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed ‘whataboutism.’ Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a ‘What about. . . (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).” Trump used the same strategy to defend Putin when he famously told Bill O’Reilly, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
Moral relativism has been around forever, but the term “whataboutism” and its other variants are recent. Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer found a 1974 letter to The Irish Times by history teacher Sean O’Conaill that used the term “whatabouts” for people who excused the excesses of the IRA by citing “the greater immorality of the ‘enemy.’”
The term “whataboutery” appeared in The Irish Times just days after. Rarer coinages include “whataboutocracy” and “whataboutology.” There also a term with a similar form that has no relation to the misdirection sense. Since the 1800s, people have sometimes talked about someone’s “whatabouts” as well as their whereabouts.
Part of the appeal of “whataboutism” is its colloquial sound. The Latin equivalent “tu quoque,” which literally means “you also,” sounds more like a disease than a fallacy. But “whataboutism” has a friendly sound and is almost self-defining. Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan, compared the word to “whodunit” and said “. . . the formality of the ‘-ism’ contrasts in a clever, amusing way with the more colloquial ‘what about.’” Lexicographer Orin Hargraves said by e-mail that “native compounds (i.e., English natives as opposed to Latinate ones) are nearly always appealing because they seem so straightforward. Like ‘wrongdoing’ as opposed to ‘malfeasance.’” That straightforwardness makes “whataboutism” a powerful tool in calling out malarkey.
Whataboutism thrives on scandal and arises from deep in human nature. A Mother Jones article on Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton asks, “Childish Rants or Putin-Style Propaganda?” Whataboutism is both.
It’s instinctual deflection, like a 5-year-old busted for stealing a cookie who screams that his siblings get away with far worse crimes against the kitchen. We’re all quick to call out hypocrisy — especially when it serves our own hypocritical needs.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.