Whataboutery. Also known as whataboutism. Even if you’ve never heard these terms before, I’m fairly sure you’re familiar with how they play out in a discussion. Someone poses an idea, campaigns for some kind of change, comments on a current event or experience only to be met with the obstructionist’s rally-cry… ‘what about something else?’
Before I continue, I highly recommend you read this blogpost detailing how whataboutery infiltrates and undermines this researcher’s work into women and girls. Sometimes with very abusive language attached. Spoiler alert: the same cannot be said for her work into men’s wellbeing.
I have also come up against this when commenting on International Women’s Day, feminist theory and gendered violence.
But whataboutery doesn’t limit itself to gender issues. It can appear in discussions about gun control in the United States (whatabout mental health problems or the many and varied other ways in which people are killed), improving the lives of marginalised minorities (whatabout all lives), marriage equality under secular law (whatabout my religious beliefs/rights), fairer pay and working conditions for a particular industry (whatabout a different industry which I personally find more deserving but not enough to actually campaign for)…you get the idea.
When used in this way, whataboutery isn’t providing anything constructive to the discussion. It is not ‘playing devil’s advocate‘, which involves critical thinking rather than just criticism. In this context, whataboutery’s sole purpose is to be obstructionist. Why? Because it’s the path of least resistance. It requires no commitment to an alternative cause, no evidence or fact-based discussion and no desire to change anything.
In fact, it almost guarantees nothing will change, because why change anything if you can’t change everything? If you can’t eradicate all accidental deaths via legislation, is there even a point in restricting the sale of high-powered firearms? Eh? Eh?
So, I had come to the conclusion that whataboutery = bad and I decided to start calling it out whenever possible.
And then I began to do it myself.
To the person who questioned why law-abiding gun-owners were being punished because of a few bad apples, I pointedly noted how millions of Islamic women and men are similarly maligned. But they risk losing a lot more than the freedom to own a gun or the gun itself.
When others compared Australia’s collective outrage against the recent cricket ball-tampering scandal to our indifference towards incarcerating vulnerable refugees on Nauru or Manus Island, or towards assault and abuse cases perpetrated by sporting heroes, I joined in.
My reaction to Hollywood’s gender pay-gap problem has been to say ‘that’s one small step toward equality…now whatabout celebrities (and other ultra-high earners) of both genders take a pay-cut so we can address those socio-economic inequalities that are so entrenched we don’t even notice them anymore.’
And it got me wondering if I was being just as obnoxious and obstructionist as I perceived others to be (quite possibly) or if whataboutery can have some productive purpose after all; to highlight the disparity in our reactions, perceptions and expectations of how the world’s rules are applied (also quite possible).
Used in this way, whataboutery isn’t being obstructionist for obstruction’s sake. In this context, whataboutery seeks to reflect how contradictory the world is, and how we have come to accept certain injustices; either because they are just too big or because they have always existed and will continue to do so, no matter how much outrage we fling at them (more on learned helplessness in a future post). And also how challenging these injustices rather than normalising or reinforcing them can pave the way for major social change.
So how do we decide where whataboutery may be useful and where it’s just plain annoying? Well, that’s up to each individual. But my rule of thumb is going to be: if the second issue is demonstrably more critical, is going to highlight or challenge a disparity, and is meaningful enough to actively fight for (that is, putting my money/actions where my typing fingers are), then I believe it’s whataboutery for a good cause.
Photo credit: ChainSawsuit.com