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Whataboutism


Charlottesville, Virginia

June 9, 2020


Life can be entertaining at times. I thought this word was a joke when I first saw it - but Wikipedia convinced me it is a real word. Consider yourself informed! I've truncated the Wikipedia entry but still, I'm impressed by how well researched this entry is. Somebody knows a lot about whataboutism! 🤪


Etymology


The term Whataboutism is a "portmanteau" of what and about, is synonymous with whataboutery, and means to twist criticism back on the initial critic.


It is unclear whether whataboutism or whataboutery originated first; although whataboutery is recorded several years before whataboutism. According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, whataboutery was used with a similar meaning in the 1970s. He cites a 1974 letter by Sean O'Conaill which was published in The Irish Times and which referred to "the Whatabouts ... who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the 'enemy'" and an opinion column entitled 'Enter the cultural British Army' by 'Backbencher' (Irish Journalist John Healy) in the same paper which picked up the theme using the term "whataboutery". It is likely that whataboutery derived from Healy's response to O'Conaill's letter.


I would not suggest such a thing were it not for the Whatabouts. These are the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the “enemy”, and therefore the justice of the Provisionals’ cause: “What about Bloody Sunday, internment, torture, force feeding, army intimidation?”. Every call to stop is answered in the same way: “What about the Treaty of Limerick; the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921; Lenadoon?”. Neither is the Church immune: “The Catholic Church has never supported the national cause. What about Papal sanction for the Norman invasion; condemnation of the Fenians by Moriarty; Parnell?” — Sean O'Conaill, "Letter to Editor", The Irish Times, 30 Jan 1974


Healy appears to coin the term whataboutery in his response to this letter: "As a correspondent noted in a recent letter to this paper, we are very big on Whatabout Morality, matching one historic injustice with another justified injustice. We have a bellyfull [sic] of Whataboutery in these killing days and the one clear fact to emerge is that people, Orange and Green, are dying as a result of it. It is producing the rounds of death for like men in a bar, one round calls for another, one Green bullet calls for a responding Orange bullet, one Green grave for a matching Orange grave."


Zimmer says this gained wide currency in commentary about the conflict. Zimmer also notes that the variant whataboutism was used in the same context in a 1993 book by Tony Parker.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary identifies an earlier recorded use of the term whataboutism in a piece by journalist Michael Bernard from The Age, which nevertheless dates from 1978 - four years after Healy's column. Bernard wrote: "the weaknesses of whataboutism—which dictates that no one must get away with an attack on the Kremlin's abuses without tossing a few bricks at South Africa, no one must indict the Cuban police State without castigating President Park, no one must mention Iraq, Libya or the PLO without having a bash at Israel."



History


According to Russian journalist Konstantin von Eggert, the term originated in the 1960s as an ironic description of "the Soviet Union's efforts at countering Western criticism". However, no examples of the term being applied to the Soviet Union exist prior to its usage in The Age in 1978.


British journalist Edward Lucas used the word whataboutism in a blog post of October 29, 2007, reporting as part of a diary about Russia which was printed in November 2 issue of The Economist. "Whataboutism" was the title of an article in The Economist on January 31, 2008, where Lucas wrote: "Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'". Zimmer credited Lucas for popularizing the term in 2007–2008.


Soviet and Russian leaders usage


Journalist Luke Harding described Russian whataboutism as "practically a national ideology". Journalist Julia Ioffe wrote that "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union" was aware of the technique, citing the Soviet rejoinder to criticism, And you are lynching Negroes, as a "classic" example of the tactic. Writing for Bloomberg News, Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition", while The New Yorker described the technique as "a strategy of false moral equivalences". Ioffe called whataboutism a "sacred Russian tactic", and compared it to accusing the pot of calling the kettle black.


According to The Economist, "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)." The technique functions as a diversionary tactic to distract the opponent from their original criticism. Thus, the technique is used to avoid directly refuting or disproving the opponent's initial argument. The tactic is an attempt at moral relativism, and a form of false moral equivalence.


The Economist recommended two methods of properly countering whataboutism: to "use points made by Russian leaders themselves" so that they cannot be applied to the West, and for Western nations to engage in more self-criticism of their own media and government. Euromaidan Press discussed the strategy in a feature on whataboutism, the second in a three-part educational series on Russian propaganda. The series described whataboutism as an intentional distraction away from serious criticism of Russia. The piece advised subjects of whataboutism to resist emotional manipulation and the temptation to respond.


Due to the tactic's use by Soviet officials, western writers frequently use term has when discussing the Soviet era. The technique became increasingly prevalent in Soviet public relations, until it became a habitual practice by the government. Soviet media employing whataboutism, hoping to tarnish the reputation of the US, did so at the expense of journalistic neutrality. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Soviet officials made increased use of the tactic during the latter portion of the 1940s, aiming to distract attention from criticism of the Soviet Union.


One of the earliest uses of the technique by the Soviets was in 1947, after William Averell Harriman criticized "Soviet imperialism" in a speech. Ilya Ehrenburg's response in Pravda criticized the United States' laws and policies on race and minorities, writing that the Soviet Union deemed them "insulting to human dignity" but did not use them as a pretext for war. Whataboutism saw greater usage in Soviet public relations during the Cold War.


Throughout the Cold War, the tactic was primarily utilized by media figures speaking on behalf of the Soviet Union. At the end of the Cold War, alongside US civil rights reforms, the tactic began dying out.


Post-Soviet Russia


The tactic was used in post-Soviet Russia in relation to human rights violations committed by, and other criticisms of, the Russian government. Whataboutism became a favorite tactic of the Kremlin. Russian public relations strategies combined whataboutism with other Soviet tactics, including disinformation and active measures. Whataboutism is used as Russian propaganda with the goal of obfuscating criticism of the Russian state, and to degrade the level of discourse from rational criticism of Russia to petty bickering.


Although the use of whataboutism was not restricted to any particular race or belief system, according to The Economist, Russians often overused the tactic. The Russian government's use of whataboutism grew under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Putin replied to George W. Bush’s criticism of Russia: ‘I’ll be honest with you: we, of course, would not want to have a democracy like in Iraq.’ Jake Sullivan of Foreign Policy, wrote Putin "is an especially skillful practitioner" of the technique. Business Insider echoed this assessment, writing that "Putin's near-default response to criticism of how he runs Russia is whataboutism". Edward Lucas of The Economist observed the tactic in modern Russian politics, and cited it as evidence of the Russian leadership's return to a Soviet-era mentality.


Writer Miriam Elder commented in The Guardian that Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, used the tactic; she added that most criticisms of human rights violations had gone unanswered. Peskov responded to Elder's article on the difficulty of dry-cleaning in Moscow by mentioning Russians' difficulty obtaining a visa to the United Kingdom. Peskov used the whataboutism tactic the same year in a letter written to the Financial Times.


Increased use after Russian annexation of Crimea


The tactic received new attention during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. The Russian officials and media frequently used "what about" and then provided Kosovo independence or the 2014 Scottish independence referendum as examples to justify the 2014 Crimean status referendum, Donbass status referendums and the Donbass military conflict. Jill Dougherty noted in 2014 that the tactic is "a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government" which sees further use in Russian propaganda, including Russia Today. The assessment that Russia Today engages in whataboutism was echoed by the Financial Times and Bloomberg News.


The Washington Post observed in 2016 that media outlets of Russia had become "famous" for their use of whataboutism. Use of the technique had a negative impact on Russia–United States relations during Barack Obama's second term, according to Maxine David. The Wall Street Journal noted that Putin himself used the tactic in a 2017 interview with NBC News journalist Megyn Kelly.


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