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ΑρχικήEnglish EditionWhataboutism: How does this finger-pointing tactic work?

Whataboutism: How does this finger-pointing tactic work?

By Rania Tsoli,

As we grow older, we get to peek at many sides of our society’s spectrum. Ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation; the list goes on and on, with the notions and characteristics that make each and every one of us unique, being innumerable. Like the distinctive creatures that we are, it is only natural for our opinions to also differ – more often than not. However, pride can get the best of us from time to time; when in a disagreement with someone, many might feel the urge to avoid the issue that has been brought to the surface and opt to distract from it by mentioning another. Maybe you have come across this behaviour while others are engaged in it, or maybe you have even used the technique yourself – and possibly without even knowing it, too. If this rings a bell, the phenomenon being described is what you might recognise as whataboutism, a tactic one can track in their everyday encounters on a regular basis. But what exactly is whataboutism, and what are the motives behind it?

Whataboutism, also known as whataboutery, is defined as an argumentative strategy that when someone implicated in wrongdoing whips out a counterexample, with the goal of undermining the legitimacy of the criticism itself. To make it simpler, a person or group responds to an accusation or a difficult question by deflection: instead of addressing the point made, they counter it with the infamous “but what about X?”, where ‘X’ stands for their counterexample of choice. Basically, it can be used in an attempt to shut down one’s reasonable accusations by throwing accusations – reasonable or not – right back at them. Whataboutism is considered a form of the logical fallacy known as quote, which is Latin for “you also”, or “and so are you!” in a more contemporary tone. As some say, the offence is the best form of defence, and that is often the exact pretext behind the tactic. In this light, whataboutism can be considered effective – the problem, however, lies in the fact that many people view arguments as battles to be won, instead of what they are philosophically known as a reasoned debate aiming to find the truth.

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From siblings throwing each other under the bus while trying to avoid their parent’s scolds, and couples in the middle of a disagreement, to social media users finding themselves in endless bickers in comment sections, and politicians quarrelling while trying to prove each other to be inferior, whataboutism has turned out to be a widely used strategy. You have probably encountered it in a discussion or argument – maybe even you have taken advantage of it when the chance arose, whether you realised it or not. For some, whataboutism is a conscious act: one they use whenever they want to prove someone wrong or to avoid an accusation or topic which they do not want to confront. Others, however, simply do not realise that they do it; it is somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction for them.

Putting the instances where people do not realise that they are using it aside, whataboutism can be easily traced in discussions surrounding various topics, including human rights and politics. If we dive deeper into the motives behind whataboutism’s usage, we will shortly come to the realisation that the tactic serves many purposes, with the main ones being pride and unwillingness to admit wrongdoing, the attempt to hide ignorance, and lack of information, or even malice. According to many psychologists, whataboutism is quite common in the political debate because it is driven by partisan bias. When one is confronted by an opponent with a different political viewpoint, they are fairly often more likely to view what the other says as an attack to be countered, rather than a point to be debated.

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As mentioned earlier, whataboutism can occur in many other contexts besides debates surrounding politics, including conversations about racism, sexism, and rape culture: some great examples would involve the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as the #MeToo movement. Starting with the first, the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s goal is to raise awareness when it comes to the injustice that people of colour face daily. The movement is called “Black Lives Matter” because it focuses on the hardships that come with being black; it does not claim that other lives do not matter as much. However, there are people who might be poorly informed on issues, such as discrimination based on colour and extreme police brutality against black people, along with others who do not seem to care to address the hurdles that black people have to face in their everyday lives.

Many of those people feel the need to add that other lives matter as well and use the phrase “All Lives Matter” as a substitution for the movement’s original appellation. By doing so – whether they realise it or not – they are engaging in whataboutism: by bringing issues like reverse racism into the conversation, they start deflecting attention away from the original topic, without properly addressing it first.

Whataboutism also appears in discussions surrounding sexism, rape culture and concepts like the #MeToo movement frequently. To better understand how and when this typically occurs, imagine having a conversation about the #MeToo movement and the statistics of women who have come out as rape victims, and someone counter-argues about the number of men who are unfortunate enough to be in the same position. While their argument is valid, by expressing it without focusing on the issue of female rape victims that were being discussed, they are engaging in whataboutism. The same thing goes for the reversed scenario: if a group is talking about how men are also victims of rape, and someone decides to focus on how women are going through the same struggle, then they, too, are engaging in whataboutism.

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As we can clearly see, whataboutism is not designed to advance a discussion. Instead of addressing an issue, mistake, or complaint and trying to find possible solutions, the conversation just goes around in vicious circles. Thankfully, instead of succumbing to the problem not so merry-go-round that is whataboutism, there are things we can do to counteract it. Presenting the person engaging in the tactic with logical facts and continuing to discuss calmly and rationally is one of the best things we can do. Meanwhile, if we find ourselves agreeing with the gist of the other’s counterargument, but would rather focus on the original issue, for the time being, we can respond with something along the lines of “You are right, that is also an issue that needs to be addressed”. However, I would like to get back to the topic at hand for now. No matter how logical one’s counterargument is, it can very easily steer the attention away from the original subject, leaving it unresolved.

Whataboutism is a worrisome phenomenon; it pushes personal responsibility aside time and time again, making people yield to their pride and fear of admitting their mistakes. Apologies seem to be a dying breed, with everyone pointing fingers and continuously dodging any admission that may indicate that they, too, can be at fault. To say that the chances of completely wiping out the whataboutism strategy are slim would be an understatement; however, we can work on changing our attitude towards admitting and apologising for a start. By normalising the acceptance of our wrongdoings and misconceptions – while urging others to do so as well – we may not obliterate the phenomenon, but we will surely help impoverish it, one step at a time.

  • Whataboutisms, dictionary.com, Available here
  • Whataboutism, merriam-webster.com, Availabe here
  • Whataboutism; What is it and how to counteract it, utopia.org, Available here
  • Whataboutism: What it is and why it’s such a popular tactic in arguments, theconversation.com Available here



Rania Tsoli
Born in 2001, she grew up in Athens and is currently an undergraduate Primary Education student at the University of the Aegean in Rhodes. She finds inspiration in the smallest of things and expresses herself through singing, painting, and writing in many genres, including poetry. She loves learning just as much as creating and her wish is to make an impact and have her voice heard.