“Whataboutism” is a rhetorical manouvre often used by those seeking to avoid the topic at hand, and can frequently be seen in the comments section of articles posted on social media.
An example of the technique is where an article bearing the headline “Indian Flood Victims Need Help” is met with the comment, “What about kids in Australia that can’t afford to eat?”
Although children going without food in this country should be a concern, it has nothing to do with floods in India. But, raising the unrelated topic is used to avoid the present one, and seeks to undermine the relevance of the topic at hand.
And while the use of the infantile technique is common on platforms such as Facebook, it’s also being used in high places to avoid uncomfortable subjects.
The politics of whataboutism
Take the current prime minister, Scott Morrison. A few weeks back, BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie said he supported the establishment of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament, which was a proposal made by the Referendum Council in mid-2017.
When the PM was quizzed about his position on the proposal, he said, “I have got to tell you, I’m more concerned about young Indigenous girls committing suicide. That’s what concerns me more than anything else.”
And while teen Indigenous suicide rates are a major concern in this country, Morrison’s response had nothing to do with the question he’d been asked. In typical whataboutism style, he avoided a subject he didn’t want to address by pointing to another.
A Soviet propaganda tool
The use of whataboutism is mostly closely associated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and with Russia since then. A classic example would be for a reporter to raise the topic of unemployment in the USSR, to which a Soviet official would reply, “In the US they lynch” black people.
Having been described as “practically a national ideology” in Russia, this simple tactic in this case draws attention away from any wrongdoing the person being questioned may be accused of by implying that nobody’s without fault, and therefore, it leaves the individual off the hook.
Columbia University professor Dmitry Dubrovsky told National Public Radio that whataboutism is “real policy” in Russia. And he pointed to the now defunct Institute for Democracy and Cooperation: a pro-Kremlin organisation that was charged with documenting US human rights violations.
But, despite the association whataboutism has as a Soviet-era propaganda tool, the term itself seems to have been applied retrospectively. An Oxford Dictionary investigation found it was first used in reference to the Soviet Union in 1996, whereas prior to this it was applied in the context of Ireland.
The trouble in Ireland
Whataboutism is also referred to as whataboutery in Ireland, where the practice of this deflective tactic rose to prominence during the Troubles: the low-level guerrilla war that was waged in Northern Ireland from the late 60s up until 1998.
The Irish Times published a letter from Sean O’Conaill in January 1974, in which he referred to the “Whatabouts”. He explained, “These are the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional IRA with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy’.”
Three days later, in response to the letter, John Healy wrote that the technique was being used to justify one historic injustice by matching it with another. And he further stated that in those “killing days” whataboutery was leading to deaths on both sides of the war.
Vladimir Putin is well-versed in using this once described “macabre game of ‘You are worse than us’”. When the Russian president was asked about his countries meddling in the US election, he responded by saying that every other country has complaints about the US interfering in theirs.
While in 2014, an official from his government deflected criticism about its treatment of protesters with the statement, “What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law during public gatherings there could lead to a fine of 5,800 pounds sterling or even prison.”
And unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is a fan of this technique too. When asking the US president about his respect for his Russian counterpart, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said, “Putin is a killer”. To which Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
And a few years back, when questions were being raised about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Moscow, the US president took to Twitter again and said, “What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches etc.”
Professor Dubrovsky further explained that as Putin and Trump are both populist leaders, it’s natural that they use the whataboutism technique, as “it’s a very substantial part of populism rhetoric”.
Whataboutery down under
Probably the most bizarre use of whataboutism in Australia over recent years involved conservative federal House of Representatives member Bob Katter, when in 2017 he was asked about marriage equality: an issue that he’s opposed to.
The MP initially responded to reporters’ questions about the same-sex marriage debate with “people are entitled to their sexual proclivities”. And he then employed a bit of whataboutism when he changed the topic to an issue he found more pressing.
“But, I ain’t spending any time with it,” he continued in relation to the marriage equality debate. “Because in the meantime, each three months a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile in north Queensland.”
And this seemingly random outburst left commentators scratching their heads, as not only did Mr Katter bring up an unrelated topic, but he tried to deflect from marriage equality – a subject he wanted to devalue – by raising concerns about the non-existent issue of killer crocodiles.
Indeed, as the ABC’s Fact Check found there’s no evidence that shows one person is being killed by crocodiles in northern Queensland every three months. In actuality figures reveal that around one person a year has been killed by a croc dating back to 1985.
But, the plausibility of a counterargument doesn’t quite matter when you’re utilising the absurdist technique that is whataboutism.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.