Whataboutery and whataboutism – what’s it all about?
Have you ever found yourself mid-argument and unable to come up with a reasoned response, resorting instead to shouting petulantly: ‘Well, what about the time you [insert chosen offence here]?!’ If you have, then I’m afraid you’re guilty of whataboutery – or whataboutism, whichever you prefer. The two words mean the same thing: the practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation, or raising a different issue.
Legend has it, however, that these terms arose in different political contexts: while whataboutery is thought to have originated during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, whataboutism is said to have its roots in the Cold War and the rhetoric of the Soviet Union. But does the evidence bear out this distinction?
Whataboutery in Ireland
On 30 January 1974 the Irish Times published a letter from Sean O’Conaill in which he referred to ‘the Whatabouts’. He went on to say ‘these are the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional IRA with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the “enemy”, and therefore the justice of the Provisionals’ cause’. Three days later John Healy, inspired by the letter, wrote ‘we are very big on Whatabout Morality, matching one historic injustice with another justified injustice’. Significantly, he then went on to pen the sentence ‘we have a bellyfull 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’.
As the linguist Ben Zimmer has noted, this is thought to be the first use of whataboutery, a conclusion supported by its widespread usage in Ireland and in conversations about the Troubles over the following years. At the end of 1974, the Irish Times reported on a campaign led by religious figures to promote peace in Northern Ireland, stating ‘Cardinal Conway summed up one aim of the campaign with the slogan “Whataboutery”’, encouraging people to evaluate their own behaviour rather than point the finger at others.
The term found its way into the mouths of politicians as well as the clergy. In a House of Commons debate on 30 June 1982, Gerard Fitt, MP for West Belfast, said ‘I refer here to what is known in Northern Ireland as “what-about-ery”’, going on to describe it as ‘a macabre game of “You are worse than us”’. What’s more, by the 1990s the term was well-established enough to be used before mainstream audiences that extended beyond Ireland, appearing in the London-based Independent (1992) and Kevin Toolis’ book on the IRA, Rebel Hearts (1995).
Tracing the origins and development of whataboutery, then, is fairly straightforward. Where whataboutism is concerned things are not so simple…
Whataboutism in the Soviet Union
Whataboutism is typically linked to the rhetoric of the Soviet Union; in response to challenges or criticisms, the shortcomings of the West would be catalogued. The Economist’s 2008 piece on whataboutism opens ‘Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed “whataboutism”’. Numerous other articles, posts and websites boast similar statements. Since the OED endeavours to find the earliest verifiable occurrence of all its words, I set about scouring the databases for a use of whataboutism during the Cold War period.
Several footnotes, dead-ends and furrowed brows later, I surveyed my findings. The earliest quotations I had were from 1993, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What’s more, they had nothing to do with the Soviet Union; one, uncovered by Zimmer, was from the Irish Times, the other, collected in 2005 by the OED’s reading programme, from Tony Parker’s book May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast. Unsurprisingly, they both referred to the Troubles. It seems the continued use of whataboutery in this context had led to a sister form in whataboutism.
The earliest quotation I found that referred to the Soviet Union came a few years later in 1996, in a letter published in the Spectator:
Sir: ‘Whataboutism’ used to be frequently a communist technique whereby any criticism of the Soviet Union was countered by reference to some Western imperfections… I am amazed to find that whataboutsim is well and alive in The Spectator.
While such a practice of meeting accusations with counter-accusations may have existed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, I found no evidence that it was described as whataboutism at the time. If the term had been in common use, it should have left some trace behind. Instead, it appears to have been applied retrospectively to the rhetoric of the Soviet Union. Like whataboutery, current evidence suggests the origins of the word lie in the Troubles in Ireland.
Today whataboutery and whataboutism are used far beyond the contexts and regions of their original uses. Mint, the Indian business newspaper, has used both terms in the last couple of years in articles that discuss opposing political parties’ accusations and counter-accusations of insufficient job creation, and arguments over tackling drug abuse at state- and national-levels. A third article runs ‘the latest bout of whataboutery on social media has been with regard to terrorist attacks… Expressions of solidarity with France have been met with “but what about Beirut?”’. This demonstrates the development the terms have undergone. An initial accusation is no longer needed to trigger whataboutery/whataboutism. Instead, it can be used to delegitimize or undermine a position outright by raising spurious information that has supposedly been ignored. It makes the accusation that you cannot hold one position without hypocritically dismissing another (even though the second issue is not currently under discussion) by demanding ‘what about..?’.
Whataboutery’s association with the Troubles appears to have faded, at least on the surface. A look at the OED’s corpus for monitoring current usage shows the term used in a whole range of contexts including British politics, international relations and even sport. Interestingly, its appearance in the sports pages might suggest whataboutery is being used in less contentious contexts (e.g. with regard to footballers diving), but further investigation shows that it is actually here that the roots of whataboutery are quietly present. Although the context is sport, many of the references are to the Glasgow football clubs, Celtic and Rangers, historically associated with local, sectarian rivalry between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Perhaps, then, the word is not so far removed from its original usage after all.
Whataboutism’s continued connection to the Soviet Union is not so subtle (regardless of whether its origins truly lie there). Although the OED’s corpus of current usage shows the term used in reference to other countries, such as China and North Korea, over half of the quotations mention the Cold War, Soviet Union or present day Russia. The corpus also shows a spike in use in relation to US politics in the past year. This is reflected on Twitter: a search for tweets from New York sent in the first week of August 2017 that mention “whataboutism” gives 43 results. The same week in 2016 saw only one such tweet from New York. Twitter allows us not only to monitor frequency, but also which events influence usage, and to what extent. For example, on 24 July 2017 President Trump tweeted: ‘So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?’ Over 400 tweets with the word ‘whataboutism’ are recorded for that day, many of them directly responding to the President’s tweet. However obscure or confused the origins of whataboutism are, there is no shortage of evidence for its use now.