Glossary: what is Whataboutery?

Familiar to anyone who’s followed public debate on Northern Ireland. Some define it as the often multiple blaming and finger pointing that goes on between communities in conflict. Political differences are marked by powerful emotional (often tribal) reactions as opposed to creative conflict over policy and issues. It’s beginning to be known well beyond the bounds of Northern Ireland.

Some years back the BBC quoted Cardinal Cahal Daly as having described Whataboutery as “the commonest form of moral evasion in Ireland today”, referring to how both communities use the terrible burden of past events to lay obstacles in the way of peace.

Evasion may not be the intention but it is the obvious effect. It occurs when individuals are confronted with a difficult or uncomfortable question. The respondent retrenches his/her position and rejigs the question, being careful to pick open a sore point on the part of questioner’s ‘tribe’. He/she then fires the original query back at the inquirer.

Historical subjects can be the worst. Rational perspective disappears and opponents are forced to assume moral responsibility for their community’s past sins. The substance of the issue is foregone for an emotional power play that comprises the solipsistic concerns of the participants, with little regard for fact or quality of argument.

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