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.

Nice illustrative piece from the archives by the late Jack Holland.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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  • Mick.
    The essence of most political debate in this particular part of the world is centered around the wrongs visited upon one side or the other. The whole flag debate is being spun as a one sided reaction to what is essentially a rebalancing of society in the north. Unionism has never faced up to what nationalists faced up to now. Until that “rapproachment” occurs, things won’t change

  • ayeYerMa

    Shouting “whataboutery!” is little more than am evasion tactic for some of the most vile hypocrites in our society, such as Bomber Kelly, to deflect any criticism of said hypocrisy.

    This made-up word has just as much intellectual punch in any debate as two people shouting “bigot!” at each other.

  • And some people can’t bring themselves to condemn whataboutery without using the same to try to show their own moral superiority.

  • Mick Fealty

    You don’t have to condemn. It is what it is a failure to address your own sides weakness, but instead dwell on your “partner”‘s weaknesses.

    And thats about where we are right now. If one fails, both fail. The worst I can say about it is that it is inimical to good conversation.

  • sherdy

    Mick – If you want to attach some gravitas to an argument one of the last people you should quote is Cahal Daly. He was another cleric who shamed the church he spoke for.

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s certainly deeply ironic. Still, that doesn’t make him wrong.

  • between the bridges

    Whatabouttery is one mans debate, another mans de nile, a shit stirrers delight and a wise mans last resort…

  • FDM

    If it were a legal glossary I would say it was a “partial defence” like contributory negligence. By going to the “whataboutery” defence you are admitting a measure of culpability but trying to reduce the hit by transferring an element of blame to others.

  • Turgon

    Might I suggest that there are two forms of whataboutery: sometimes each form may be legitimate other times they are not. As a unionist I will use examples used by unionists but I freely accept that nationalists / republicans can do the opposite. I will also make the examples ludicrously simplistic: again I accept they are frequently much more complex and nuanced on both sides of the argument.

    First sort: External Whataboutery.
    In this one side is accused of something and turns round and points to the other side saying “well what about…” an example would be if a republican claimed that the UVF / UDA were evil murderers and did more any other group to create the problems in Northern Ireland. A perfectly reasonable whatabout response would be: what about the IRA?

    A less reasonable situation is if a republican was castigating Billy Wright or whomever and a unionist / loyalist said: Ah yes but whatabout the context of the time: IRA murders etc.

    Both the above are externbal whataboutery in that they cross between the two communities.

    Internal Whataboutery
    There is also internal whataboutery. In this if a republican leader makes a cross community speech eg. Martin McGuiness and people ask: well whatabout assorted named victims? This is an attempt to contexutalise and expose hypocrisy. It sort of offends against Mick’s ball not man rule but I have always felt that rule was, if applied rigidly, very inappropriate.

    As an example (I know this offends against Godwin’s Law but I think it is sensible to do so here as it provides a good if extreme example):

    If we were discussing National Parks and what a good idea they were and that it was great that the Nazi Party created the first such parks in Europe. A perfectly reasonable piece of whataboutery would be to point out how awful the Nazis were. That is reasonable internal whataboutery.

    Where such internal whataboutery is unreasonable is to denounce whatever Michelle O’Neill’s position on farming is simply because the IRA murdered border Protestant farmers.

    Of course in all these examples there are shades of grey and the degree of shade one recognises is often a function of one’s own political position.

  • Bemused Englishman

    There’s a great quote from ‘The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared’ he says that all the worlds wars ar ultimately about someone saying “you’re stupid” and the other replying “no it is you who is stupid.” and that the best solution is to get people around a table with some vodka. Although I worry what might happen with the different NI groups if they were together and drunk!