Mapping ‘whataboutery’

For as long as I’ve been reading Slugger, it’s been fairly rare for it to carry a post without someone using the comment threads to reawaken some historical grievance or other. Mick (or someone?) calls it ‘whataboutery.’

There is as good an example as any three comments in, on Pete’s post earlier about P&J.

According to the logic offered by ‘Marty McG’ there, no-one who is currently a member of Sinn Féin can ever be involved in any discussions about violence towards women because of the fate that Jean McConville suffered.

The thing is that – for the purpose of this post – it’s not an entirely invalid argument. But it’s not original either. It’s not intended to move a discussion on, to persuade people who are going to be a factor in the debate. It’s the equivalent of having someone bounding into a room screaming MURDERER! MURDERERS!!

No-one would put up with it offline. They would just find somewhere that they could talk without being interrupted.


It doesn’t acknowledge any of the material facts that a schoolchild would include in explaining Northern Ireland’s current political settlement. You just know that, if someone else has the energy, they will be able to come up with an accusation of some equivalent brutality or an external ‘root cause’ behind IRA violence. If you’ve ever been here before, you can already imagine the sequence such a argument can take.

The more likely possibility is that it just becomes a conversation stopper. And what can we do about this?

Well, for one thing, if we could have a shorthand that would show where Mrs McConville – or any other victim or perpetrator from Ireland’s history – can fit in, then at least the whataboutery can be diverted off somewhere else. So here’s a suggestion: Next time you’re on this site and you feel the need to apportion blame entirely to one factor in Northern Ireland’s society, have a look at this debategraph image and contribute to it. If you think that one of its nodes is invalid, say so. Others can say why it is. Give examples – turn it into a huge galaxy of reasons why everything else is someone elses fault. I’ve only made a start and I’m sure there is someone who was totally responsible for everything that I’ve forgotten to blame, so please feel free to add them.

And Debategraph isn’t the only tool that can be used for that either. You could find a few dozen people who agree with you that one section of society is entirely responsible for everything bad that has happened in Northern Ireland (a quick trawl through the comments threads here should do it) and you could use ‘Mixed Ink’ to convene and agreed statement of why you and your allies are the exclusive bearers of The Truth in these matters. There is no reason why a document couldn’t be convened for each of those nodes. Or it could be a suitable project to trial Google Wave with?

So there you go folks. Log in to Debategraph and get your side of the story out there.

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland. A left-leaning Labour Party member and blogger. I’m on twitter as @paul0evans1 and I blog mainly at the Local Democracy blog though I’m in lots of other places as well. I’m a massive fan of Google Reader – please follow me and share the better posts from your feed?