About “Whataboutery.” A Taxonomy

We’ve all seen it. It’s everywhere. Tune into Nolan. Load up your Twitter feed. Hell, look at comments on Slugger O’Toole. There it is – that pervasive, maddening incantation. It’s the ultimate stock answer, a rhetorical reflex, Ulster’s own version of Godwin’s law. Repeat after me…

“BUT WHAT ABOUT??!”

If you follow Northern Irish politics, you know about “Whataboutery”. It’s an infamous argumentative manoeuvre deployed by people on all teams. If someone puts forth an issue which makes one side of the political divide look bad, sooner or later someone will push the “what about” button, and the grievance arms race begins.

We often roll our eyes at this move. It seems to betray a kind of desperation, a tacit admission of defeat. “I have nothing of worth to say in this argument,” so we imagine the Whatabouter uttering, “therefore I will resort to dropping the “Whatabout” bomb.”

And yet don’t we all sometimes feel Whataboutery sharply rising within us whenever we read something that makes our side look bad? Don’t those words sometimes race to the tip of our tongue in response to some online claim or comment? And doesn’t it sometimes feel fair to us?

This is, I want to contend, weird. We all know that its bad – or at least we think we do – yet Whataboutery persists.

I want to examine the phenomenon of Whataboutery. In doing so, I will argue that, while often invalid, sometimes Whataboutery is actually a valid tactic.

There is no single Whataboutery. In fact, I think that there are at least four Whatabouteries – two good, two bad. Hopefully the below will provide some clarity on the different kinds, and maybe impact on the way people use or abuse Whataboutery.

The examples of arguments I use are all illustrative, and they aren’t intended express a view, though they do resemble the sort of arguments you’ll daily see online and in the wider media.

Bad Whataboutery 1 – Whataboutery as Deflection

Person x: “The British Army did terrible things on Bloody Sunday.”

Person y: “But what about Bloody Friday? Kingsmills? Etc.”

This kind of Whataboutery has nothing to do with discussing the original issue raised. Instead, in response to one sides rhetorical wounding, a litany of atrocities is recited to simply change the subject.

As far as rational argument is concerned, there is obviously nothing of value in this approach. It doesn’t make any arguments for or against the original proposition. It’s no more than “why are people looking at this bad thing, when there are all these other terrible things over here?” It’s deflection pure and simple – and it’s bad.

And yet this species of Whataboutery is very common, which makes sense on a gut level when you have two sparring communities confronting each other with their grievances. Think of a dysfunctional couple having an argument;

“You left the kitchen light on!”

“Well, you haven’t taken the recycling out in months!”

Its emotionally understandable when issues are as raw as they are. But in terms of a rational discussion, it’s pretty useless.

Bad Whataboutery 2 – Whataboutery as Justification

Person x: “The IRA’s bombing campaign was morally wrong as it involved killing civilians.”

Person y: “What about the British Army? They killed civilians too. Therefore, the IRA’s bombing campaign wasn’t morally wrong.”

In this example, Whataboutery is used to justify some perceived wrongness done by “our side” with reference to a wrong committed by “the other side”. The goal of this use of the tactic is to positively justify the original impugned act, making it not wrong after-all.

In childish terms, it is invoking the rule that “two wrongs make a right.”

There are a number of things wrong with this approach. Firstly, for a lot of people its simply obvious that two wrongs do not make a right. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” etc.

But maybe this seems a bit wet to some. You might think that an eye for an eye is a perfectly valid moral rule. Fair enough. But this intuitive retributive notion does not usually do the work we want it to do when it comes to Whataboutery.

An eye for an eye only works when “our wrongful act” is a direct and appropriate retaliation to “their wrongful act.” My brother hit me first, so I hit him back. But wrongful acts in our politics and past aren’t as neat as this, particularly when it comes to the death of civilians or innocents. It is more a case of “my brother hit me, so my uncle hit my cousin.”

Often the “retaliatory strike” invoked by Whatabouters was not temporally or otherwise related to the wrongful act complained about at all. Sometimes the justification is something completely unrelated to the impugned wrongful act.

If we wanted to be consistent and realistic about an eye for an eye, we would need to embark on the absurd exercise of tracing every single atrocity of the Troubles back to a prior atrocity which justifies it – and this can go on, and on and on, till we have a sickening chronology of moral outrages reading like some mad, bloody genealogy of conflict.

Logically, the fault for the whole thing would lie on the very first offender, the Adam of the Troubles (I’m not referring to Gerry here). It’s a gross parody of the doctrine of original sin.

Lastly, Whataboutery as justification can backfire badly on the Whatabouter. This is because they are often trying to reach the conclusion that “my wrongful act” isn’t bad because “their wrongful act” is bad too.

But the rhetorical sword cuts both ways here. Taken purely logically, the argument would render both acts not bad – including “their wrongful act.” But presumably Whatabouter does not want this conclusion at all, since he wants to say that “their wrongful act” is still wrong!

This logical implication of Whataboutery as justification, leads me to the first of the “Good Whatabouterys”

Good Whataboutery 1 – Whataboutery as drawing out a moral principle

Person x: “The IRA was unjustified as their campaign involved the killing of civilians.”

Person y: “If the killing of civilians is what made the IRA’s campaign wrong, then what about the British Army’s killing of civilians?”

This is a more philosophical kind of Whataboutery. “What about?” is asked calmly, while the user strokes their chin and looks into the distance, instead of angrily screamed at an opponent over Stephen Nolan.

It is a genuine attempt to draw out the moral implications of person x’s claim, and apply these implications to other events.

Making a moral claim about a specific event is actually a very risky thing to do, if all you’re interested in doing is showing your side to be better than another. This is because every moral claim involves an implied moral principle, and moral principles are by definition abstract and applicable to a wide range of scenarios. It’s like opening an ethical pandora’s box – you don’t know where the moral claim will take you, and it may end up backfiring on your side.

Whataboutery can be a vivid exercise in exposing the suppressed premise of the condemnation. My brother hit me and that was wrong. OK, fine – the moral claim implied in this condemnation is the more abstract principle that “It is wrong to hit people.” But then what if it turns out that I once hit someone? Was that not wrong, by that same abstract principle?

Maybe. Maybe not. There could be circumstances which distinguish my hitting from my brother’s. The point is, that Whataboutery can provide concrete circumstances to which to apply the moral principle, to test it, to make sure we and our interlocutors are being consistent.

The best part of this Whataboutery is that, done properly and in good faith, it can actually reveal moral common ground. Person x and person y both think that what was done was morally wrong – and apparently for the same reason. This means that, despite their different political outlooks, they are actually agreed on some fundamental moral point. This should be encouraging. It provides something to build on, a nice piece of consensus we might never have known we have.

This all too often fails because arguments are not usually brought in good faith. Often, the person making the initial claim is only doing so to advance a wider project – that of “showing up” the other side. This is where the second type of good Whataboutery comes in.

(Potentially) Good Whataboutery 2 – Whataboutery as calling out hypocrisy

Person x: “Members of the other side’s group committed killings – and won’t tell the truth about what happened! This is a moral outrage!”

Person y: “What about person x’s group? They also committed killings and won’t tell the truth about what happened? Person x is being hypocritical.”

On a charitable reading, this is actually what a lot of Whatabouters are attempting to do – that is, calling out hypocrisy. In this case Whataboutery is still a purely ad hominem attack. It doesn’t justify anything and it doesn’t particularly advance the discussion. But it can reveal real and relevant hypocrisy on person x’s part.

This is a completely valid move to make. In being hypocritical, person x is not really interested in discussing the impugned wrongful act for its own sake – they are merely making a political point with the express intention of making the other side look bad. The wrongful event and its victims are reduced to tactics themselves in the attritional war of rhetoric. It is right and just when this kind of hypocrisy is called out.

The problem is, that while valid, this kind of Whataboutery can be overused. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the hypocrisy might only be imagined. Person z, who has nothing to do with person x, or isn’t interested in political point scoring, may however want to talk about an example of one group’s failure to disclose their role in killings. Person y may get defensive and erroneously assume hypocrisy, and call it out accordingly. But this advances the conversation no further, and it is grossly unfair to person z.

Secondly, as I alluded to above, this kind of Whataboutery doesn’t often get us anywhere. It is purely a negative move. It rightly puts person x in their place, but it leaves unsolved the otherwise valid political and moral problems raised by both person x and y. If this is the end of the story, then something vital is missing.

Conclusion

I hope this classification of the four Whatabouteries is useful, and that it can help people figure out when they are using it correctly or incorrectly. I’d like to end on two observations drawn out from above.

Firstly, Whataboutery as drawing out moral principles gives a space for hope. I really want to re-emphasise this. Too often people assume that the two sides in our politics are completely intractable, that there is no common ground. This may be true constitutionally, but it is definitely not the case morally.

We are basically born into one tribe or the other and this determines how we view the constitutional question. But we all basically share the same moral intuitions. A large explanation of our continued division is the inconsistent application of these morals. If we were a bit more honest with ourselves, we might begin to see the grey as it appears on both sides of the divide.

Secondly, the reason why Whataboutery is so pervasive is because a lot of arguments over certain concrete, important issues about our past or politics aren’t made in good faith to begin with. Legitimate concerns get weaponised and sympathy is replaced by defensiveness and a refusal to budge. Perhaps this is unavoidable in a society so deeply riven by conflict as ours. But I hope that we can work together to really think and talk about these issues properly, on their own terms, without the perverse point-scoring that poisons the discussion.

 

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