Whataboutism: What it is and Why It’s Such a Feeble Tactic

Sep 9, 2023

“I know you are but what am I?”



There is no lazier approach to an argument online than the use of Whataboutism. It’s more than just lazy, it’s a lame way to derail any discussion, usually done so on purpose. So what is this, what does it mean and how do you counter it? 


Defining Whataboutism

Whataboutism is a rhetorical technique employed in arguments and discussions where one responds to an accusation or criticism by bringing up a counterpoint that is often unrelated to the original issue. It typically takes the form of asking, “What about [another issue]?” or “What about when [someone else] did [something else]?”  



The intent of using whataboutism is to divert attention away from the initial criticism or accusation and to undermine the credibility or moral high ground of the accuser. The primary intent of whataboutism is to deflect attention from the original issue or criticism. Instead of addressing the core point, the person employing whataboutism shifts the focus to another topic or action, often implying that the accuser is being hypocritical or unfair. AKA projection. 


Another intended use is to attempt to undermine credibility. By highlighting other issues or actions, the user of whataboutism aims to discredit the accuser. They suggest that the accuser is selective in their outrage, implying that their own actions or the group’s actions are just as bad or worse. 




Whataboutism is a tactic used in manipulation. Why? It sidesteps any need to engage in a legitimate interaction on the original issue. Instead, it relies on a hope the whataboutism elicits an emotional response with the hopes that it can manipulate the target of the argument by redirecting their attention and framing them as biased or unjust. Or in a term, they understand “a bad bad person”. 

Whataboutismis used to accuse the original critic of hypocrisy, claiming that they are guilty of the same issue or offence. This approach is hypocritical in of itself as the user of the whataboutism is not genuinely interested in addressing the original issue but is only using it as a means of attack on the original argument. 



Subconscious Agreement 

People who use whataboutism inadvertently reveal a subconscious agreement with the original argument they are trying to detract from. By acknowledging that there are problems or wrongdoings in the related issue they bring up, they indirectly validate the concerns raised by the accuser, even if that was not their intention. examples 





Steps in how to Engage with Offenders  


These are steps that could be used if you honestly believe the offending user of this tactic is just unaware that they’re using this form of argument. However, most of those who immediately jump into this form of argument online do so to troll or are so entrenched in their belief system that they will never change their point of view because it would take them to have a realization, that they were wrong. 

Stay Focused on the Issue: Maintain a clear focus on the original issue or argument being discussed. Don’t allow the conversation to be derailed by unrelated topics. 


Acknowledge the Distraction: Politely acknowledge the whataboutism without fully engaging in it. You can say something like, “I understand your concern about [related issue], but let’s get back to discussing [original issue].” 



Use Socratic Questioning: Ask open-ended questions that encourage critical thinking and reflection. For example, “How does [related issue] relate to our discussion about [original issue]?” This can help expose the diversionary tactic. 


Refocus on Common Ground: Identify shared concerns or values related to both the original issue and the related issue brought up through whataboutism. Emphasize common ground to steer the conversation back on track. 


Call Out Hypocrisy (With Caution): If the whataboutism is an attempt to accuse you of hypocrisy, respond calmly and provide evidence of your consistent stance on the issue. Avoid getting defensive or confrontational. 


Use Humor or Empathy: Sometimes, light humour or empathetic responses can defuse the tension caused by whataboutism. For instance, you can say, “I see where you’re coming from, but let’s not lose sight of the main issue”. At the very least, the use of humour can entertain you or help you to disengage from a hopeless attempt to engage in legitimate discussion 


Remember that countering whataboutism effectively often requires patience, diplomacy, and a commitment to maintaining the integrity of the discussion. The goal is to ensure that important issues are addressed directly and constructively. 



In the end, unless you are personally known to each other, the reality is that attempting to engage with the users of whataboutism, especially online, may not be the best use of your time. 

Blain Potvin

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