Thoughts on “whataboutism”

Often during political discussions and debates, when one person points out another person’s inconsistency or hypocrisy, he or she will be accused of “whataboutism.” This has always struck me as a wrong and disingenuous argumentative tactic.

After last week’s protest at the Capitol, accusations of “whataboutism” have proliferated. Numerous people have correctly pointed out the inconsistency of those who condemn pro-Trump protesters’ breach of the Capitol despite having said nothing to criticize equally violent and destructive protests by members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Frequently, the person being criticized responds by accusing his/her critic of “whataboutism.” The implication is that the critic is somehow doing something wrong by pointing out this inconsistency. The focus needs to be on the topic currently under discussion, the argument goes, and bringing up things that have happened in the past detracts from the real issue. People who make this argument place such importance on condemning the protest at the Capitol that they consider it irrelevant to consider whether their condemnation is proportional and fair when compared with their reactions to other events. 

These types of arguments are disingenuous and wrong. Thinking logically, noticing inconsistencies, and pointing them out are important parts of discussing a topic. If two people are debating, and one of those people employs double standards or other inconsistencies in reasoning, that person’s opponent has every right to point that out. It is wrong to criticize right-wing protesters more harshly than left-wing protesters if both groups acted similarly, just as it would be wrong for a teacher to give one student a better grade than another when both students turned in similar quality work, for an employer to pay one employee more than another if they both have the same job and perform equally well, or for a judge to give one person a harsher sentence than another if both people committed similar crimes. 

It’s important to treat people in a fair and unbiased way. This is particularly true if one is active in the field of politics, public policy, or law, or writes about these topics for a living. Being inconsistent is a problem that does real harm to those who are being criticized or punished disproportionately, while giving a free pass to those who are more deserving of criticism and punishment. Making allegations of “whataboutism” is a way of deflecting attention from one’s own inconsistency and hypocrisy. When someone uses the term “whataboutism,” they are saying that pointing out inconsistency is the real problem, as opposed to the actual inconsistency itself.