by Michael Krieger, Liberty Blitzkrieg:
If you spend any time on Twitter, you’ll probably be familiar with the latest pathetic attempt to defend and insulate the U.S. status quo from criticism. It centers around the usage of an infantile and meaningless term, “whataboutism.”
Let’s begin with one particularly absurd accusation of “whataboutism” promoted by NPR last year:
When O’Reilly countered that “Putin is a killer,” Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
This particular brand of changing the subject is called “whataboutism” — a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used by the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. And its use in Russia helps illustrate how it could be such a useful tool now, in America. As Russian political experts told NPR, it’s an attractive tactic for populists in particular, allowing them to be vague but appear straight-talking at the same time.
The idea behind whataboutism is simple: Party A accuses Party B of doing something bad. Party B responds by changing the subject and pointing out one of Party A’s faults — “Yeah? Well what about that bad thing you did?” (Hence the name.)
It’s not exactly a complicated tactic — any grade-schooler can master the “yeah-well-you-suck-too-so-there” defense. But it came to be associated with the USSR because of the Soviet Union’s heavy reliance upon whataboutism throughout the Cold War and afterward, as Russia.
This is a really embarrassing take by NPR. First, the author tries to associate a tactic that’s been around since humans first wandered into caves — deflecting attention away from yourself by pointing out the flaws in others — into some uniquely nefarious Russian propaganda tool. Second, that’s not even what Trump did in this example.
In his response to O’Reilly, Trump wasn’t using “whataboutism” to deflect away from his own sins. Rather, he offered a rare moment of self-reflection about the true role played by the U.S. government around the world. This isn’t “whataboutism,” it’s questioning the hypocrisy and abuse of power of one’s own government. It’s an attempt to take responsibility for stuff he might actually be able to change as President. It’s the most ethical and honest response to that question in light of the amount of violence the U.S. government engages in abroad. If our leaders did this more often, we might stop repeatedly jumping from one insane and destructive war to the next.
Had O’Reilly’s question been about the U.S. government’s ongoing support of Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen and Trump shifted the conversation to Russian atrocities, he could then be fairly accused of changing the subject to avoid accountability. In that case, you could condemn Trump for “whataboutism” because he intentionally deflected attention away from his own government’s sins to the sins of another. This sort of thing is indeed very dangerous, especially when done by someone in a position of power.
But here’s the thing. You don’t need some catchy, infantile term like “whataboutism” to point out that someone in power’s deflecting attention from their own transgressions. I agree wholeheartedly with Adam Johnson when he states:
"whataboutism" does not describe a propaganda technique, it IS a propaganda technique. Which is what makes it such an effective one.
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) 16 March 2018
He’s absolutely right. One should never rely on the lazy use of a cutesy, catchy term like “whataboutism” as a retort to someone who points out a glaring contradiction. If you do, you’re either a propagandist with no counterargument or a fool who mindlessly adopts the jingoistic cues of others. Responding to someone by saying “that’s just whataboutism” isn’t an argument, it’s an assault on one’s logical faculties. It’s attempt to provide people with a way to shut down debate and conversation by simply blurting out a clever sounding fake-word. Here’s an example of how I’ve seen it used on Twitter.
One U.S. citizen (likely a card carrying member of “the resistance”) will regurgitate some standard intel agency line on Syria or Russia. Another U.S. citizen will then draw attention to the fact that their own government plays an active role in egregious war crimes in Yemen on behalf of the Saudis. This person will proceed to advocate for skepticism with regard to U.S. government and intelligence agency war promotion considering how badly the public was deceived in the run up to the Iraq war. For this offense, they’ll be accused of “whataboutism.”