Whataboutism — the epidemic hidden in plain sight

The world has been going through massive upheaval in the past few months. From a global health pandemic, to cyclones and hurricanes, from feminism to racisim, from student rights to animal rights, there is some issue, some topic that is being constantly discussed with a lot of passion, angst and fury. You probably feel passionately about some topic, there must be something that is close to your heart that you feel is worth fighting for. And yet, people close to you, people you meet over coffee or just some anonymous strangers over social media, would happily bash you and make you feel small about thinking about one issue and not another.

“But what about this and what about that?” that’s the most common argument you will hear from these social bashers.

“You are worried about the gun violence in America, but what about what is happening in your own backyard, your own country?” or “You are worried about kids in Africa but what about the immigrant kids all over the world?” or even “You care so much about equality, then what about men’s rights?” such arguments are a common theme in discussions and we are all guilty of indulging in a little “whataboutism” from time to time. With whataboutism, we have tried to deflect from issues, we have tried to make a failing argument, tried to get out of sticky situations or have simply used this technique to push our own agendas in the forefront, while hijacking someone else’s voice.

Recently, during the school shutdown, I came across several parents who were enraged that schools were shut down but were open just for the essential services workers. “What about our kids? Isn’t their education important?” Without understanding the problems that essential service workers would face in not being able to find someone to take care of their kids, not being able to meet or hold their kids even, these parents were busy pushing their own agenda to the fore.

A lot of my colleagues and friends, in States, in Canada, even in India when tweet about injustices happening in countries other than their home country, are attacked over social media — “But what about the student riots and police brutality in Delhi? What about the starving kids back home? Why don’t you talk about that instead of issues that are foreign to your own country?”

The term Whataboutism, has its roots in politics. I don’t mean to make it sound like a super complicated technique. It isn’t really. In fact grade schoolers often indulge in the “yeah-well-you-are-a-bigger-cheat” argument with natural ease. However, it gained popularity in the mainstream, through the Soviet Union’s overt reliance on the tactic during the cold war. Putin has continued with the same tactic over the years in Russia. Donald Trump has also been employing this dodge tactic throughout his presidency. “But what about Hillary’s emails?” has become Trump’s favorite defense against any and all of his errors, mistakes, crimes.

Whataboutism when employed as a response in an argument, or as a troll tactic, takes away the attention from the issue at hand. A lot of experts have been observing a rise in this logically faulty technique in regular discourse. I am not so sure of whether this is a rise or something that has existed all along and is only now getting enough attention. Whatever be the case, we all need to monitor our slip in to a whataboutism-argument and let people fight for the cause they care for and you do the same. It isn’t all or nothing and it is most definitely not ‘but what about’.

Priyanka Ketkar
Multimedia journalist


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