Whataboutism, also known as whataboutery, is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent's position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument.
According to Russian writer, chess grandmaster and political activist Garry Kasparov, whataboutism is a word that was coined to describe the frequent use of a rhetorical diversion by Soviet apologists and dictators, who would counter charges of their oppression, "massacres, gulags, and forced deportations" by invoking American slavery, racism, lynchings, etc. Whataboutism has been used by other politicians and countries as well. Whataboutism is particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda.
When criticism is leveled at the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Soviet response would often use "and what about you?" style by instancing of an event or situation in the Western world. The idea can be found in Russian language; while it utilizes phrase "Sam takoi" for direct tu quoque-like "you too"; it also has "Sam ne lutche" ("not better") phrase.
The term whataboutism is a portmanteau of what and about, is synonymous with whataboutery, and means to twist criticism back on the initial critic.
According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, the term whataboutery appeared several years before whataboutism with a similar meaning. He cites a 1974 letter by Sean O'Conaill which was published in The Irish Times and which referred to "the Whatabouts ... who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the 'enemy'" and an opinion column entitled 'Enter the cultural British Army' by 'Backbencher' (Irish Journalists John Healy) in the same paper which picked up the theme using the term "whataboutery". It is likely that whataboutery derived from Healy's response to O'Conaill's letter.
I would not suggest such a thing were it not for the Whatabouts. These are the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the “enemy”, and therefore the justice of the Provisionals’ cause: “What about Bloody Sunday, internment, torture, force-feeding, army intimidation?”. Every call to stop is answered in the same way: “What about the Treaty of Limerick; the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921; Lenadoon?”. Neither is the Church immune: “The Catholic Church has never supported the national cause. What about Papal sanction for the Norman invasion; condemnation of the Fenians by Moriarty; Parnell?”
— Sean O'Conaill, "Letter to Editor", The Irish Times, 30 Jan 1974
Healy appears to coin the term whataboutery in his response to this letter: "As a correspondent noted in a recent letter to this paper, we are very big on Whatabout Morality, matching one historic injustice with another justified injustice. We have a bellyfull [sic] of Whataboutery in these killing days and the one clear fact to emerge is that people, Orange and Green, are dying as a result of it. It is producing the rounds of death for like men in a bar, one round calls for another, one Green bullet calls for a responding Orange bullet, one Green grave for a matching Orange grave."
Zimmer says this gained wide currency in commentary about the conflict. Zimmer also notes that the variant whataboutism was used in the same context in a 1993 book by Tony Parker.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary identifies an earlier recorded use of the term whataboutism in a piece by journalist Michael Bernard from The Age, which nevertheless dates from 1978 - four years after Healy's column. Bernard wrote: "the weaknesses of whataboutism—which dictates that no one must get away with an attack on the Kremlin's abuses without tossing a few bricks at South Africa, no one must indict the Cuban police State without castigating President Park, no one must mention Iraq, Libya or the PLO without having a bash at Israel". This is the first recorded version of the term being applied to the Soviet Union.
Ben Zimmer credits British journalist Edward Lucas for popularizing the word whataboutism after using it in a blog post of 29 October 2007, reporting as part of a diary about Russia which was printed in 2 November issue of The Economist. "Whataboutism" was the title of an article in The Economist on 31 January 2008, where Lucas wrote: "Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'". Ivan Tsvetkov, associate professor of International Relations in St Petersburg, dates the practice of whataboutism back to 1950 with the "lynching of blacks" argument, but he also credits Lucas for the recent popularity of the term.
Use by Soviet and Russian leaders
In 1986, when reporting on the Chernobyl disaster, Serge Schmemann of The New York Times reported that
The terse Soviet announcement of the Chernobyl accident was followed by a Tass dispatch noting that there had been many mishaps in the United States, ranging from Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pa., to the Ginna plant near Rochester. Tass said an American antinuclear group registered 2,300 accidents, breakdowns and other faults in 1979.
The practice of focusing on disasters elsewhere when one occurs in the Soviet Union is so common that after watching a report on Soviet television about a catastrophe abroad, Russians often call Western friends to find out whether something has happened in the Soviet Union.
Journalist Luke Harding described Russian whataboutism as "practically a national ideology". Journalist Julia Ioffe wrote that "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union" was aware of the technique, citing the Soviet rejoinder to criticism, And you are lynching Negroes, as a "classic" example of the tactic. Writing for Bloomberg News,
Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition", while The New Yorker described the technique as "a strategy of false moral equivalences". Ioffe called whataboutism a "sacred Russian tactic", and compared it to accusing the pot of calling the kettle black.
According to The Economist, "Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'. Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a 'What about...' (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth)." The technique functions as a diversionary tactic to distract the opponent from their original criticism. Thus, the technique is used to avoid directly refuting or disproving the opponent's initial argument. The tactic is an attempt at moral relativism, and a form of false moral equivalence.
The Economist recommended two methods of properly countering whataboutism: to "use points made by Russian leaders themselves" so that they cannot be applied to the West, and for Western nations to engage in more self-criticism of their own media and government. Euromaidan Press discussed the strategy in a feature on whataboutism, the second in a three-part educational series on Russian propaganda. The series described whataboutism as an intentional distraction away from serious criticism of Russia. The piece advised subjects of whataboutism to resist emotional manipulation and the temptation to respond.
Due to the tactic's use by Soviet officials, Western writers frequently use the term has when discussing the Soviet era. The technique became increasingly prevalent in Soviet public relations, until it became a habitual practice by the government. Soviet media employing whataboutism, hoping to tarnish the reputation of the US, did so at the expense of journalistic neutrality. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Soviet officials made increased use of the tactic during the latter portion of the 1940s, aiming to distract attention from criticism of the Soviet Union.
One of the earliest uses of the technique by the Soviets was in 1947, after William Averell Harriman criticized "Soviet imperialism" in a speech. Ilya Ehrenburg's response in Pravda criticized the United States' laws and policies on race and minorities, writing that the Soviet Union deemed them "insulting to human dignity" but did not use them as a pretext for war. Whataboutism saw greater usage in Soviet public relations during the Cold War.
Throughout the Cold War, the tactic was primarily utilized by media figures speaking on behalf of the Soviet Union. At the end of the Cold War, alongside US civil rights reforms, the tactic began dying out.
The tactic was used in post-Soviet Russia in relation to human rights violations committed by, and other criticisms of, the Russian government. Whataboutism became a favorite tactic of the Kremlin. Russian public relations strategies combined whataboutism with other Soviet tactics, including disinformation and active measures. Whataboutism is used as Russian propaganda with the goal of obfuscating criticism of the Russian state, and to degrade the level of discourse from rational criticism of Russia to petty bickering.
Although the use of whataboutism was not restricted to any particular race or belief system, according to The Economist, Russians often overused the tactic. The Russian government's use of whataboutism grew under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Putin replied to George W. Bush’s criticism of Russia: ‘I’ll be honest with you: we, of course, would not want to have a democracy like in Iraq.’ Jake Sullivan of Foreign Policy, wrote Putin "is an especially skillful practitioner" of the technique. Business Insider echoed this assessment, writing that "Putin's near-default response to criticism of how he runs Russia is whataboutism". Edward Lucas of The Economist observed the tactic in modern Russian politics, and cited it as evidence of the Russian leadership's return to a Soviet-era mentality.
Writer Miriam Elder commented in The Guardian that Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, used the tactic; she added that most criticisms of human rights violations had gone unanswered. Peskov responded to Elder's article on the difficulty of dry-cleaning in Moscow by mentioning Russians' difficulty obtaining a visa to the United Kingdom. Peskov used the whataboutism tactic the same year in a letter written to the Financial Times.
Increased use after the Russian annexation of Crimea
The tactic received new attention during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. The Russian officials and media frequently used "what about" and then provided Kosovo independence or the 2014 Scottish independence referendum as examples to justify the 2014 Crimean status referendum, Donbass status referendums and the Donbass military conflict. Jill Dougherty noted in 2014 that the tactic is "a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government" which sees further use in Russian propaganda, including Russia Today. The assessment that Russia Today engages in whataboutism was echoed by the Financial Times and Bloomberg News.
The Washington Post observed in 2016 that media outlets of Russia had become "famous" for their use of whataboutism. Use of the technique had a negative impact on Russia–United States relations during US President Barack Obama's second term, according to Maxine David. The Wall Street Journal noted that Putin himself used the tactic in a 2017 interview with NBC News journalist Megyn Kelly.
Use by American politicians and officials
US President Donald Trump has used whataboutism in response to criticism leveled at him, his policies, or his support of controversial world leaders. National Public Radio (NPR) reported, "President Trump has developed a consistent tactic when he's criticized: say that someone else is worse." NPR noted Trump chose to criticize the Affordable Care Act when he himself faced criticism over the proposed American Health Care Act of 2017, "Instead of giving a reasoned defense, he went for blunt offense, which is a hallmark of whataboutism." NPR noted similarities in use of the tactic by Putin and Trump, "it's no less striking that while Putin's Russia is causing the Trump administration so much trouble, Trump nevertheless often sounds an awful lot like Putin".
When criticized or asked to defend his behavior, Trump has frequently changed the subject by criticizing Hillary Clinton, the Obama Administration, and the Affordable Care Act. When asked about Russian human rights violations, Trump has shifted focus to the US itself, employing whataboutism tactics similar to those used by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called Putin a killer, Trump responded by saying that the US government was also guilty of killing people. Garry Kasparov commented to Columbia Journalism Review on Trump's use of whataboutism: "Moral relativism, 'whataboutism', has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes. For a US president to employ it against his own country is tragic."
During a news conference on infrastructure at Trump Tower after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, a reporter linked the alt-right to the fatal vehicle-ramming attack that was inflicted against counter-demonstrators, to which Trump responded by demanding the reporter to "define alt-right to me" and subsequently interrupting the reporter to ask, "what about the alt-left that came charging at [the alt-right]?" Various experts have criticized Trump's usage of the term "alt-left" by arguing that no members of the progressive left have used that term to describe themselves and furthermore that Trump fabricated the term to falsely equate the alt-right to the counter-demonstrators.
Use by other states
The term "whataboutery" has been used by Loyalists and Republicans since the period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The tactic was employed by Azerbaijan, which responded to criticism of its human rights record by holding parliamentary hearings on issues in the United States. Simultaneously, pro-Azerbaijan Internet trolls used whataboutism to draw attention away from criticism of the country. Similarly, the Turkish government engaged in whataboutism by publishing an official document listing criticisms of other governments that had criticized Turkey.
According to The Washington Post, "In what amounts to an official document of whataboutism, the Turkish statement listed a roster of supposed transgressions by various governments now scolding Turkey for its dramatic purge of state institutions and civil society in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July."
The tactic was also employed by Saudi Arabia and Israel. In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "the [Israeli] occupation is nonsense, there are plenty of big countries that occupied and replaced populations and no one talks about them."
Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used the tactic in the Zurich Security Conference on February 17, 2019. When pressed by BBC's Lyse Doucet about eight environmentalists imprisoned in his country, he mentioned the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Doucet picked up the fallacy and said "let’s leave that aside."
The government of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has been accused of using whataboutism, especially in regard to the 2015 Indian writers protest and the nomination of former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi to parliament.
Hesameddin Ashena, a top adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted about the George Floyd protests: "The brave American people have the right to protest against the ongoing terror inflicted on minorities, the poor, and the disenfranchised. You must bring an end to the racist and classist structures of governance in the U.S."
A synonymous Chinese-language metaphor is the "Stinky Bug Argument" (traditional Chinese: 臭蟲論; simplified Chinese: 臭虫论; pinyin: Chòuchónglùn), coined by Lu Xun, a leading figure in modern Chinese literature, in 1933 to describe his Chinese colleagues' common tendency to accuse Europeans of "having equally bad issues" whenever foreigners commented upon China's domestic problems. As a Chinese nationalist, Lu saw this mentality as one of the biggest obstructions to the modernization of China in the early 20th century, which Lu frequently mocked in his literary works.
In response to tweets from Donald Trump's administration criticizing the Chinese government's mistreatment of ethnic minorities and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials began using Twitter to point out racial inequalities and social unrest in the United States which led Politico to accuse China of engaging in whataboutism.
The philosopher Merold Westphal said that only people who know themselves to be guilty of something "can find comfort in finding others to be just as bad or worse." Whataboutery, as practiced by both parties in The Troubles in Northern Ireland to highlight what the other side had done to them, was "one of the commonest forms of evasion of personal moral responsibility," according to Bishop (later Cardinal) Cahal Daly. After a political shooting at a baseball game in 2017, journalist Chuck Todd criticized the tenor of political debate, commenting, "What-about-ism is among the worst instincts of partisans on both sides."
Intentionally discrediting oneself
Whataboutism usually points the finger at a rival's offenses to discredit them, but, in a reversal of this usual direction, it can also be used to discredit oneself while one refuses to critique an ally. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when The New York Times asked candidate Donald Trump about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's treatment of journalists, teachers, and dissidents, Trump replied with a criticism of U.S. history on civil liberties. Writing for The Diplomat, Catherine Putz pointed out: "The core problem is that this rhetorical device precludes discussion of issues (ex: civil rights) by one country (ex: the United States) if that state lacks a perfect record." Masha Gessen wrote for The New York Times that usage of the tactic by Trump was shocking to Americans, commenting, "No American politician in living memory has advanced the idea that the entire world, including the United States, was rotten to the core."
Concerns about effects
Joe Austin was critical of the practice of whataboutism in Northern Ireland in a 1994 piece, The Obdurate and the Obstinate, writing: "And I'd no time at all for 'What aboutism' ... if you got into it you were defending the indefensible." In 2017, The New Yorker described the tactic as "a strategy of false moral equivalences", and Clarence Page called the technique "a form of logical jiu-jitsu". Writing for National Review, commentator Ben Shapiro criticized the practice, whether it was used by those espousing right-wing politics or left-wing politics; Shapiro concluded: "It's all dumb. And it's making us all dumber." Michael J. Koplow of Israel Policy Forum wrote that the usage of whataboutism had become a crisis; concluding that the tactic did not yield any benefits, Koplow charged that "whataboutism from either the right or the left only leads to a black hole of angry recriminations from which nothing will escape".
Analysis of whataboutisms use in the USSR and Russia
In his book The New Cold War (2008), Edward Lucas characterized whataboutism as "the favourite weapon of Soviet propagandists". Juhan Kivirähk and colleagues called it a "polittechnological" strategy. Writing in The National Interest in 2013, Samuel Charap was critical of the tactic, commenting, "Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of 'whataboutism'". National security journalist Julia Ioffe commented in a 2014 article, "Anyone who has ever studied the Soviet Union knows about a phenomenon called 'whataboutism'." Ioffe cited the Soviet response to criticism, "And you are lynching negroes", as a "classic" form of whataboutism. She said that Russia Today was "an institution that is dedicated solely to the task of whataboutism", and concluded that whataboutism was a "sacred Russian tactic". Garry Kasparov discussed the Soviet tactic in his book Winter Is Coming, calling it a form of "Soviet propaganda" and a way for Russian bureaucrats to "respond to criticism of Soviet massacres, forced deportations, and gulags". Mark Adomanis commented for The Moscow Times in 2015 that "Whataboutism was employed by the Communist Party with such frequency and shamelessness that a sort of pseudo mythology grew up around it." Adomanis observed, "Any student of Soviet history will recognize parts of the whataboutist canon."
Writing in 2016 for Bloomberg News, journalist Leonid Bershidsky called whataboutism a "Russian tradition", while The National called the tactic "an effective rhetorical weapon". In their book The European Union and Russia (2016), Forsberg and Haukkala characterized whataboutism as an "old Soviet practice", and they observed that the strategy "has been gaining in prominence in the Russian attempts at deflecting Western criticism". In her book, Security Threats and Public Perception, author Elizaveta Gaufman called the whataboutism technique "A Soviet/Russian spin on liberal anti-Americanism", comparing it to the Soviet rejoinder, "And you are lynching negroes". Foreign Policy supported this assessment. In 2016, Canadian columnist Terry Glavin asserted in the Ottawa Citizen that Noam Chomsky used the tactic in an October 2001 speech, delivered after the September 11 attacks, that was critical of US foreign policy. Daphne Skillen discussed the tactic in her book, Freedom of Speech in Russia, identifying it as a "Soviet propagandist's technique" and "a common Soviet-era defence". In a piece for CNN, Jill Dougherty compared the technique to the pot calling the kettle black. Dougherty wrote: "There's another attitude ... that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union 'whataboutism', in other words, 'who are you to call the kettle black?'"
Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev told GlobalPost in 2017 that the tactic was "an old Soviet trick". Peter Conradi, author of Who Lost Russia?, called whataboutism "a form of moral relativism that responds to criticism with the simple response: 'But you do it too'". Conradi echoed Gaufman's comparison of the tactic to the Soviet response, "Over there they lynch Negroes". Writing for Forbes in 2017, journalist Melik Kaylan explained the term's increased pervasiveness in referring to Russian propaganda tactics: "Kremlinologists of recent years call this 'whataboutism' because the Kremlin's various mouthpieces deployed the technique so exhaustively against the U.S." Kaylan commented upon a "suspicious similarity between Kremlin propaganda and Trump propaganda". Foreign Policy wrote that Russian whataboutism was "part of the national psyche". EurasiaNet stated that "Moscow's geopolitical whataboutism skills are unmatched", while Paste correlated whataboutism's rise with the increasing societal consumption of fake news.
Writing for The Washington Post, former United States Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul wrote critically of Trump's use of the tactic and compared him to Putin. McFaul commented, "That's exactly the kind of argument that Russian propagandists have used for years to justify some of Putin's most brutal policies." Los Angeles Times contributor Matt Welch classed the tactic among "six categories of Trump apologetics". Mother Jones called the tactic "a traditional Russian propaganda strategy", and observed, "The whataboutism strategy has made a comeback and evolved in President Vladimir Putin's Russia."
Some commentators have defended the usage of whataboutism and tu quoque in certain contexts. Whataboutism can provide necessary context into whether or not a particular line of critique is relevant or fair. In international relations, behavior that may be imperfect by international standards may be quite good for a given geopolitical neighborhood, and deserves to be recognized as such.
Christian Christensen, Professor of Journalism in Stockholm, argues that the accusation of whataboutism is itself a form of the tu quoque fallacy, as it dismisses criticisms of one's own behavior to focus instead on the actions of another, thus creating a double standard. Those who use whataboutism are not necessarily engaging in an empty or cynical deflection of responsibility: whataboutism can be a useful tool to expose contradictions, double standards, and hypocrisy.
Others have criticized the usage of accusations of whataboutism by American news outlets, arguing that accusations of whataboutism have been used to simply deflect criticisms of human rights abuses perpetrated by the United States or its allies. They argue that the usage of the term almost exclusively by American outlets is a double standard, and that moral accusations made by powerful countries are merely a pretext to punish their geopolitical rivals in the face of their own wrongdoing.
The scholars Kristen Ghodsee and Scott Sehon posit that mentioning the possible existence of victims of capitalism in popular discourse is often dismissed as "whataboutism", which they describe as "a term implying that only atrocities perpetrated by communists merit attention." They also argue that such accusations of "whataboutism" are invalid as the same arguments used against communism can also be used against capitalism.
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Origin - 1990s: from the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by 'What about —?'. ... Also called whataboutery
- ^ Zimmer, Ben (9 June 2017). "The Roots of the 'What About?' Ploy". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
"Whataboutism" is another name for the logical fallacy of "tu quoque" (Latin for "you also"), in which an accusation is met with a counter-accusation, pivoting away from the original criticism. The strategy has been a hallmark of Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda, and some commentators have accused President Donald Trump of mimicking Mr. Putin's use of the technique.
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This particular brand of changing the subject is called 'whataboutism' – a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used by the Soviet Union and, later, Russia.
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The way the Kremlin has always reacted to reports about corruption or arbitrary police rule, or the state of Russia's penal institutions, is by generating similar reports about the West. Whatever the other party says the answer is always the same: 'Look who's talking.' This age-old technique, dubbed 'whataboutism', is in essence an appeal to hypocrisy; its only purpose is to discredit the opponent, not to refute the original argument.
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Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed 'whataboutism'.
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'Whataboutism' was a favourite tactic of Soviet propagandists during the old Cold War. Any criticism of the Soviet Union's internal aggression or external repression was met with a 'what about?' some crime of the West, from slavery to the Monroe doctrine.
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'Whataboutism' was a favorite Kremlin propaganda technique during the Cold War. It aimed to portray the West as so morally flawed that its criticism of the Soviet empire was hypocritical.
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'Whataboutism' was a favourite tactic of Soviet propagandists during the old Cold War. Any criticism of the Soviet Union's internal repression or external aggression was met by asking 'what about' some crime of the West, from slavery to the Monroe doctrine. In the era when political prisoners rotted in Siberia and you could be shot for trying to leave the socialist paradise, whataboutism was little more than a debating tactic. Most people inside the Soviet Union, particularly towards the end, knew that their system was based on lies and murder.
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Origin - 1990s: from the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by 'What about —?'
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The term was popularized by articles in 2007 and 2008 by Edward Lucas, senior editor at the Economist. Mr. Lucas, who served as the magazine's Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002, saw 'whataboutism' as a typical Cold War style of argumentation, with "the Kremlin's useful idiots" seeking to "match every Soviet crime with a real or imagined western one".
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The association of whataboutism with the Soviet Union began during the Cold War.
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It is not a bad tactic. Every criticism needs to be put in a historical and geographical context. A country that has solved most of its horrible problems deserves praise, not to be lambasted for those that remain. Similarly, behaviour that may be imperfect by international standards can be quite good for a particular neighbourhood.
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Russia's president is already a master of 'whataboutism' – indeed, it is practically a national ideology.
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Russian officials protested that other nations were no better, but these objections – which were in line with a Russian tradition of whataboutism – were swept aside.
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officials in Moscow have long relied on discussions of racial inequality in the United States to counter criticism of their own human rights abuses. 'The now sacred Russian tactic of "whataboutism" started with civil rights,' Ms. Ioffe wrote. 'Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. "Well, you," they said, "lynch Negros."'
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The now sacred Russian tactic of 'whataboutism' started with civil rights: Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. 'Well, you,' they said, 'lynch Negros.'
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There's another attitude ... that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union 'whataboutism', in other words, 'who are you to call the kettle black?'
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whataboutism, the debate tactic demanding that questions about morally indefensible acts committed by your side be deflected with pettifogging discussion of unrelated sins committed by your opponent's side.
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'whataboutism', a disingenuous message designed to deflect criticism of its own actions rather than present real criticism.
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Moral relativism, 'whataboutism', has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes. For a US president to employ it against his own country is tragic. Trump repeating Putin's words—and nearly Stalin's—by calling the press the enemy of the people, has repercussions around the world.
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Deconstructing Whataboutism - In the second part of its guide to Russian propaganda, Euromaidan Press takes a look at 'Whataboutism'.
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One of the most trusted Soviet techniques during the Cold War came to be known in the West as 'what-about-ism'. Faced with an accusation, for example that the Soviet Union worked political dissidents to death in prison camps, the propagandist would respond: well, what about those black men being forced to work on chain gangs in the South? This was effective, because by the time anyone had explained that the two are not, in fact, morally equivalent, the technique had done its work, changing the subject away from the gulag.
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Instead, apologetic Ukrainian polemists regularly react to criticism by domestic and foreign observers with, what was known during Soviet times, as 'whataboutism': What about Polish whitewashing of the past? What about Israel's selective memory? What about crimes by other national liberation movements?
- ^ Headley, James (September 2015), "Challenging the EU's claim to moral authority: Russian talk of'double standards'", Asia Europe Journal, 13 (3): 297–307, doi:10.1007/s10308-015-0417-y, S2CID 154288805,
Soviet-style 'whataboutism' which signifies a revival of Cold War-style propaganda
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Russian diplomats have been lately criticized for restoring the Soviet habit of 'whataboutism'
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Soviet-style practice of 'whataboutism' (which abandons the practice of dispassionate journalism), with a focus on discrediting the policies of the US government
- ^ a b Glavin, Terry (30 November 2016), "Sorry liberals, you're dead wrong about Fidel Castro", Ottawa Citizen, retrieved 3 July 2017,
What about how beastly the United States has been to the indigenous Hawaiians? What about all the Filipinos killed by Americans? What about the conquest of the northern half of Mexico? What about the ghastly friendships the United States has cultivated over the years in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua? What about the poor Palestinians? What about all the seedy allies the United States is taking on in its so-called War on Terror?
- ^ a b Khazan, Olga (2 August 2013). "The Soviet-Era Strategy That Explains What Russia Is Doing With Snowden". The Atlantic. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
Whataboutistm: a rhetorical defense that alleges hypocrisy from the accuser. ... it allows the Kremlin a moment of whataboutism, a favorite, Soviet-era appeal to hypocrisy: Russia is not that bad, you see, because other countries have also committed various misdeeds, and what about those?
- ^ Akyol, Mustafa (7 March 2017), "How Germany accidentally gave Erdogan a boost ahead of key vote", Al-Monitor, retrieved 3 July 2017,
'Whataboutism'. This was a term originally coined to describe Soviet propaganda during the Cold War about the 'real democracy' in the USSR and the hypocrisy in the West. All criticisms about the Soviet condition would be dismissed by pointing to flaws and double standards in the West, real or perceived, and asking 'What about this?' 'What about that?' The real issue at stake, that the USSR was a brutal dictatorship, was never addressed.
- ^ Taylor, Adam (12 April 2017), "How the Russian Embassy in London uses Twitter to undermine the West", The Washington Post, retrieved 3 July 2017
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In stark contrast with his predecessors for high office, he also regularly traffics in 'whataboutism', a Soviet-honed method of changing the conversation.
- ^ Garver, Rob (18 December 2015), "Donald Trump's New Role: Apologist for Vladimir Putin", The Fiscal Times, retrieved 3 July 2017,
In the depths of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in a global battle of ideas about how governments should treat their people and what political forms were best at delivering peace and prosperity, a particular style of argument became popular and was given the ironic name, 'whataboutism'. ... During the Cold War, whataboutism was generally the province of Soviet spokesmen and their defenders in the West.
- ^ Nikitin, Vadim, "The long read: From Russia with love – how Putin is winning over hearts and minds", The National, archived from the original on 4 February 2016, retrieved 3 July 2017,
During the Cold War, such 'whataboutism' was used by the Kremlin to counter any criticism of Soviet policy with retorts about American slavery or British imperialism. The strategy remains an effective rhetorical weapon to this day.
- ^ Foxall, Andrew (16 November 2014), "Crimea, Chechnya and Putin's Double Standards", The Moscow Times, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Those wishing to understand Putin's linguistic gymnastics should look up 'whataboutism'. The term emerged at the height of the Cold War and described a favorite tactic of Soviet propagandists – the tendency to deflect any criticism of the Soviet Union by saying 'what about' a different situation or problem in the West. As Putin's language suggests, the practice is alive and well in today's Russia. Whataboutism is a way of shutting down discussion, discouraging critical thinking, and opposing open debate. It is a key feature of Russian politics these days.
- ^ a b c Adomanis, Mark (5 April 2015), "U.S. Should Think Twice Before Criticizing Russia", The Moscow Times, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Whataboutism's efficacy decreased for a certain period of time, in no small part because many of the richest targets (like the Jim Crow racial segregation laws) were reformed out of existence, but it has made something of a rebound over the past few years.
- ^ Ioffe, Julia (1 June 2012), "Russia's Syrian Excuse", The New Yorker, retrieved 3 July 2017,
This posture is a defense tactic, the Kremlin's way of adapting to a new post-Cold War geopolitical reality. 'Whataboutism' was a popular tactic even back in Soviet days, for example, but objectivity wasn't.
- ^ Seddon, Max (25 November 2014), "Russia Is Trolling The U.S. Over Ferguson Yet Again", BuzzFeed News, retrieved 3 July 2017,
Since the Cold War, Moscow has engaged in a political points-scoring exercise known as 'whataboutism' used to shut down criticism of Russia's own rights record by pointing out abuses elsewhere. All criticism of Russia is invalid, the idea goes, because problems exist in other countries too.
- ^ MacDonald, Euan (9 June 2017), "Euan MacDonald: Ukraine's Friend & Foe Of The Week", Kyiv Post, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Putin dodged, just as a trained KGB officer would do. He even engaged in the favorite Kremlin 'whataboutism'
- ^ Kovalev, Alexey (22 March 2017), "'You're Fake News!': Russia Borrows the Worst from the West", The Moscow Times, retrieved 4 July 2017,
In Russia, screaming 'fake news' as a response to any criticism has an older relative in 'whataboutism' — a rhetorical fallacy favored by both Soviet and modern Russian propaganda, where Moscow's actions are justified by references to real or perceived crimes and slights by the Kremlin's foes abroad.
- ^ Szostek, Joanna (June 2017), "The Power and Limits of Russia's Strategic Narrative in Ukraine: The Role of Linkage" (PDF), Perspectives on Politics, 15 (2): 379–395, doi:10.1017/S153759271700007X,
Disinformation and 'whataboutism' undoubtedly feature strongly in Russian state-sponsored media content
- ^ Pomerantsev, Peter; Weiss, Michael (2014), The menace of unreality: How the Kremlin weaponizes information, culture and money (PDF), New York: Institute of Modern Russia, The Interpreter, p. 5, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Russia combines Soviet-era 'whataboutism' and Chekist 'active measures' with a wised-up, post-modern smirk that says that everything is a sham.
- ^ Huseynov, Vasif (2016), "Soft power geopolitics: how does the diminishing utility of military power affect the Russia-West confrontation over the 'Common Neighbourhood'", Eastern Journal of European Studies, 7 (2): 71–90, retrieved 4 July 2017
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Russian propaganda destroys meaning. They pursue several tactics including the false moral equivalences of "whataboutism", polluting the information space
- ^ David, Maxine (2 March 2015), "What Boris Nemtsov's Assassination Says About Putin's Climate of Fear", The New Republic, retrieved 5 July 2017,
A familiar phenomenon for Russian watchers is in full swing: 'whataboutism', where any criticism of the Russian elite is met with a 'well, what about...' response, framing the critic as a hypocrite representing exactly that which they criticize—sending any dialogue back to the level of squabbling.
- ^ MacFarquhar, Neil (20 July 2016), "A Doping Scandal Appears Unlikely to Tarnish Russia's President", The New York Times, retrieved 5 July 2017,
This form of 'whataboutism' has been rife under Mr. Putin – he often responds to criticism of Russia by suggesting that the United States is worse.
- ^ Mandel, Seth (1 May 2014), "Europe - The Vladimir Putin Fan Club: From left to right, they're fronting for a tyrant.", Commentary, retrieved 5 July 2017,
This is another throwback to the Cold War, and one Putin himself is fond of, called 'Whataboutism'. The essence of Whataboutism is to turn any complaint about Russia into an accusation that whatever it might be doing, the West is doing and has done worse. Despite the constant protestations that the Cold War is over, these attempts to turn criticism of the Kremlin back on the critics are often nothing more than a Putin-era version of anti-anti-Communism.
- ^ a b Clifton, Denise (20 July 2017), "Childish Rants or Putin-Style Propaganda?", Mother Jones, retrieved 22 July 2017,
a traditional Russian propaganda strategy called 'whataboutism' ... In Trump's version of whataboutism, he repeatedly takes a word leveled in criticism against him and turns it back on his opponents—sidestepping the accusation and undercutting the meaning of the word at the same time.
- ^ "Pussy Riot: In Defence of 'Whataboutism'". The Foreign Policy. 9 August 2012.
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Now something new is happening. The American president is taking Putin's 'what about you' tactic and turning it into 'what about us?' He is taking the very appealing and very American impulse toward self-criticism and perverting it. It's simplistic, even childish – but more importantly, it's dangerous.
- ^ Bertrand, Natasha (4 April 2017), "'Poisoned' Russian dissident: Trump echoed 'one of the Kremlin's oldest propaganda tools'", Business Insider, retrieved 4 July 2017,
Indeed, Putin's near-default response to criticism of how he runs Russia is whataboutism – a technique used by Soviet propagandists to deflect criticism from the West.
- ^ Elder, Miriam (26 April 2012). "Want a response from Putin's office? Russia's dry-cleaning is just the ticket". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
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Soviet-watchers called it 'whataboutism'. This was the Communist-era tactic of deflecting foreign criticism of, say, human rights abuses, by pointing, often disingenuously, at something allegedly similar in the critic's own country: 'Ah, but what about…?'
- ^ Keating, Joshua (21 March 2014). "The Long History of Russian Whataboutism". Slate.com. Retrieved 17 November 2014.
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'what-about-ism', a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government in which criticism is deflected by cries of 'but what about?'
- ^ Dougherty, Jill (27 March 2014), "Putin's Iron-Fisted Message", The Huffington Post, retrieved 3 July 2017
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The Financial Times described the network's nonstop anti-U.S. coverage as 'whataboutism'—as in sure, Russia has problems, but what about the States? ... In 2016, RT America at last began proving its usefulness to the Russian government. The outlet remained as second-rate as ever, but during an election campaign governed by populist rage, anti-Establishment whataboutism had fresh appeal.
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Indeed, any Western critique of Russian foreign policy is inevitably met with a 'whataboutist' set of comments that point out the West's failings, not least because of the activities of the Kremlin trolls
- ^ Zimmer, Ben (9 June 2017), "The Roots of the 'What About?' Ploy", The Wall Street Journal, retrieved 3 July 2017,
In his interview with NBC's Megyn Kelly on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin employed the tried-and-true tactic of 'whataboutism'.
- ^ a b Weiss, Michael (4 November 2016), "When Donald Trump Was More Anti-NATO Than Vladimir Putin", The Daily Beast, retrieved 5 July 2017,
In stark contrast with his predecessors for high office, he also regularly traffics in 'whataboutism', a Soviet-honed method of changing the conversation. Whenever human rights abuses or the trampling of freedoms abroad is raised, he shifts to the real or perceived shortcomings of the United States.
- ^ a b Feldmann, Linda; Kiefer, Francine (18 May 2017), "How Mueller appointment may calm a roiled Washington", The Christian Science Monitor, retrieved 5 July 2017,
Trump also engaged in 'what-aboutism': 'With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!' he tweeted twice in three hours.
- ^ Leveille, David (24 January 2017). "Russian journalist has advice for Americans covering Trump". USA Today.
when you try to point out those inconsistencies or catch him red-handed lying, there's no point because he'll evade your question, he knows that he can just drown you in meaningless factoids or false moral equivalencies or by using what is called 'whataboutism'.
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Folks, comments like these are reminding some people of an old Soviet tactic known as whataboutism. ... Whataboutism is the trick of turning any argument against the opponent when faced with accusations of corruption, they claim the entire world is corrupt.
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The parliamentary hearing appeared to be an exercise in so-called 'whataboutism', the Soviet-era rhetorical tactic of responding to criticism about rights abuses by citing real or imagined abuses committed by the West.
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Whataboutism is the most popular tactic against foreign critics; 'how dare you criticise Azerbaijan, get your own house in order!'
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In what amounts to an official document of whataboutism, the Turkish statement listed a roster of supposed transgressions by various governments now scolding Turkey for its dramatic purge of state institutions and civil society in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July.
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This stance has breathed new life into the old Soviet propaganda tool of 'whataboutism', the trick of turning any argument against the opponent. When accused of falsifying elections, Russians retort that American elections are not unproblematic; when faced with accusations of corruption, they claim that the entire world is corrupt. This month, Mr. Trump employed the technique of whataboutism when he was asked about his admiration for Mr. Putin, whom the host Bill O'Reilly called 'a killer'.
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And I'd no time at all for 'What aboutism' – you know, people who said 'Yes, but what about what's been done to us? ... That had nothing to do with it, and if you got into it you were defending the indefensible.
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'Whataboutism' is running rampant in the White House these days. What's that, you may ask? It's a Cold War-era term for a form of logical jiu-jitsu that helps you to win arguments by gently changing the subject. When Soviet leaders were questioned about human rights violations, for example, they might come back with, 'Well, what about the Negroes you are lynching in the South?' That's not an argument, of course. It is a deflection to an entirely different issue. It's a naked attempt to excuse your own wretched behavior by painting your opponent as a hypocrite. But in the fast-paced world of media manipulation, the Soviet leader could get away with it merely by appearing to be strong and firm in defense of his country.
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whataboutism from either the right or the left only leads to a black hole of angry recriminations from which nothing will escape.
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Russian policy makers, meanwhile, gain little from petulant bouts of 'whataboutism' – responding to U.S. statements on human rights in Russia with laundry lists of purported American shortcomings.
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Writer Julia Ioffe said, in a New Republic article last week, that Moscow authorities typically counter criticism of Russia's human rights abuses with comparisons to racial inequality in the United States, noting, "The now sacred Russian tactic of 'whataboutism' started with civil rights. Whenever the U.S. pointed to Soviet human rights violations, the Soviets had an easy riposte. 'Well, you,' they said, 'lynch Negroes.'"
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During the Cold War, such 'whataboutism' was used by the Kremlin to counter any criticism of Soviet policy with retorts about American slavery or British imperialism. The strategy remains an effective rhetorical weapon to this day. Whatever threadbare crowds of remaining anti-government activists are still occasionally allowed to protest in Moscow, they pale in the public imagination against the images, repeatedly shown on Russian TV, of thousands of Europeans angrily upbraiding their own governments and declaring support for Putin.
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the old Soviet whataboutism whenever they were challenged on the gulag: 'But in America, you lynch Negroes.'
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In a country where 'whataboutism' is part of the national psyche, Russia was quick to point to Washington's alleged failures after the strike in Syria.
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Moscow's geopolitical whataboutism skills are unmatched
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As for 'whataboutism', Trump himself champions these kinds of cynical arguments about our country – not Russia.
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Tu quoque is a subset of the so-called ad hominem argument: a strike against the character, not the position, of one’s opponent. Ad hominem gets a bad press, but it isn’t without merit, when used in good faith. It’s useful in an argument to show that the stance being taken against you is inconsistent or hypocritical. It doesn’t win the day, but it chips away at your opponent’s moral standing and raises doubt about the entirety of his or her position.
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«Права человека – это дубинка в руках сильных мира сего, которую они используют, когда кто-то вокруг проявляет непослушание», - убежден азербайджанский политический деятель Араз Ализаде, возглавляющий Социал-демократическую партию Азербайджана. (Translation: "'Human rights is a stick in the hands of the powers of the world, that they use to beat anyone who disobeys them' says Araz Alizade, leader of the Social-Democratic Party of Azerbaijan")
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But the problem for the anti-communists is that their general premise can be used as the basis for an equally good argument against capitalism, an argument that the so-called losers of economic transition in eastern Europe would be quick to affirm. The US, a country based on a free-market capitalist ideology, has done many horrible things: the enslavement of millions of Africans, the genocidal eradication of the Native Americans, the brutal military actions taken to support pro-Western dictatorships, just to name a few. The British Empire likewise had a great deal of blood on its hands: we might merely mention the internment camps during the second Boer War and the Bengal famine. This is not mere ‘whataboutism’, because the same intermediate premise necessary to make their anti-communist argument now works against capitalism: Historical point: the US and the UK were based on a capitalist ideology, and did many horrible things. General premise: if any country based on a particular ideology did many horrible things, then that ideology should be rejected. Political conclusion: capitalism should be rejected.