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 criticisms were 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.
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?”
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."
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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 India n 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."
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."
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".
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.