Is "Whataboutism" Always a Bad Thing?
By: Ben Burgis
Quite often, it seems to me, the point of raising such “what about…?” questions isn’t to try to end the conversation. It’s to start a real conversation.
"I'm not a fan of Vladimir Putin or what he is doing in Ukraine," podcaster and MSNBC host Ayman Mohyeldin said on his show In The Thick, "but it's hard for us to lecture a country about violating a country sovereignty when in 2003 we invaded Iraq under a false pretext that we entirely made up on our own." The immediate response from NPR editor James Doubek—one of dozens who have made this accusation—was that Mohyeldin's statement "is a great example of 'whataboutism,' a popular rhetorical tactic going back to the USSR."
As far as I can tell, Mohyeldin's views fall on the more progressive end of MSNBC's spectrum, especially on subjects like Palestinian rights, but his overall worldview is well within the boundaries of what's normal on the network. So is his attitude to Putin's Russia. Here's Mohyeldin promoting the Mueller investigation in 2019. Here he is last month, doing a segment on Why Americans Should Care About Ukraine. Rachel Maddow, not exactly known for her pro-Russian sentiments, sometimes invites Mohyeldin to be a guest host on her show.
No reasonable observer could suspect that Mohyeldin is bringing up the Iraq War because, as if under some pretense, he actuallyis a fan of Vladimir Putin and he wants to deflect criticism of what the Russian President is doing in Ukraine. So what does it even mean to say that his tweet is an example of "whataboutism"?
Contrary to popular mythology, the origins of the phrase have nothing to do with the Cold War. According to a 2019 episode of Citations Needed, extensive searches of news databases show the frequently asserted claim that "whataboutism" was the name of a "Soviet" propaganda technique to be a twenty-first century invention—or at least a sloppy twenty-first century conflation of two distinct twentieth century antecedents.
The original phrase was whataboutery. It was coined in Ireland in the 1970s. When supporters of continued British rule in Ireland's northern six counties would condemn the violence of the IRA, Irish Republicans would respond by bringing up atrocities perpetrated in those six counties by the British state and allied loyalist paramilitaries, and this in turn would be dismissed as evasive "whataboutery."
It's true enough that the same dynamic played out in the global propaganda war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Americans would accuse the Soviets of human rights abuses, the Soviets would respond by bringing up the numerous respects in which this charge was hypocritical, and the American response would characterize this as an unprincipled evasion.
There even was a special phrase used during the Cold War to describe the Soviets' response to criticism. That phrase wasn't "whataboutism." It was "And You Are Lynching Negroes"—since that was the Soviets' go-to example.
The difference matters. "Whataboutism" is an inoffensive word that doesn't suggest any particular example of western hypocrisy on human rights. If we were still talking about an "And You Are Lynching Negroes" "fallacy," every use of the phrase would remind listeners that the Soviets had a point.
It's also hard to reconcile the assumption that "whataboutism" is always a bad thing with the inconvenient historical fact that a widespread desire to deprive the Communists of exactly this kind of talking point seems to have played a meaningful role in weakening white resistance to the civil rights movement and ultimately hastening the end of Jim Crow. If anything, it would have been better if the embarrassment had run deeper. If one is annoyed by the Soviets using American lynchings to deflect criticism, the best way to end the tactic would be to stop American lynchings. Still, anti-lynching legislation consistently failed in Congress, and it was not until this yearthat an anti-lynching bill passed both houses.
Putting aside the question of what we call it, though, what are we talking about when we talk about "whataboutism"? What offense, exactly, are people being accused of when they're accused of "whataboutism"?
Standard explanations of "whataboutism" are really explanations of what informal logic textbooks call the Tu Quoque fallacy. If you don't speak Latin, that's "You Also." The fallacy is also called Appeal to Hypocrisy. Person A accuses Person B of doing something wrong. Person B "refutes" this by claiming that Person A has done something similar.
The reason Person B is making a bad argument is that even if their premise is correct, it wouldn't be relevant to the conclusion. Person A can be the worst hypocrite who's ever lived and still be right when he says that Person B has done something wrong.
So far, so good. But if that's what "whataboutism" means, how can Ayman Mohyeldin be guilty of "whataboutism" when he points out that "it's hard for us to lecture a country about violating a country sovereignty when in 2003 we invaded Iraq under a false pretext" and condemns Putin's war in Ukraine in the same breath?
If we stick with the official definition of "whataboutism," then it makes no sense to claim that Mohyeldin is guilty of "whataboutism." Fair enough, you might think. People are falsely accused of real transgressions all the time. Critics of Israel's human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories are routinely accused of anti-Semitism, for example, but that doesn't mean that anti-Semitism doesn't exist (or even that real anti-Semites don't criticize Israel). Perhaps something parallel is true about critics of American foreign policy and "whataboutism."
But here's the thing: At least based on what I've seen, I strongly suspect that if we stick with that official definition, nearly all contemporary accusations of "whataboutism" are false accusations. Hardly anyone accused of "whataboutism" is actually drawing the conclusion that the non-American crimes being compared to American ones are actually unobjectionable.
We should also think a bit harder about the historical examples from Ireland in the '70s and the propaganda war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Is it really true that every time an Irish Republican responded to a loyalist bringing up the violence of the IRA by asking "what about" the violence of the British occupiers, their implied conclusion was that the IRA had done nothing wrong? Is it really true that every time a Cold War anti-Communist brought up the crimes of the Soviet state and someone more sympathetic to the Soviet side asked "what about" Jim Crow, Vietnam, the CIA's overthrow of democratically elected left-wing governments, and the rest, the only possible point of asking that question was to suggest that everything the Soviet Union did was fine? Quite often, it seems to me, the point of raising such "what about…?" questions isn't to try to end the conversation. It's to start a real conversation.
As anyone who's taught a few informal logic courses can tell you, reconstructing the arguments people are making when they're speaking in a loose conversational way can be tricky business. It involves a lot of interpretation and uncertainty. But I think that, at least in a great many of these cases, there's a pretty straightforward alternate reading of the implied point being made by people who ask, "What about…?"
Think about the original example. When Northern Irish loyalists brought up the suffering caused by IRA bombings, was the only point they were making that what the IRA had done was wrong? Of course not. Their agenda was all about supporting the British efforts to pacify the six counties. Similarly, when right-wing Cold Warriors brought up the many sins of the Soviet Union, they weren't just pointing to those sins, saying "apropos nothing in particular, these actions are bad" and suggesting nothing further. Their point was to frame the West's side of the Cold War as just and noble on the grounds that the Communist side was evil and needed to be stopped.
In both cases, the "what about?" responses are a way of making a counterargument with real weight. Your enemies' transgressions don't make your cause of stopping those enemies noble if you've committed equally bad or worse transgressions yourself and your victory will enable you to commit more!
If A says what B has done is wrong, and B wants to deny the charge, anything bad that A has done is just going to be irrelevant. On the other hand, if A and B are engaged in a war, whether cold or hot, and A is bringing up B's misdeeds in order to portray B as the greater evil in the struggle, a recitation of A's misdeeds is extremely relevant. In fact, you can't evaluate A's claim without doing that. Perhaps you'll come to the conclusion that they're both so bad that you should oppose them both equally, or you'll actually decide that B is so much worse that A should be supported. One way or the other, though, you can't make any determination about this subject without taking a good hard look at both sides of the ledger. If Tony Soprano is in a feud with New York mob boss John Sacrimoni ("Johnny Sack") and Tony asks you take his side in the beef on the grounds that Johnny is a multiple murderer, listing off all the guys Tony has had whacked is the opposite of irrelevant. It's an excellent way of showing that Tony's argument doesn't make any sense.
Nor is this the only legitimate reason to ask "what about" questions. Take this Twitter thread from journalist Jeremy Scahill. He starts by calling the Russian invasion a "bald-faced act of aggression, replete with war crimes" and notes that it's "rightly being condemned as such by large numbers of people and nations across the globe." He goes on to talk about remarkably similar war crimes committed by the United States and NATO in Serbia at the end of the '90s and goes on to conclude that there's "no contradiction between standing with the people of Ukraine and against Russia's heinous invasion and against the hypocrisy, war crimes and militarism of the U.S. and NATO."
The replies to Scahill's thread are overflowing with accusations of "whataboutism." If we stick with the official definition of whataboutism as tu quoque, then the claim that Scahill is guilty of "whataboutism" makes no sense. Scahill isn't concluding that Russia's invasion of Ukraine doesn't deserve condemnation. He condemns it himself over and over throughout the thread.
And to be honest, I have a hard time believing that any of the people accusing Scahill of "whataboutism" actually believe that he's a Putin apologist. They just know that they don't like it when people bring up American crimes during discussions of Russian ones, and that the term "whataboutism" captures their sense that this is a bad thing to do. It's the ultimate "thought-terminating cliche" and that's why Scahill's critics seize on it. He's expressing thoughts they want to terminate.
Cicero once said that there's no position so absurd it isn't defended by some philosopher. Whether or not that's true, there definitely isn't any position so absurd that it isn't defended by someone somewhere on Twitter or Reddit or YouTube, and I wouldn't deny that if you look hard enough you can find a few colorful characters on the fringes of the fringes of the online Left who somehow find a way in their heads to combine "Marxism-Leninism" or whatever with support for the foreign policy of Vladimir Putin—a right-wing militarist closely allied with both wealthy oligarchs and the Russian Orthodox Church. I would be very surprised, though, if people like that made up more than one tenth of one percent of the leftists who get accused of "whataboutism." And there are some pretty straightforward reasons for all the anti-war leftists who appropriately loathe Vladimir Putin to bring up the horrors perpetrated by the United States and NATO during discussions of the ones perpetrated by the Russian Federation.
First and most obviously, anti-war Americans don't think the harms perpetrated by American imperialism get nearly enough attention. The invasion of Iraq was one of the greatest crimes committed by any government in living memory. A nation on the other side of the world that never attacked or considered attacking the United States was invaded on the basis of the argument that it was possible that they had Weapons of Mass Destruction and further possible that a secular dictator like Saddam Hussein, who had a long history of brutally suppressing Al Qaeda-style fundamentalists, would one day decide to share his possibly real weapons with his mortal enemies. If for some reason he decided to do this and if the weapons were real in the first place, then it was just barely possible that they could one day be used against the United States. Got that?
As crazed rationales for invasions go, that one almost outdoes Putin's bluster about "demilitarizing and denazifying" Ukraine. Of course, official rationales used by great powers for starting wars tend to tell you less about what motivates decision-makers than what they think they can sell to the public. Rather transparently, the real motivation for invading Iraq was the one neoconservative writer Jonah Goldberg memorably attributed to his friend Micheal Ledeen. Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.
The first phase of Iraq being thrown against the wall involved something Pentagon war planners called "shock and awe." A point I would bring up to anyone willing to listen to me during my time as a college anti-war activist was that the use of cluster bombs in densely packed neighborhoods of Baghdad made absurd any pretense that the United States was trying to avoid civilian casualties.
Unsurprisingly, enough of the Iraqi people didn't like being conquered for there to be a long drawn-out and bloody insurgency against the American occupiers. Before long, the violence turned inward and inflamed pre-existing ethno-sectarian tensions to the point of causing a civil war. A lot of American soldiers died in the years that all of this was happening, including a guy who went to my high school. An almost unimaginably greater number of Iraqis died. An estimated 2.5% of Iraq's population lost their lives as a direct or indirect result of all the chaos just in the first three years of the war. Millions more became refugees. The long-term destabilization of the region led to a parade of further horrors like the rise of ISIS.
To this day, the harshest thing Barack Obama's Ambassador to Russia can bring himself to say about this sequence of events is that invading Iraq was a "mistake." So, yeah, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to throw Ukraine against the wall, and a bipartisan chorus of politicians and pundits is talking about how an unprovoked invasion of an independent nation is a grave affront to the sacred principle of national sovereignty, and the American media is full of depictions of the plight of Ukrainian refugees, and American commentators are calling Russia's use of cluster bombs in populated areas in Ukraine a war crime…it's not exactly hard to see why someone like Scahill or Mohyeldin would see all of this as what educators call a "teachable moment."
And please don't tell me that us "whataboutists" are living in the past. The Trump Administration came within about an inch of starting an all-out war with Iran two years ago. No one who has a passing familiarity with the mind-numbingly extensive list of invasions, coups, "surgical" bombing campaigns and the like perpetrated around the world by the American state since 1945 believes that we'll have to wait long for the next country to be thrown against the wall.
I feel nothing toward Russia's anti-war movement but love and solidarity. As an American, though, my primary duty is not to speak out against the crimes committed by other governments. My own nation is the one whose policies I'm in the best position to oppose, and that would be a good enough reason for me to focus on Russian crimes if I were a Russian. As an American, though, I have an especially strong duty to focus on building opposition to the imperial crimes of my own country, since year after year, decade after decade, those are the ones that cumulatively cause by far the most harm in the world. If discussions about the parallel crimes committed by other powers provide me with an opportunity to drive home some of the points that were relevant about Iraq and will no doubt become relevant all too soon about whichever country comes next, I'm damn well going to take it.
Let's drop the pretense that the official definition of "whataboutism" captures what critics of "whataboutists" are actually objecting to. Something much simpler is going on here. Those crying "whataboutism" don't like it when American crimes are brought up during discussions of Russian crimes because they don't want people to be reminded of American crimes. Once we're being honest about that, we can have a serious discussion about whether "whataboutism" is a bad thing. My answer would be that it depends on the intention.
Take a comparison not between Russia and the United States but between Russia and Ukraine. Someone points out that far right paramilitaries like the Azov Battalion have been integrated into the Ukrainian military. Their interlocutor responds with a bit of whataboutism, pointing out that Russia has also demonstrated a willingness to work with such forces.
If the point of bringing this up is to argue against a point of view like that held by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who worries that American military aid to Ukraine will find its way to such unsavory forces, then the "what about…?" question is misplaced—either it's a total non sequitur or the interlocutor is committing the tu quoque fallacy. If Russia and America both arm neo-Nazis, there's no reason why that can't be bad in both cases. On the other hand, if the point of this particular instance of whataboutism is to argue against the view that Putin's war deserves support on the grounds that he really is fighting to "denazify" Ukraine, then the response is a good one, because Putin's own chumminess with the far right exposes his concern with "denazification" as an insincere pretext.
At its best, I'd argue that "whataboutism" is actually a moral imperative. Think about the issue of what kind of sanctions should be imposed on Russia. It's important to ask, "What about the invasion of Iraq—what sanctions should have been imposed in response to that?" If the EU had seized some yachts and frozen some assets belonging to Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their politically-connected oil CEO friends, I would have been all in favor of it, and I'm similarly in favor of targeted sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Would I have supported indiscriminate sanctions that imposed mass suffering on ordinary working-class Americans, though? Would you? If not, why do you support imposing them on ordinary Russians who have even less input on their country's foreign policy than we do? These are important questions, because they test what our principles actually are, and whether we believe in applying them only to our enemies or are willing to abide by them ourselves.
When NATO was bombing Russia's close ally Serbia in 1999, would you have wanted Russia to risk World War III by setting up a no-fly zone over Belgrade? If not, why do you want the United States to do so now? You could argue, I suppose, that it's different because NATO's bombing was motivated by a just cause—stopping the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians—while Russia's declared interest in stopping Ukraine's violent suppression of the Russian-majority separatist regions doesn't rise to the same level of justification. Even so, the "what about…?" question usefully forces you to spell out what principle you're operating on—in this case, "it's fine to risk World War III to stop a third country you're allied with from being bombed by a rival power if the bombing campaign isn't justified." I don't agree with that, but one way or the other I'd rather have the principle out in the open. And even if you do agree with that principle, would Russia or China have been justified in risking World War III by setting up a no-fly zone over Baghdad in 2003? No parallel justification is available for America's bombing campaign there.
Sometimes these role reversals cut in multiple directions at once. Imagine that during the Cold War Mexico had been ravaged by a civil war between a pro-American faction and an ascendant pro-Soviet faction, and that even as tensions rose between Mexico and the United States, the pro-Soviet government in Mexico City continued to express interest in formally joining the Warsaw Pact. Realistically, it's entirely possible that the United States would have invaded Mexico to stop it from "going Communist." ("Invading Mexico" might sound innately implausible, but I'd remind you that the United States actually did sponsor an invasion of another neighbor-Cuba-for similar reasons in 1961, even if JFK infuriated his generals by not going all-in.) On the one hand, realizing that the United States might very well do what Russia is doing under parallel circumstances takes some of the wind out of the sails of the argument that the invasion of Ukraine shows that Russia is a uniquely dangerous country that needs to be opposed around the world by a stronger and more aggressive NATO. On the other hand, if that exact sequence of events played out, there isn't the slightest doubt in my mind that all of my leftist friends would join me in marching in anti-war protests—and that shows the absurdity of the position of those few fringe leftists who make excuses for Putin's war.
Maybe the conclusions you draw from all of these role reversals are different from mine. Fair enough. But if you aren't at least asking the "what about…?" questions, you simply aren't serious about applying morally consistent standards.
Waxing indignant about the misdeeds of other powers while refusing to look in the mirror is what Vladimir Putin does when he simultaneously condemns American imperialism and wages war to keep a less powerful neighbor in his country's sphere of influence. Let's be better than that.