Yeah okay, racism is bad, but what about classism? That’s bad too.
Or are you saying that gender inequality doesn’t matter?
And what about colorism? Isn’t that a thing?!
And how come nobody is talking about the oppressions faced by Asian women academics?!
So has gone the way of some conversations with attendees when I speak at seminars about anti-racism. (Okay, not the last one.)
I believe many of these questions stem from a genuine concern for all vulnerable people. Yet these “what about…” questions often end up derailing sorely needed conversations about race and racism and leaving all attendees overwhelmed and in despair about not being able to solve all the world’s problems at once.
Other times, “what about…” questions are raised in anger, contempt, and shame by those who feel (or fear) they’re being called out for their sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism. “What about…” questions then become an attempt to shut down the conversation and evade responsibility for wrongdoings.
In this post, I’ll explain how these questions are a logical fallacy known as whataboutism (also sometimes called whataboutery). I’ll discuss two ways whataboutism or whataboutery shows up in social justice activism and how to distinguish between more constructive questioning practices and when whataboutism is weaponized to deny the needs and interests of marginalized people and groups.
What is ‘Whataboutism’?
Whataboutism is a logical fallacy known as tu quoque (“you also”).
In everyday use, it usually occurs when one person raises a flaw or failure in another person. Rather than acknowledge and address the issue, the second person responds by launching a counter-accusation against the first person.
Person A: “Hey, did you leave the dirty dishes in the sink again last night?”
Person B: “Yeah? Well, what about that time you forgot to take out the trash? And how about last week when you said you’d make dinner but came home late? And this time last year you didn’t do the laundry and I had to buy new underpants to wear instead!”
Whataboutism in effect deflects and distracts from taking responsibility for failings by derailing the conversation with counter-accusations against the person who first raised the failings, even though they’re usually irrelevant to the situation.
Where Did Whataboutism Come From?
Whataboutism was made famous during the Cold War when it became a popular tactic used by the Soviet Union to deflect critiques about its wrongdoings.
Whenever other nations questioned a Kremlin official about the abuses of the Red Army, a common retort became, “What about in America, where they lynch Black people?!”
Whataboutism vs Hypocrisy
The key here is that whataboutism is not a judgment about the validity or legitimacy of the counter-accusation.
Some people find it easy to identify this logical fallacy when the counter-accusation is obviously false or comically exaggerated like my examples with Person A and B above arguing over household chores.
However, they find it more difficult to understand the problem of whataboutism if the counter-accusation seems like a more valid critique. With the Soviet Union, for example, the United States does have a race problem. The United States does need to contend with its abuses of racist violence against Black citizens.
But just because the counter-accusation might be true doesn’t mean that the first accusation is not.
Rather than taking responsibility for one’s wrongdoings, whataboutism serves to shut the entire conversation down. It’s like saying, “Unless you yourself are faultless, you can’t criticize me”.
Whataboutism continues to be used by world leaders today.
When the 2016 U.S. election was investigated for potential meddling by a foreign government, the President used whataboutism to cast suspicion on his former opponent and avoid answering the charges.
John Oliver calls out the former President for his use of whataboutism in this clip from Last Week Tonight below.
In my own country of Australia, politicians have used whataboutism in some truly bizarre ways. Some prominent cases focus on the tactic of distraction rather than leveling their own counter-accusations.
For example, a conservative House of Representatives member Bob Katter was questioned about why he opposed marriage equality in 2017.
At first, he pussyfooted around the subject and said that “people are entitled to their sexual proclivities”.
Katter then attempted to distract from the issue of systemic heterosexism and asserted that he was much more concerned about “every three months, a person is torn to pieces by a crocodile in north Queensland.”
(There’s no evidence that suggests a person is killed by crocodiles in northern Queensland every three months. But even if there was, it doesn’t invalidate the systemic heterosexism that exists in Australia.)
Although Katter’s example above is somewhat humorous for its gross exaggeration, many people adopt this form of whataboutism all the time to erase the concerns of one injustice for another.
Subtler politicians who are challenged on the injustices in their country might adopt a performative moral concern for another group. In 2019 when Australia’s Prime Minister was asked what he thought about adding a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament, he replied, “I have got to tell you, I’m more concerned about young Indigenous girls committing suicide. That’s what concerns me more than anything else.”
Suicide rates among Indigenous girls are an important issue to address, but it presents a false either/or dichotomy.
There’s no reason why Australia can’t have both a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice in parliament and a comprehensive policy for supporting the mental health and wellbeing of Indigenous girls. Having the first might even help the latter.
Governments and organizations frequently create a sense of scarcity and insist that only one ‘minority’ issue can be explored at any given time. For example, if employees raise ableism as a problem at their organization, they might be met with the whataboutism response:
We absolutely do not condone ableism in any form in this organization, but right now, we’re focused on closing the gender pay gap among the senior executives. Once we solve that critically urgent issue, we’ll consider putting together an exploratory committee to consider whether or not ableism is a problem in our company.
Whataboutism in Social Justice Activism
Perhaps the most prevalent example of whataboutism in social justice activism is the retort, “all lives matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The whataboutist has imagined the word “only” in front of “Black lives matter” and assumed that all non-Black needs, interests, and rights will immediately cease to matter in society. It may be an anxious clinging onto power and privilege or simply an unfounded fear that Black people will exact vengeance for colonialism and slavery.
Even among self-professed ‘feminists’ and those who proclaim to care about social justice, conversations about injustices can sometimes derail through the use of whataboutism.
The people who use the whataboutism tactic in these cases may genuinely believe that they’re raising an important issue and pointing out the hypocrisy of the first accuser.
I believe there are two main drivers for whataboutism in social justice activism:
The first use is often well-intentioned. Because some activists desire a clear, unified movement, they may demand that every member be everything to everyone every time.
So if a disability activist campaigned for disability justice, for example, fellow activists might challenge, “What about racism? What about sexism? What is your stance on trans justice? Why haven’t you publicly spoken out against inhumane immigration policies? Where’s your essay on the appropriation of Indigenous cultures?”
To be clear, all these demands are valid. In fact, questioning intersecting oppressions is a valuable and powerful tool of intersectional feminism proposed by Mari Matsuda known as ‘asking the other question’.
However, it’s important to critically reflect on the consequences of these questions in context. Do they enhance and strengthen the discussion of social justice or do they derail emergent movements for simply not being everything to everyone every time?
We can promote intersectionality without derailing the conversation.
If we were discussing the problem with racism, for example, it may be constructive to ask “what about capitalism?” to consider the many ways capitalism produce and reinforce racism. When whataboutism derails, it’d be like joining a Black Lives Matter protest simply to shout, “But working-class lives matter too, what about us?!”
The second driver for whataboutism in social justice activism is more dangerous. It often comes from people who feel called out by other activists and deflect critique and level wild counter-accusations to cope with their shame.
For example, a white feminist who is called out for her racial privilege may point the finger back at her accuser, “You’re the real racist for thinking white people are racists!” These uses of whataboutism are directly anti-intersectional.
They seek to silence less privileged people from voicing their experiences with oppression and reassert the dominance of those in power to define social justice struggles with their own agendas.
Whataboutism is a time-honored rhetorical tactic and logical fallacy used to deflect critique and evade responsibility for wrongdoings.
It can be used in overtly antagonistic ways where the accused levels exaggerated and irrelevant counter-accusations at their accuser. It can also be used in more subtle ways to feign moral concern for another issue as though only one injustice can be considered at any one time.
This post has focused on the uses of whataboutism in social justice movements. In particular, it distinguished between one form that can be compassionately exercised to strengthen intersectional feminist awareness and another form that’s anti-intersectional and derails the serious and legitimate concerns of marginalized people.
To understand more about intersectional feminism and why it should become a fundamental part of social justice activism, please take a look at my detailed explainer of intersectionality theory and how it has been generated through women of color thought and activism.
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Featured image by Polina Zimmerman