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Everyday Philosophy: The problem with whataboutery

Whataboutists try to convince you that all wrongdoing is the same because ignoring how the cases differ never works in their favour

Image: The New European

Whataboutery is rife in political debate. Boris Johnson has been accused of attending a series of illegal parties in Downing Street and charged for at least one of these, so what about Keir Starmer’s beer and curry now under investigation by Durham police? Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, but what about the long history of American and British imperialism around the world? What about the US going into Iraq? What about Vietnam? Terrible human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia? What about torture in Guantanamo Bay?

This move in debate is designed to deflect the argument from its target to the person or group levelling a case against them. Jesus Christ used a version of it when a woman caught in the act of adultery was about to be stoned.

He defused the situation by saying: “He that is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her” (John, 8:7). In other words, “Her sin is a sin, but you’re no better. So don’t stone her.” Sometimes described as the ‘companions in guilt move’ or ‘tu quoque’ (Latin for ‘you too’) this is a challenge to be consistent.

The thought is that if you really believe what you are saying you ought to apply the same principle to anyone who has also committed a similar act, including yourself. Carry the logic through and you’d all be stoning each other or even yourself. Don’t go accusing adulterers or that partygoer Johnson of immorality unless you are sure you have a clear conscience yourself.

‘Whataboutery’ is a pejorative term for a slippery move, a form of rhetoric intended to turn attention away from a wrongdoer and persuade you not to single out the accused. It’s all about persuading the listener or reader that the accuser is some kind of hypocrite and so (allegedly) has no right to attack their target this way.

The whataboutery move seems to rest on the false assumption that wrongdoing is mitigated if others have done something similar, and the feeling that accusers need to be innocent of the crime of which they are accusing others. ‘You think I’m doing something terrible, so look around you at all the others doing much the same as me. What is more, you don’t have a credible position from which to attack me.’ At best that is just self-serving rationalisation, but as a tactical move it can work.

Whataboutery in its starkest forms is, then, an attempt at persuasion by devious means, turning the focus on to the accuser in an ad hominem way rather than looking at the charges themselves. It gets much of its power from the fact that in tabloid headlines and political soundbites the differences between cases get blurred. That’s why so many politicians use it. Whether two alleged wrongdoings are really similar is key here, but that’s hard to focus on because of the distortions encouraged by this move.

If the two acts being compared differ in important respects, conclusions based on any implied similarity will be unreliable. But that’s not easy to see. Serious analysis of Johnson’s partying behaviour under lockdown is likely to show that it was very different in scale, kind, and frequency from anything Starmer has been accused of. Whataboutery hides that.

It’s worth pointing out, too that, just as liars can sometimes tell the truth, those who are immoral, or engage in criminal acts, are also capable of pointing a finger at others’ wrongdoing. They may have lost much of their epistemic credibility – their reliability as sources of accurate information – but the content of what they say can be as accurate as anything anyone else says.

Imagine a scenario in which Keir Starmer had attended as many forbidden parties as Boris Johson did under lockdown (philosophers specialise in far-fetched examples), that would do nothing to excuse Johnson’s behaviour and Starmer could still point a finger at Johnson. When faced with the charge of whataboutery, Keir Starmer might choose to bite the bullet and accept the consequences of the charge of inconsistency by agreeing that he himself should be punished if Johnson should.

In fact, even when facing much lesser accusations than Johnson, that seems to be what Starmer has done in agreeing to resign if fined for illegality.

There’s nothing wrong with consistency per se. Consistency in the application of the law and in judgments of immorality is great. It’s just that whataboutists tend to ignore how cases differ, because consistency is not what’s really motivating them.

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