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Whataboutism or Whataboutary is the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.

Examples:

The USA to Russia: "You invaded Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people."
Russia to the USA: "What about Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan,...?"


Now, my question is, why is "Whataboutism" often criticized?

Those who criticize whataboutism, What better type of reply do they suggest?

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  • 46
    "Whataboutism" is formally known as the fallacy of tu quoque (Latin for "you too").
    – dan04
    Apr 15 at 22:03
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    Related: How can I respond to Whataboutism?
    – user4012
    Apr 16 at 15:11
  • 134
    Why're you picking on whataboutism? What about all the OTHER logical fallacies? Apr 16 at 17:40
  • 18
    @dan04 Whataboutism is broader than tu quoque, as it encompasses bringing up things that the accuser didn't do, e.g. "Why are you complaining about Ukraine? Isn't the war in Ethiopia even worse?" Apr 16 at 22:10
  • 3
    @Acccumulation That's typically what the word should mean. Bringing up unrelated things. But I find when people say it is usually to dismiss a challenge that is related.
    – frеdsbend
    Apr 17 at 0:43

11 Answers 11

84

It's a logical fallacy. It notably doesn't argue that the act was justified, at most it only argues that you and I are both in the same boat - so if you are wrong, I am wrong too.

Concretely:

The USA to Russia: "You invaded Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people."

Russia to the USA: "What about Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan,...?"

Say Russia is right that the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War are unjust (implied by the original claim "You invaded Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people"). Then Russia's argument only shows that the US is just as unjust as Russia is.

The USA could reasonably say "OK, so I'm a hypocrite and I invaded Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and killed tens of thousands of people. And you still invaded Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people." The original claim - that it was unjust to invade Ukraine and kill tens of thousands of people - is not refuted.

The kind of response that is needed is an argument that shows why it was just to invade Ukraine.

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    @alamar but it's the example given by the OP.
    – Allure
    Apr 16 at 7:56
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    It depends on the original claim the "whataboutism" addresses. If the claim was "you are the worst, you did some unspeakable evil no one ever did", or just "you are worse than us" then whataboutism can be a right and justified answer. However, if the original claim is merely a criticism, then using whataboutism as an answer can be justly criticized as trying to deflect the blame, as someone else doing bad thing doesn't mean the accused party is innocent.
    – vsz
    Apr 16 at 15:52
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    As a logical argument it is indeed a fallacy. As a moral argument it is more successful. Moral relativism is a thing. Apr 16 at 16:33
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    Whataboutism is only fallacious if the implied argument is "I did nothing wrong because you did the same thing." But I don't think people use whataboutism to dispute the truth of the claim. Rather, I think the implied argument is "you have no moral authority to criticize me because you are also guilty" or "if you want to do something about my actions, then we should also do something about your actions" which I think is valid depending on the context. Of course, if you leave the actual argument implicit, then whataboutism is mostly just a distraction, and not a productive statement
    – T Hummus
    Apr 16 at 16:48
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    @MDevelopment That justification hinges on the notion that South Vietnam wasn't a marionette state set up by the colonial powers to defend their interests after they were forced to leave. Notion which was not exactly universally accepted at the time, as far as I can tell. Apr 18 at 8:54
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Whataboutism isn’t a reply, Whataboutism is a deflection of an accusation.

It is not an attempt to address a concern, but instead an attempt to change the subject.

As politics is getting people to agree with you, it is as valid as anything else politicians do, but is frequently less effective than simply attacking the opposition directly. Those that agree with you will appreciate the attack, those that don’t may be moved by it. Whataboutism rarely persuades people as it is recognized as a deflection, and unless the Whatabout is significantly worse than what is being deflected, that makes the Whataboutism seem guilty.

Politically it’s chancy.

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  • It should also be noted that it's a way of equating things without considering context. For instance, if someone shoves you to bully you and retorts that you shoved someone else, but you did it to help them avoid being hit by a vehicle. It's a red herring making a false equivalence, and an easy way to call anyone hypocritical.
    – Tanath
    Apr 28 at 15:19
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To put it simply, just because someone else does something bad doesn't mean you(or someone else) can do something bad.

If you break the rules it doesn't matter that someone else in the past has broken the rules. Or if you commit a crime it doesn't matter that others have also committed that same or other crimes.

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    Most motorists speed or drink-drive or use their phone; that doesn't mean laws against those things aren't real.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 17 at 15:48
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    Or, as Mom often said, two wrongs don't make a right.
    – chili555
    Apr 17 at 20:11
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    @JoeW I deleted my comments because their content and intent were misunderstood. Apr 18 at 7:19
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Why is "Whataboutism" often criticized?

"Whataboutism" is criticized because this is a way to escape an issue rather than to discuss an issue, and that's why that most of conversations start at a point but they would never end where they've been started, when someone uses this technique it means they have no justification for their acts or false claims and by bringing up a weakness or controversial issue mostly pertaining the second party of the discussion they try to hide their own weekness at responding. (Please note that I'm talking about general situations not particularly Russia and America or the war in Ukraine)

This would be a successful attempt to escape if you know what to bring up, if you can bring up a very sensitive issue that the second party can't leave alone you have changed the course of discussion but it necessarily doesn't mean that you have won the discussion, when you bring up something sensitive about the one who is criticizing you, you can actually make the conversation to backfire cause the second party would try to acquit themselves from the alleged charges so your wrongdoing is forgotten.

This is criticized cause it never answers the question in the minds of the audiences, like your example, the US says "Your crimes in Ukraine" and Russia says "what about your crimes in Iraq, Vietnam and....", Russia is actually pointing out an important issue because horrific things happened in Iraq, Vietnam and other places, but the question is not answered and the issue is just screwed.

So if Russia is really doing those alleged crimes, the point that the US has attacked many countries itself and killed many people doesn't justify the crimes of Russia and if Russia isn't really doing those crimes so why don't they bring up an evidence and prove the falsehood of the words of the US? The fact that the US attacked Iraq for the phony pretext of WMDs doesn't give any permission to Russia to do the same.

But there's still a point that should not be overlooked and that is can a criminal be a witness? If a drug dealer that is arrested can't be a witness for the crimes of his gang so who can be? (Again i'm saying that I'm discussing in general not specifically about Russia and the US), the fact that the guy himself was a drugdealer doesn't make his words about his gang useless that if it did, why the detectives interrogate the person to make him rat on his gang?

So we can't really say that if the person X is a criminal, that person can't accuse the person Y of a crime. But still this is the pot calls the kettle black. If the US killed people in Iraq it doesn't mean that they can't condemn Russia for killing people in Ukraine. (this is just an example, I don't claim Russia is really killing or not), but of course if you think someone is doing a wrong thing, you shouldn't do it yourself, that if you do, then you're a hypocritical guy.

This is actually true about both parts, if Russia condemns the US so why itself attacked Ukraine? And if the US condemns Russia why itself has attacked many countries? And that's why the pot calls the kettle black, but again it doesn't mean that the pot or kettle aren't black!

As user366312 says, "A criminal can be a witness, but a criminal can't be a judge." the fact that the US can criticize Russia doesn't mean that the US has any right to punish Russia too, as I mentioned in the comments, you can't wipe off a dirty window with a dirty cloth, if we want to punish, we have to have an impartial third party that punishes both sides cause both of the drugdealer and his accomplice have committed crime.

Those who criticize whataboutism, What better type of reply do they suggest?

As I mentioned above, the best answer on behalf of the party which is being accused is to bring up evidence to prove the falsehood of the charges, or else by screwing the word they only leave an unanswered question in the minds of the audiences which would cause distrust.

This is like whe Russia says I have attacked Ukraine cause they were neo-Nazi, I( supposedly) come up and say, so what about the crimes of the Soviet Union? This is pretty absurd, the right thing is to ask Russia if you claim that they are Nazis, can you bring an evidence to support that?

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    A criminal can be a witness alright, but a criminal can't be a judge.
    – user366312
    Apr 16 at 21:28
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    "Discuss an issue" is disingenuous here, you are talking about a deflection of "discussing and condemning your behavior". You don't get to discuss other parties' behavior without answering the who are you to lecture me? question. Or at least there would be no dialogue on those terms.
    – alamar
    Apr 18 at 9:12
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'Whataboutism' isn't a fallacy (neither formal nor informal). 'Whataboutism' is a collective ego defense: a way of justifying, excusing, or obviating improper or immoral behavior by someone one side identifies with, through a superficial reference to ostensibly improper or immoral behavior by someone the other side identifies with.

'Whataboutism' isn't wrong as much as it's degenerative. A critique or condemnation generally carries a moral imperative of the sort:

What X did is not something that is acceptable at any time or place, by any person.

'Whataboutism' inverts that to produce an amoral imperative such as:

Someone on your side have done things akin to what X did, so you have no standing to criticize X for doing it.

'Whataboutism' produces a race to the bottom, where (potentially) every act, no matter how heinous, is defended to preserve the prestige of the group as a whole (or often merely to lower the prestige of some other group, so that one's own group seems prestigious by comparison). It's a sign that people have given up the idea of being good or virtuous in its own right, and instead put all their efforts into appearing marginally better than others.

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    It doesn't have to produce a race to the bottom. In fact, the accusation of "whataboutism" has become a common way to get out of being accused of a hypocrisy. Sometimes it's a false equivalence and sometimes it's a correct equivalence, but both correct and false equivalences are "whataboutisms."
    – wrod
    Apr 16 at 7:59
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    Perhaps less race-to-the-bottom, and more "moral free-fall." If all parties refuse to acknowledge criticism from anyone who is not absolutely faultless, it is inevitable that all long-lived parties will become disqualified from attempting to persuade bad actors to reform. The resultant state is one in which everyone is permitted to do anything that does not trouble their own conscience, which is clearly intolerable. Imagine if the only laws that could be enforced were the ones nobody had broken yet.
    – Tom
    Apr 16 at 10:00
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    @wrod: Whether it's a false or correct equivalence, it still serves to disrupt or corrupt moral reasoning. That's the race to the bottom (or moral free-fall, as Tom would have it). The point is that 'whataboutism' in no way serves to encourage moral behavior, but instead justifies amoral/immoral behavior by diffusing blame. Apr 16 at 15:50
  • @TedWrigley that's incorrect. objecting to whatabouttism is immoral, and highly unethical, in itself (always). which is why the OP uses it. It's a trap. He gets to getaway with defending something immoral by trying to solicit immoral objections.
    – wrod
    Apr 16 at 19:21
  • "'Whataboutism' produces a race to the bottom" <- Not necessarily. If one canot get away with deflecting a "what about" claim, whataboutism could be considered to result in a "race to the top", in the sense of "we must all better our ways" and "we must all reflect upon our own actions through the parallel of deplorable actions by others".
    – einpoklum
    Apr 17 at 23:17
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"What better type of reply do they suggest?"

The main question has, I feel, been well-answered, but the sub-question here has not been sufficiently addressed.

I can at least offer one suggestion towards it: Whataboutism can become somewhat valid if it is rephrased to point to precedent-setting incidents.

Example 1

An example would be if a US Supreme Court Justice slot opened in 2024, and US Republicans said "Biden should not appoint Supreme Court Justices in an election year! This was established as the correct rule with the 2016 Merrick Garland nomination at the end of the Obama administration!"

An invalid whataboutism would be "You can't argue with me on this, since you supported the Amy Coney Barret nomination in 2020!"

A valid precedent-cite would be "A more recent precedent is the Amy Coney Barret nomination in 2020. You yourself supported this change in precedence."

Example 2

The same approach could be used with the example given in the OP:

  • USA: "You invaded Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people."
  • Russia: "Are you arguing that is bad? If so, based on what shared moral rubric?"
  • USA: "Yes, it is bad, because it is a UN charter violation."
  • Russia: "The precedent that the charter is non-binding, ignorable toilet paper, at least for those nations with veto powers, has already been set when the US started its war on Iraq."

There are moral rubrics that illustrate that this is a ridiculously unjust war of aggression, but "UN charter violation" isn't one that really works, given the history.

The US speaker can then respond in a few ways, including:

  1. For now, I accept your offered precedent may be valid, for the sake of this argument. I argue instead that your actions in Ukraine are bad because [alternative moral argument].
  2. That wasn't a precedent that it was OK to violate the charter, as what we did then was not OK either.
  3. That wasn't a precedent that it was OK to violate the charter, as we did not violate it, given [legal distinction], which does not apply in your case.
  4. ...and so forth, addressing the precedent cited, rather than being deflected into having to defend their own actions.

What's the difference?

Whataboutism is a tu coque/poisoning-the-well attack on the actions of the opponent. The goal of this argument is to establish "you have no standing to debate us on this, as you are just as bad" - a fallacy, since speaker-morality does not affect argument-validity.

Prior precedent is a citation of historical precedence in defense of the action being discussed. The fact that the precedent was set by the opponent is not used to attack the opponent, but to strengthen the citation: the opponent cannot reasonably argue that they are unaware of, or disagree with the precedent, if they are the ones who set it. The goal of this argument is to establish "we are not in violation of previously-agreed standards."

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    Speaker-morality does not affect argument-validity, might be true in the theoretical case. Practically speaking it is very important because often arguments regarding war are highly non verifiable by the broad public, thus a lot of trust is needed in the speaker, thus whataboutism works by casting doubt on the moral integrity of the speaker, thus making those unverifiable arguments less strong or doubtful
    – Hakaishin
    Apr 17 at 7:27
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The unspoken part of whataboutism is "therefore you should let me continue what I was doing".

You're a mass murderer! Killing people is wrong!

Well, you got a speeding ticket. Speeding is wrong. (Therefore you should let me continue to kill people.)

In whataboutism, the criticised party accepts that they're doing something wrong but they deflect attention to the other party. Instead of the criticising party attacking the other party's behaviour, they are now expected to defend their behaviour.

And of course, "two wrongs don't make a right". Sure, maybe the other party is being a hypocrite, but that doesn't mean that their objection is invalid. If both parties are doing something wrong, both should stop. A party should not continue doing bad things because the other party also does or did bad things. If a murderer criticises you for speeding, that criticism is valid despite their own crime.

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Those who criticize whataboutism, What better type of reply do they suggest?

A more productive, but similar tactic to Whataboutism is using analogous arguments to analyze a given argument.

For instance, someone might argue, "Fireworks should be outlawed, because, when misused, they can cause wildfires." An unhelpful response might be, "Well what about alcohol? When misused, it can cause fatal car accidents. Why don't we outlaw alcohol too?" As established by other answers, this only serves as a distraction from the original argument.

A more helpful response would be, "a similar argument might be made for outlawing alcohol. If you don't support outlawing alcohol, let's consider your reasons for not doing so, and see if any of those reasons might also be a reason for not outlawing fireworks." This opens the door for discussion/debate about the relative merits of each argument, which ideally can clarify whether the argument is valid.

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Moral Proposition: Alice: “I think moral governments do not invade the sovereignty of others, that’s why the recent acts of the Russian government renders it immoral.”

Whataboutist’s Counter Bob: “What about the U.S. government? It’s history of invading the sovereignty of countries like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan implies that, by your measure, it too lacks morality.”

At this point Alice can:

  • Take the bait — Introduce additional details of varying quality/relevance that render her a hypocrite by her original proposition. “But the U.S. is moral in other ways and many in the world see if as a shining beacon of light on the hill”, to which Bob promptly upbraids her for her naïveté or, at least, makes her eat the can or worms she just opened.
  • Revise her opinion — “I hadn’t thought of that counter example, Bob. Upon some reflection, it seems reasonable that I should update my prior belief.” This effectively reveals Alice as having a poorly constructed model of morality (and thus probably not deserving of having her moral statements taken seriously) or having a morality that is easily superseded by other concerns (e.g. acceptance by a group), leading her to being painfully suggestible on issues or morality. Either way, yikes.
  • Agree — “Yes, and the U.S. government was wrong too, Bob. You’re attempt to excuse the immoral actions of the Russian government by appealing to a low standard (i.e. one historically followed by the U.S. government when it has engaged in similarly immoral behaviors) is problematic — if we fail to aspire to a higher moral standard and instead excuse poor behavior because of a relativistic interpretation of morality, then all bets are off.
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It's fairly obvious that this question is not a genuine attempt to ask about "whataboutism," but to sneak in the actual bona fide fallacy of false-equivalence under the guise of using a "whataboutism."

Nevertheless, it still ends up asking a relevant question.


"Whataboutism" is not evil. Nor is it even wrong. It's a dysphemism used to excuse hypocrisy.

More specifically, it's a word used to vilify arguments which point out hypocrisies. Rather than addressing the hypocrisy by, at the very least acknowledging that a multifaceted argument can have components which are present in arguments on the other side, a dysphemism is used to dismiss a perfectly valid concern.

It usually goes something like this (capital letters are principles states in arguments for the sake of this example):

pro: A & B ==> X

is followed by a counter

con: C & B ==> not X

pro(vilification): "nice whataboutism! you are refusing to address B!"

con: "well, no, I am pointing out the hypocrisy that B can also be a component of 'not X."

The dysphemism is used to create a he-said-she-said-type situation in order to divert attention from the hypocrisy.

This is effective because hypocrisies cause moral panics. But using vilification terms also cause moral panics.

And when people do not analyze argument coolly, but only pay attention at a superficial level, the two counteracting moral panics provide 2 opposing incentives, thereby weakening the impetus produced by the initial accusation of hypocrisy.


But,

it is probably important to mention that while "whataboutism" is a false "logical fallacy," there is a closely-related logical fallacy, which is real. And that is a "false equivalence."

And, in fact, the OP question is a good example of a false equivalence. False equivalence is comparing things which have common elements and uncommon elements, but ignoring the uncommon elements while insisting that the common elements are the only ones which are present.

It goes something like this:

pro:

A & B (without mentioning C which is true and relevant) ==> X

A & B (without mentioning C which is NOT true and which is still relevant) ==> Y

con:

whether or not C happened is extremely relevant here. It was present in X, so X is true. It was absent in Y, so Y is false.

Of course, there is obviously a very large difference between the military actions taken during wars by the United States and the unprovoked war of aggression, being waged by Russia against Ukraine with the stated purpose of committing genocide of Ukraine.

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I guess it is particulary just, because it exposes double standards. Say, a girl says - I like guys with long beard (Stmt1). Whataboutism approach is - " But your friend is without a beard". This may point to the falcity of Stmt1.

The right answers in difference between USA and Russia, is for example - "Russia, what type of power do you export in the regions, assume you have conquered it? Will you export corrupt oligarch dictature in those territories?" This clarifies the sides

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    That's a horrible example; I like cats doesn't mean I don't like dogs, and if someone sexually attracted to guys says "I like guys with long beards", in English, that generally doesn't mean anything about who they want to be friends with. Even if this were fixed, if she said "I only date guys with long beards" and you pointed out her boyfriend didn't have a beard, it wouldn't be "whataboutism"; it would simply be a counterexample.
    – prosfilaes
    Apr 16 at 19:54
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    Your example isn't relevant at all and is completely wrong. Stating you like guys with long beards does not imply anything at all about guys without a long beard or a beard at all. In fact it doesn't even imply that you like all guys with a long beard and can't dislike a guy with a long beard.
    – Joe W
    Apr 16 at 21:23
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    @prosfilaes ok, i will try to improve example. Assuming a girl is dating the guy with the beard. The says " it is because i like guys only with beards". But you know, that former boyfriend of her was without a beard. this is so called "double standarts", what show, that she is dishonest or there are further factors what she concideres
    – user184868
    Apr 16 at 22:40
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    @user184868 That's still not double standards or whataboutism.
    – prosfilaes
    Apr 16 at 22:58

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