What Is Whataboutery, and Why Does It Plague Discourse?
Pretend you’re online, talking about the massive number of women who suffer sexual assault. Your notifications light up and you see a reply from another person. It says, “What about the men who get sexually assaulted?”
From ‘not all men’ to ‘all lives matter’ to “Kim. There’s people that are dying,” people use the ‘what about’ as a diversionary tactic from important discourse way more often than they do to raise awareness. These what-abouts are everywhere, they’re exhausting, and are literally called whataboutery.
Whataboutery is a logical fallacy, which means it is a faulty reasoning technique that causes chaos rather than building an argument. These are a bit hard to recognize, because they look deceptively valid. As a feminist, you obviously care about men facing sexual assault too. But, the other individual’s ‘what-about’ is an invitation to argue about men’s inclusion, rather than what you were really talking about — the massive number of women who suffer sexual assault.
So, what is the other person trying to do, if they’re not arguing in good faith? They’re trying to derail your argument by presenting a topic that is important, but irrelevant to the conversation. In this example, men’s sexual assault is a completely separate, but valid, conversation. They also employ whataboutery to undermine the original argument by calling it hypocritical. If you don’t talk about women’s and men’s sexual assault rates together, you are a bad feminist. But, your capability to be a good feminist has nothing to do with the conversation at hand — which is about the massive number of women who suffer sexual assault.
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One can never say for sure if an individual’s whataboutery is sincere questioning or an attempt to purposefully derail a conversation. What we can discern from a pattern of whataboutery is that it is never an act of good faith towards the individual making the initial argument. It is always used as a means to offend, put down an argument, or shame the person who puts forth the argument. It boxes people into agreeing with a different perspective out of fear of sounding ‘wrong,’ thereby taking away space from the initial perspective they were trying to offer.
Sometimes, the person engaging in whataboutery may raise a valid argument for inclusion, or poke holes in a non-inclusive argument. But, when people deliberately choose an out-of-scope, hostile counter-argument, it tends to make discourse chaotic rather than further it. Whataboutery may be an eye-catching, aggressive way to put forth your argument, but it ensures that only accusations pile up while progress and changing mindsets are both side-lined. And when progress is side-lined, nothing changes.