What Is Whataboutery, and Why Does It Plague Discourse?


Jul 14, 2020


Image Credit: Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle/Istock

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.

Related on The Swaddle:

What Is Concern Trolling And How to Deal With People Who Do It

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.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.

  1. Olaf Egbers

    I agree completely with this explanation about the whataboutery and found this article very interesting.
    This example is a bad one though. Would someone talk about the sexual assaults of only red haired women? Would someone talk about the sexual assault of only white women? I think if I did that, it would leave you with the question why I only want to have the focus on this specific group of people and why I exclude some people. Why am I excluding the other women with different hair colors? Why am I excluding the other women with different skin colors? If you asked these questions, I could then argue that you are using whataboutery because I only want to talk about these specific groups of people. With this technique I could exclude all groups of people and if you rightly question my attitude, I could accuse you of using whataboutery and continue talking about only the selection that I have made.

    If I care about people’s well-being, I do. The fact that I have now artificially divided people into some categories that I care about more says more about me then about the people that try to make me aware of my personal selection.

    I could reflect why I think it is more important to talk more about some people rather than other people. Or I could then argue and say that it’s because the women with red hairs are statistically being assaulted the most. In this case I may use a whataboutery myself to avoid self reflection and to distract from my personal views and selection, which have been the topic before.

    If you haven’t already done so, please read this comment again and exchange white women with women and differently colored women with men.
    Yea, it would be too bad if we just cared about other humans. And it would be too bad if we went through this together instead of in groups.

  2. Franklyme

    I have come across on many occassions the unneccessary diversion of discussion due to whatabouteries. To be frank, untill i read the article i dint know that such a concept exists. One of the ways to avoid interruptions is to clearly define the boundaries of the subject matter and combining it with the importance of looking at the matter at hand in depth rather than widening the boundaries by including the whatabouts


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