What is “whataboutism”?
Oxford Dictionaries defines it as:
The technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.
An example of this Soviet propaganda technique is when a headline that reads “The Hagia Sophia should remain a museum” is met with the comment, “What about the ‘cathedral mosque’ in Cordoba?” or “What about the mosques that Israel turned into bars and nightclubs?”
Although allowing freedom of worship in both Spain and Israel should be areas of concern, it has little to do with converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Focusing on a problem in Istanbul (“here”) by pointing to a problem in Cordoba or Jerusalem (“over there”) is avoiding the discussion of that problem “here.” This is also referred to as a false moral equivalence.
“Whataboutism,” in this context, is used to evade the original discussion altogether and to indict another person for their views.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary adds that “whataboutism” is “a tactic to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.”
According to Dictionary.com, “whataboutism” is considered “a form of the logical fallacy called tu quoque, Latin for ‘you also’ – more like ‘And so are you!’ in contemporary speech. The idea, here, is that a person charged with some offense tries to discredit the accuser by charging them with a similar one or bringing up a different issue altogether – none of which is relevant to the original accusation.”
For these reasons, “whataboutism” may pose as a threat to healthy and functioning democracies. Writing for Democratic Erosion, Gianpaulo Pons states:
Whataboutism is not only an issue for debates and clarity, but it can have some lasting effects on democracy. When media organizations and political elites use whataboutism, it justifies viewers’ perception and adoption of the technique. The only way to combat this is by calling out the hypocrisy and sticking to the original question. If both parties use this willingly, however, then little to no political, social, or economic progress can be made because there will always be something to say “what about” to.
It is also worth nothing that there is a fine line between “whataboutism” and “double standard,” as Simplicable points out:
A double standard is the unfair application of different sets of rules for different situations. For example, if it was okay for all politicians to lie than accusing a politician of lying would be a double standard. This is very different from whataboutism that suggests that a wrong can’t be wrong because of some other wrong.
Wherever you stand on the Hagia Sophia issue, we all need to avoid the black hole of “whataboutism-arguments.”
Just let people struggle for the causes they are passionate about.