What about "whataboutism"?

I’d been meaning to post this for a while, but only recently got around to it. Lately (as in, for the past several years…I don’t recall hearing the term more than, say, five years ago) there has been, if not a coining of, at least an increase in visibility of the term “whataboutism”. Unless I’m sorely mistaken, its usage is to dismiss charges that the same thing a certain party is accused of doing were done by someone else without objection in the past.

But…didn’t that sort of argument used to be considered a valid exposure of hypocrisy? When someone argues that a public figure should be fired/voted out/denied office because they did (or are accused of doing) X, and then someone points out that the same person defended the same behavior when it was done by someone on his side, is it not right to expose that person as a hypocrite, as someone who is simply using a principle as a tool toward advancing his own ends than a believer in the principle for its own sake, and therefore is not to be taken seriously as an advocate for that principle? How did this line of argument fall out of favor and become “whataboutism”?

I’ve usually heard whataboutism thrown at narrower topics than you outline in the OP. Specifically when someone, usually a white guy, tries to downplay an issue that affects either women or minorities, by asking “what about the handful of times it happens to [men|whites] too?” Or objecting to say, presuming that a murderer is male because women kill too - they do commit 9% of murders, after all.

What you’re talking about seems to more often be framed as “X do it too!” rather than whataboutism.

Sure, and still is. But hypocrisy is not always the central issue, and that’s where “whataboutism” comes in.

Sure. But very often, the form that the “pointing out” takes is not “Hey, you emphatically insisted that X was just fine when it was Your Guy who was doing it, so you’re being hypocritical!”, but rather “Hey, Your Guy did X too, you know! and I hope it won’t occur to you that in fact you criticized Your Guy for it as well, so you’re not actually being hypocritical at all!”
A lot of people hope that their whataboutism will be interpreted as an exposure of hypocrisy when it really isn’t.

Thinking about it further, I’ll also note that there’s a sort of “statute of limitations” even on hypocrisy, based on the changes in views and positions over time.

For example, if Democrats criticize Republicans for engaging in racially discriminatory gerrymandering today, the Republicans don’t get to retort “Well, you Democrats supported racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws back in the 1930s, so when you criticize us you’re just being hypocrites!”

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, and once somebody has officially and/or obviously repudiated their former position, then it’s no longer valid to hypocrite-check them using that repudiated position.

An accusation of hypocrisy does not address the issue on its merits, so can be just a form of ad hominem attack. On the other hand, depending on the circumstances, the exposure of hypocrisy may also be a justified appeal for fair and consistent application of legal or ethical standards to everyone.

I think an accusation of whataboutism tends to be raised when the claim of equivalence is weak or false, and when it’s really not a question of fairness and consistency. Whataboutism tends to imply raising a minor issue as a distraction from dealing with a major issue, an ad hominem charge of hypocrisy that’s intended to distract from the central issue rather than a genuine desire for fairness.

Especially since when the Democrats led the fight against this over 50 years ago, the racist Democratic politicians all became Republicans, and were welcome.

This. Whataboutism is when the speaker is masquerading as a champion of fairness, while advancing an ulterior motive.

I’ve seen Trump supporters seriously say Democrats are the real racists because the Dems want to keep minorities down (apparently to vote Democratic) and they then point out Lincoln, a Republican (Trump: “Not many people know that”), freed the slaves.

“whataboutism” is not really about pointing out hypocrisy. It is saying “squirrel!” hoping to distract the debate away from the point. And usually the distraction is minor.

My understanding regarding the rise of use of the claim is that it was more popularized on an episode of John Oliver’s show.

The word “whataboutism” came into my consciousness some decades ago in the context of the seeming stagnation of debate about Northern Ireland, which could often descend into each side’s litany of grievances against the other.

The same thing occurs in many another frozen conflict.

As a phenomenon, of course, it’s as old as human nature. In academic rhetoric and debate it can be known as “the tu quoque” (=“you likewise”).

Interestingly, the variant form “whataboutery” (more common AFAICT in British English) is said to date back to the 1970s while “whataboutism” is from the 1990s.

Whataboutism is sometimes a valid argument, but is just as often itself a distraction tactic.

Suppose that X is arguing against A, which has some cost. The other party, Y, brings up B, which also has some cost. X says “whataboutism” in response.

Let’s suppose for the moment that A has a cost of a million dollars and B a thousand dollars. A is right to bring up whataboutism; the cost of B is so trivial that the only point to bringing it up is as a false equivalence.

Suppose B has a cost of a million dollars. X is still right to bring up whataboutism–although A and B are on the same scale of damage, the topic is A. Maybe B is a problem too, but bringing it up is just trying to change the topic.

Suppose B has a cost of a billion dollars, and furthermore A and B are at least somewhat related things (corporate subsidies, for instance). In that case, A’s claims of whataboutism are themselves a cheap tactic. If B is really that higher a cost, then really it’s arguing against A that is petty and a distraction from B. Y is at least potentially bringing up a legitimate double standard, and whataboutism is a weak defense from X.

I’ve generally seen whataboutism used as a debating tactic when Russian misdeeds are brought up. The first response is generally to try to find some examples of “America does it too”

Normally this is used as a deflection tactic, the implication being that it is not bad if both sides do it. Thing is, it tends to come up so fast and so regularly that it looks almost like arguing from a script.

However, I have read arguments that the Russians see the world as expressions of power, where such things are the natural rights of great powers. So if other powers, do it that would in this paradigm make it not bad.

Anecdotally, I do remember that it was used so much in the Soviet days that a program on Three Mile Island on Russian TV would lead to considerable worry among people who lived near nuclear power plants, as they just assumed that meant there was a radioactive leak somewhere.

Oliver may have popularized (but I doubt he originated) the descriptor “whataboutism”, but it’s based in part on the clip he showed of Sean Hannity asking “what about…” and citing a bunch of names that seem superficially relevant (but actually are not).

If anything, I’d say Hannity was engaged in the political equivalent of a Gish Gallop.

It’s a bumper sticker, and a low level one at that, which explains Oliver’s involvement. Dismissing something by using the term “whataboutism” is a far worse offense than stretching to mark something as hypocrisy.

“Whatabout the poor people being accused of whataboutism?”!

I’d have gone with China, but basically this. Really, any discussion about any other country, good or ill generally has many posts whatabout’ing the US in there somewhere. It’s practically impossible to have a discussion on this board that doesn’t bring the US into it in one way or another. That’s the most noticeable whataboutism to me, probably because it annoys me so much.

Yep, this!

It’s particularly tiresome because the farther you get from the object of your ‘whataboutism’, the less objectively true the hypocrisy becomes. Are there people who are treating the current Kavanaugh issue very differently than they treated WJ Clinton? Probably. Are some of those reasons because the details of the stories are different? Probably. Are some of those reasons partisan/political? Probably. Are some of those reasons also that in the 27 years since then their positions have changed, and the position of the nation/culture itself has changed? Probably.

Unwavering charges of hypocrisy between similar behaviors decades apart is just not a compelling argument.

Not only that, but “the Democrats” and “the Republicans” are an ever changing group of humans. I’m almost 40, and, like over 1/2 of the US population, I am not old enough to have been able to have the option to vote for Bill Clinton. So calls of “Democratic party hypocrisy” fall pretty darned flat.

I’m not sure why a new term is needed. It is simply a tu quoque ad hominem logical fallacy.

Example: Oh, all you Democrats believe Christine Blasey Ford, but why didn’t you believe Paula Jones and Kathleen Willy when Clinton was being accused?

It is irrelevant. The debate is why should we/should we not believe Ford, not whether Person A is consistent in their beliefs.