Whataboutism (also known as whataboutery) is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument, which is particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used this tactic all the time. If a western nation brought criticism for human rights abuses etc., instead of defending their position, they would throw out a criticism of the west, like, “What about South African apartheid?” or “What about United States civil rights abuses?” Of course, this tactic is logically flawed. You do not answer the critiques against your position by claiming that someone else does the same thing. At a fundamental moral level, we all know two wrongs don’t make a right.
In addition, most often the counter accusation is not a direct comparison of the initial critique. Unfortunately, whataboutism is not a relic of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin uses this tactic all the time—and sadly so does Mr. Trump (as this March 2017 NPR article carefully details). Regrettably, the logically flawed and morally dangerous tactic has now found its way into the mainstream collective. You see this tactic used on social media all the time. The pattern looks like this: There is some breaking story about a bad policy decision or performance from someone who is perceived as a member or supporter of one party followed by faux outrage from those of the opposing party followed by the weak, logically flawed defense of whataboutism from the first party. “Sure, I am not supportive of my candidate biting off the ear of a child but how is that any different than when your candidate drowned puppies?”
What a farce! In a society based more on morality than political identity we would of course denounce all biting of ears and all drowning of puppies. Whataboutism is a result of our tragic tribalism. The danger in this is that tribalism views the world as a zero-sum game. If you win, I lose. It becomes less of which perspective will we chose to solve our problems and more of a blood sport to blame all problems on the opposing tribe. It blinds us to the real issues, warps our reality and makes defeating the opposing tribe the only goal! Clearly whataboutism fits in this framework but is morally weak and logically pathetic.
We all have a responsibility to not engage in whataboutism and frankly, call it out. What we need to replace tribalism and whataboutism is a deep sense of shared morality, a compelling narrative that unites us and does not divide us. I’m not sure what this yet but we can all work to that end. Until then we’d all do well to let whataboutism die.