This term, “whataboutism,” has been cropping up more and more lately. Apparently the Americans accused the Soviets of this “propaganda tactic” during the Cold War. Supposedly the Americans would accuse the Soviets of human rights violations (try not to laugh!) and then the Soviets would respond with something like, “And you are lynching black people.” The Americans then accused the Soviets of dodging the issue while tacitly admitting guilt of whatever they were accused of. This became known as whataboutism.
Whataboutism is an informal logical fallacy, also known as tu quoque (Latin for “you too”). It is also a natural reaction to blatant hypocrisy, but it’s not really whataboutism if you deny the accusations and THEN proceed to make your counterargument that the accuser is actually engaging in hypocrisy and/or psychological projection; that your accuser (not you) is guilty of the crimes, or something similar, that they accuse you of committing.
There is another fallacy that exists of drawing a moral equivalency (false equivalency) between the scale, purpose, or circumstances behind such seemingly immoral behavior on the part of individuals, or in this case, state actors. Regarding two ideological and geopolitical competitors we might ask: What are they fighting for? What are their goals? Who is the aggressor and who is the defender? Imperialist or anti-imperialist? Which state is fighting to expand an unjust and evil system (capitalism), and which is fighting for its antithesis, socialism? The answers to these questions make all the difference.
Of course we are interested in discovering the truth, but we are also interested in understanding values, motives, and ideologies which inform our political objectives.
Whataboutism is only a logical fallacy if the only goal is to get to the unvarnished truth of an accusation of immoral or criminal activity with no ulterior motives; but political and ideological battles are not fought over discovering the truth; they are fought in order to win greater influence for one’s own side. This quote from a Bloomberg article rightly points this out:
“As an appeal to fairness, and to correcting for an opponent’s biases, whataboutism is not a distraction tactic but an important weapon against a different propaganda technique, known as framing. In a point-scoring political debate, the side that succeeds in making its description of the situation stick is often the one that wins.” (https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-11-03/in-defense-of-some-whataboutism)
It will probably be virtually impossible to convince the other side, or the other side’s supporters, that you are completely innocent of the crimes you are accused of; and you might be foolish to allow your enemy to sustain an attack while you remain on the defensive. In fact, in a CIA manual on propaganda (Psychological Warfare by Paul M. A. Linebarger), the reader is cautioned to stay on the attack and rarely or selectively respond to the enemy’s propaganda claims, i.e., engage in counterpropaganda.
When it comes down to it, hysterical claims of “whataboutism” really amount to an effort to stay on the attack, deflect and ridicule criticism or attempts to put a spotlight on one’s own glaring hypocrisy. In fact, the United States has historically been keen to beat its opponents to the punch in its propaganda campaigns by framing or controlling the narrative. The US accuses others of the blatant crimes that it commits itself! I have referred to this as psychological projection, but actually I don’t think that term fits when it is done consciously and deliberately.