The invention of whataboutism

The invention of lying was once portrayed as the invention of God in a Hollywood flick, “The Invention of Lying”. The plot follows the fallout of a technical glitch at a bank that caused the protagonist in the flick to “invent” the art of lying. And when everybody started believing these comical lies, he went […]

The invention of lying was once portrayed as the invention of God in a Hollywood flick, “The Invention of Lying”. The plot follows the fallout of a technical glitch at a bank that caused the protagonist in the flick to “invent” the art of lying. And when everybody started believing these comical lies, he went from zero to hero and garners love, fame and success with this newfound power-by-creative-imagination.

The protagonist was nondescript and average but became an instant celebrity for his ability to commune with a “Man in the Sky”, imaginatively embellishing his narratives to make his points stick.

The motivation for his star-invention was to soothe the fears of his terminally ill mother who was terrified of simply disappearing into an eternal void of nothingness after death. So, he told her that when one dies, they don’t just disappear but go to a place in the sky where they lived forever in their very own mansion.

The movie was not a hit but it made some waves. It was a creative expression of that rebellious free spirit of humanism Hollywood fawns over rightly or wrongly. Rightly in that it celebrates the milestones of human intellectual emancipation while still prostrate before the Throne of the Almighty, and wrongly in that it panders to the weak metaphors of crackpot humanism.

In the Invention of Lying, religion was expressed as a euphemism for lying. There are many spiritual philosophies and many of them, especially the Abrahamics, claim the exclusivities of moral piety and intellectual rectitude. Now, how can all of them be right when all of them are wrong? It all depends on where you are standing, and whether you are willing to budge.

From where you stand, someone(s) is/are definitely lying about the deities they contrive and worship – yet from where someone else also stands, you must also be lying. The problem is – who knows enough to be able to convince all the rest?

It is interesting when nature replicates the patterns of human sociology in different aspects of human life. If religion is a euphemism for religion, throwing around the new word “whataboutism” is definitely less than a euphemism for hypocritical double-standards. You hear it these days everywhere especially with respect to the most burning public interest subjects around the world.

Whataboutism, as in “what about…?” denotes, in a pejorative sense, a procedure in which a critical question or argument is not answered or discussed, but retorted with a critical counter-question which expresses a counter-accusation.

From a logical and argumentative point of view it is considered a variant of the tu-quoque pattern, meaning ‘you too’, in Latin which is a term for counter-accusation, which in turn are considered a subtype of ad-hominem arguments.

According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, the term originated in the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1970s. Zimmer cites a 1974 letter published in The Irish Times where a certain history teacher complained about “the Whatabouts,” people who defended the IRA by pointing out supposed wrongdoings of their enemy. This has found new currency in the interrogation of geopolitical questions revolving around the sensitivities of morality and intellect.

Accusing someone of whataboutism, to me sounds like something a sore loser would do. When someone is so afraid of a technical knockout, they create or invent a nebulous cult capable of blurring the lines enough to justify action without reaction. The use of the term, in fact, prefaces a tacit acknowledgment of the counter accusation – you just don’t want it mentioned or thrown in your face, not that it is not true. Well, those who want to come to equity must come with clean hands. If you know you are not a saint, don’t accuse someone of not being one. The first thing they will look at, is the fact that you are no saint yourself. That is natural.

I’m not a lawyer, neither do I pride myself as a student of the law but I know enough about court proceedings to know that court processes accept arguments on the basis of judgments delivered in similar cases. That is legal whataboutism, the greatest qualification for any phenomenon.

The thing about throwing this term around is that it is also a damning self-indictment – in that, you actually do accept guilt for the counter-accusation, yet still want to reserve the right to judge.

The communication intent of this judgment is often to distract from the content of a topic in the form of a red herring. The goal may also be to question the justification for criticism and the legitimacy, integrity, and fairness of the critic, which can take on the character of discrediting the criticism, which may or may not be justified. That is where the double standards monster rears its head, and hypocrisy tries to hide its own.

Certain commentators defend the usage of whataboutism and tu quoque in certain contexts. Whataboutism, they argue, can provide necessary context into whether or not a particular line of critique is relevant or fair, and behaviour that may be imperfect by international standards may be appropriate in a given geopolitical neighbourhood.

Accusing an interlocutor of whataboutism can also in itself be manipulative and serve the motive of discrediting, as critical talking points can be used selectively and purposefully even as the starting point of the conversation. The deviation from them can then be branded as whataboutism, they say.

Both whataboutism and the accusation of it are forms of strategic framing and both have a framing effect – meaning that it’s very invention was meant, or at best, inadvertently created legitimacy for those who want to euphemise lying by calling it the discovery of God. That is those who invented and carelessly throw around the word “whataboutism”.

Like Jesus rightly said, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. If you are already a sinner, please don’t throw any stones. If you must, then know that you are throwing them into the market square.