They say you learn something new every day. Last week I learnt a new term “Whataboutism” aka “Whataboutery”. This was a term that was coined by The Economist to describe a device that was regularly deployed by the spin masters of the Soviet Union to deflect any criticism of the Soviet State. If, for example, a person asserted the fact that the Soviet economy was in trouble, the response would be a statement that commenced with “What about the Great Depression when the American economy collapsed and people suffered unemployment, poverty and death? Why don’t you talk about that?” It is a device that highlights the apparent hypocrisy or double standard of an opponent without directly addressing or refuting that opponent’s initial argument. For that reason, it is defined as a logical fallacy, because it relies on distracting an opponent or an audience without addressing the truth or falsehood of the main argument.
Whataboutism did not die with the Soviet Union, it is alive and well and with us today in local, regional and international affairs. When, for example, the United States or other Western governments bemoan the human rights track record of an African government, it is not uncommon to hear the response “Well, what about Guatanamo Bay?” When African leaders are criticised for looting their people’s funds and leaving them to languish in poverty, the response often is “What about Switzerland which keeps the stolen money? Why don’t they say anything about that?”
Sometimes Whataboutism takes on a tinge of ad hominem attacks. The message is attacked not for its content but because its bearer is said to be unqualified to convey such a message. The most dramatic and popular illustration of this variation in Uganda is the question “You [sic], where were you when we were fighting and shedding blood to liberate this country?”
Taken to its logical conclusion Whataboutism shuts everybody up because only those who have said or done something about everything can say something about anything. If you said or did nothing about Obote or Amin, Whataboutists suggest that you do not have a right to say anything about any subsequent government. If you have said nothing about the wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or the DRC, Whataboutists contend that you do not have the right to say anything about Gaza. In fact you are not allowed to speak about the unconscionably high death and injury toll amongst the civilians of Gaza without first answering a long checklist of “what abouts”, ranging across history and geography.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to play naïve here. I know that there is plenty of hypocrisy in public affairs and I am not trying to condone it. I am just saying that there is plenty of space for that hypocrisy to be called out without using it – ironically, in an act of double hypocrisy – to drown out legitimate comment on matters of genuine human concern. If comment or concern about something required a comment and concern about everything, nothing would ever get done. Take the case of Apartheid in South Africa. If comment and concern about apartheid was predicated on comment and concern about the bad governance that was raging across the Continent, where Blacks were oppressing fellow Blacks, apartheid would have still been with us today.
Abuses of human rights and violations of basic human norms, leave aside national or international law, should always be called out for what they are – wrongs. As Malcolm X said, “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” If you have not said or done anything about some other wrongs, don’t be cowed or derailed by the Whataboutists for as David Cameron said, “The fact that you cannot do the right thing everywhere does not mean that you should not do the right thing somewhere.”