Have you ever heard of whataboutism? Even if you haven't, you're guaranteed to have encountered it in your daily life, in the news, or on social media. Maybe you've even used it unconsciously yourself. It is, in short, a manipulation technique for unwelcome criticism that turns the focus elsewhere. As perfidious as it may be, you can quickly be caught off guard by it.
To safely counter such counter-arguments, I want to give you everything you need to know about whataboutism in this article. From the definition, to goals, the psychological effect and examples, to the best tips to counter it. Let's go.
Here is a short overview for you in advance:
Definition: What does Whataboutism mean?
Whataboutism (also called whataboutism) is a Argumentation techniqueThe response to a critical accusation is a distracting reference ("what about...?") to a grievance on the other side. The content of the reaction usually has nothing to do with the actual issue, but presents a good argument as inconsistent, ridiculous or hypocritical in the short term.
Whataboutism, then, is a type of argumentative manipulation with non-factual content.
Objectives: Why and when do people use whataboutism?
So, since the "whataboutist" answer is completely out of context in terms of content, it can hardly serve a factual discussion. So for what reasons and at what moments is the psychological defense mechanism resorted to?
Degradation and distraction
The aim of the argumentation technique is quite simply to make the questioner or the questioner's good Disparage or distract from argumentto take the wind out of his sails and at the same time dodge an unpleasant answer.
Escape from criticism, stress and responsibility
Whataboutism is typically used in situations where people are Being criticized or feeling criticized, in which they are stressed, in which they are confronted with information that contradicts their beliefs, in which they are Handle responsibility or in which they have their justify criticized behavior would like to
Through distracting bogus arguments, they try to get themselves "somewhat out of the line of fire" or artificially strengthen their own position in a discussion. Artificially, because they actually no more logical argument have. Instead of then dealing further with the situation, question or criticism, the discussion is steered to another, often less personal topic - or to another person who has made much worse mistakes.
The argumentative escape attempt is also not surprising. Before the whataboutism is pronounced, it usually comes to the affected persons cognitive dissonance, one as unpleasantly felt emotional state of a person, which is caused by thoughts and opinions that cannot be reconciled. In their desperation, they then grasp at the last straw to escape the situation.
Good to know: The rhetorical device of well poisoning (English equivalent: "Poisoning the well") is a similar technique in which someone presents hostile, distorted information about the opponent or the opponent's position on the debate in order to discredit, denigrate or ridicule the opponent in advance.
Psychology: How does whataboutism influence human thinking?
Why and how does the rhetorical maneuver work on the psychological level, when it actually has nothing to do with the topic of discussion as a rule? And what consequences does this have for discussions and other forms of conversations?
Whataboutism operates on the psychological level through the Compensation of cognitive dissonance, the Availability heuristic and the Confirmation bias.
With the help of deflecting criticism that contradicts existing beliefs, Whataboutism can mitigate incompatible thoughts and opinions, and in the best case, for a longer period of time. artificially maintain a coherent self-image.
The argumentation technique also works because of two, human tendencies. On the one hand I mean the Tendency to react to immediately available information and to let the original criticism fade into the background. On the other hand, the tendency to seek information that confirms one's own convictions.
Inhibition, undermining and politicization as a result of
If the argumentative manipulation attempt is not countered by the interlocutor, this usually has consequences for the discussion:
- Undermining critical thinking: Instead of analyzing and questioning the information, interlocutors are often led to accept the distraction of whataboutism as legitimate and ignore the original topic.
- Distorted focus: Permissive whataboutism causes people to lose focus on the real issue and distorts their perception of reality. The bogus arguments then often result in an unproductive, misleading and dishonest discourse.
- Politicization of factual issues: The unobjective distraction and constant pointing out of the mistakes or shortcomings of others often creates an atmosphere of mistrust. This makes factual discussions difficult and impairs the ability of the discussants to find solutions together.
Examples: What are good examples of whataboutism?
In a discussion, people like to resort to whataboutism as soon as they have no more logical arguments for the own position have ready.
This can happen consciously or unconsciously. But if it is clear even before a conversation begins that there are no logical and morally defensible arguments for one's own position, whataboutism is even used quite deliberately.
Here I would now like to present you with some examples of whataboutism in everyday life and in politics, so that you can recognize and expose it much more easily in the future.
Whataboutism in everyday life
We often encounter whataboutism when someone feels they need to be lectured or change something about their own behavior or beliefs. Here are some whataboutism examples that we may encounter regularly in our personal or professional lives:
"To reduce our CO2 emissions, we'd better shut down coal-fired power plants."... when it comes to the idea that the introduction of a speed limit could reduce CO2 emissions from traffic.
It is alluded to here that coal-fired power plants emit much more CO2 and that it would make more sense in terms of climate policy to start there. The fact is true, but it does not change the fact that a speed limit would also have a positive effect on the climate.. Whataboutism here is a diversionary attempt to not have to limit oneself for a better world.
"Hitler was a vegetarian, though."... in a heated debate about whether it is not better to be vegetarian or vegan life should.
This whataboutism is actually heard from time to time in discussions about meat consumption. The example is meant to suggest that vegetarians are bad people and one should rather not start at all with it. But you can certainly also think of enough evil meat eaters:inside, right? 😉 Apart from that was Hitler most likely not even vegetarian.
"And what about the left?"... when it comes to right-wing extremists being particularly prone to violence.
The Discussion topic is right-wing extremism - but to deflect criticism, this example of whataboutism is thrown around and reference is made to the fact that the other side is no better. The however, does not change the factthat right-wing extremists are particularly prone to violence.
Whataboutism in politics and the media
Whataboutism is also used quite obviously in political discussions, where people are seen by cameras and thus usually by millions of people - just as it is in social media. Here are some examples:
"So many people are wondering why the attorney general's office or the special counsel isn't looking into the many crimes of Hillary Clinton or Comey. 33,000 emails deleted?"... Donald Trump (via Twitter) in response to the FBI's investigation into his Russia affair.
Donald Trump is definitely a true "master of deflection" and the "but what about..." counter-question. When he gets into the closing line himself, as he did here and as he often does, he tries to with invented or comparatively harmless offenses of his political opponents:inside to cause irritation.
"But what about the rising crime rate?".... in a commentary on a news program's coverage of police violence.
Whatboutism in the media is not uncommon. In this example, a news story was about police violence. A possible rising crime rate does not, of course, constitute a logical reason for the police to become more violent. Once again, the bogus argument is only meant to create a distraction.
"All we talk about all the time is meat, we should talk about heating and housing just as much!"... Christian Lindner (FDP) in a climate protection debate on the climate impact of animal foods.
With this rhetorical maneuver, the FDP leader tried to steer the topic of the debate to other "climate killers". But the topic under discussion was animal-based foodstuffs. There around 69 percent of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions in Germany are attributable to the consumption of animal-based foods₁, are the vegetarian diet or the Veganism the greatest levers for a more climate-friendly everyday life.
"As long as these Greens are cutting down the rainforest for tofu sausages and avocado toast, they have no say at all in this country for our farmers."... Tilman Kuban (Junge Union) in his speech at the CDU party conference about the climate and environmentally friendly vegan diet.
The politician Tilman Kuban alludes here to the fact that for avocados and Soy the rainforest cut down is becoming. First, about 77 percent of the world's soybean harvest ends up as animal feed for the Factory farming.₂ On the other hand, "the others have to change before I change" is a rather childish argument. So here is the whataboutism not only distracting, but also based on misinformation.
6 Tips: How can I counter, expose and counter Whataboutism?
Whataboutism can extremely hinder or even end an honest and open discussion. It is therefore important to recognize the argumentation technique quickly and to counter it confidently.
Often, such an off-topic counter-argument cannot even be denied, since its content corresponds to the truth. Be aware, however, that in this context it is merely a pseudo-argument that is largely worthless in the context of the specific discussion and definitely not useful. Those who use whataboutism are usually not (anymore) able to argue professionally.
Therefore, I would like to give you a few tips that you can use to expose and counter whataboutism.
1. stay on topic
Focusing on the topic of discussion is the best remedy for whataboutism. So insist that adequately clarify the original topic or question. Make it clear that this is an attempt at deflection.
2. ask "Why not?" counter-question
Questions are an effective way to expose whataboutism. So ask questions that are designed to Question relevance of the new topic to the original topic. Here are two examples: "Why shouldn't we introduce the speed limit?" or "Shouldn't we introduce the speed limit then more than ever?".
3. use logic, information and facts
Try to counter whataboutism logically and fact-based. The better you are informed about the topic being discussed and prepared for the discussionthe more effectively you can counter whataboutism.
4. recognize and name the tactics
Direct confrontation with whataboutism can also be helpful. Name the rhetorical maneuver for what it is: a diversionary tactic. Make it clear that this type of argument cannot help solve the problem under discussion.
5. move away from the idea of perfection
Whataboutism often benefits from the assumption that one must behave perfectly. However, it is human to make mistakes and there is always room for improvement. Instead of expecting perfection, we should be looking for constructive Accept criticism and focus on continuous learning and growth.
Tip: This is important, for example, when someone uses the argument "You can't be 100 percent vegan at allso I won't even start" in order to avoid responsibility. I'll explain why it's illogical in the linked blog post.
6. demand responsibility and be a positive example for others.
Invite your counterpart to be a role model for other people and especially your own children and grandchildren - and Take responsibility for the original subject, instead of diverting attention to other things.
Of course, exemplify the desired values yourself. Don't point the finger at others, but rather rather show them how positive change works practically. Because together is always better than against each other.
Those who resort to whataboutism agree with you
If someone should once again obviously use whataboutism, you can usually regard this as confirmation that your counterpart cannot think of any (more) logical arguments for his concern. Your own position gains in strength as a result and you can take advantage of the momentto convince other people of your personal position through a clever counterattack.
"The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress."Joseph Joubert (more at Personality Quotes)
I hope that I could bring you a little bit closer to Whataboutism, its peculiarities and how to deal with it in this article. Do you have any questions or suggestions? Or can you think of other tips for countering? Then just write me a comment.
Stay informed and factual,
PS: I myself keep running into whataboutism when it comes to veganism. In the article Convince meat eaters:insideI will give you some logical arguments to win other people to the side of justice, mercy and compassion towards animals.
₁ German Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (BLE): Wie klimaschädlich sind tierische Lebensmittel? (as of 16.11.2022) available at https://www.landwirtschaft.de/diskussion-und-dialog/umwelt/wie-klimaschaedlich-sind-tierische-lebensmittel. [30.05.2023].
₂ Albert Schweitzer Foundation for Our Environment: Why Soy Sausage Doesn't Harm the Rainforest (Accessed 01 Jun. 2018). https://t1p.de/jzvz. [30.05.2023].