Have you ever heard of whataboutism? Even if you haven't, you're guaranteed to have come across it at some point in your everyday life, in the news or on social media. You may even have used it yourself unconsciously. In short, it's a manipulation technique for unwelcome criticism that directs your focus elsewhere. As perfidious as it may be, it can quickly take you by surprise.
In this article, I would like to provide you with everything you need to know about whataboutism to counter such counterarguments with confidence. From the definition, objectives, psychological effects and examples to the best tips for countering them. Let's go!
Here is a brief overview for you in advance:
Definition: What does Whataboutism mean?
Whataboutism (also called whataboutism) is a Argumentation techniquein which one responds to a critical accusation with 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 in dispute, but makes a good argument look 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?
Since the "whataboutist" answer is therefore completely out of context in terms of content, it can hardly serve a factual discussion. So for what reasons and at what moments do people resort to the psychological defense mechanism?
Degradation and distraction
The aim of the argumentation technique is quite simply to make the questioner or the questioner's good To belittle or distract from the 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 criticizedin which they are stressed, in which they are confronted with information that contradicts their convictions, in which they Handle responsibility or in which they have their justify criticized behavior would like to.
They try to get themselves "slightly out of the line of fire" or artificially strengthen their own position in a discussion by using distracting bogus arguments. Artificially, because they are actually no more logical argument have. Instead of dealing further with the situation, question or criticism, the discussion is then diverted to another, often less personal topic - or to another person who has made even 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 unpleasant emotional stateof a person caused by irreconcilable thoughts and opinions. In 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 an opponent or their position in a debate in order to discredit, denigrate or ridicule them in advance.
Psychology: How does whataboutism influence human thinking?
Why and how the rhetorical maneuver works on a psychological level, when it generally has nothing to do with the topic of discussion? And what consequences does this have for discussions and other forms of conversation?
Whataboutism operates on the psychological level through the Compensation of cognitive dissonance, the Availability heuristic and the Confirmation bias.
By deflecting criticism that contradicts existing beliefs, whataboutism can mitigate irreconcilable thoughts and opinions and, in the best-case scenario, make them last longer. 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 allow the original criticism to fade into the background. Secondly, the tendency to look for information that confirms one's own convictions.
Inhibition, undermining and politicization as a result of
If an attempt at argumentative manipulation 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 tempted to accept the distraction of whataboutism as legitimate and ignore the original topic.
- Distorted focus: Admitted whataboutism causes people to lose focus on the actual topic 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 other people's mistakes or shortcomings 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 their own position have ready.
This can happen consciously or unconsciously. However, if it is clear even before a conversation begins that there are no logical and morally justifiable arguments for one's own position, whataboutism is even used deliberately.
I would now like to give you some examples of whataboutism in everyday life and in politics so that you can recognize and expose it much more easily in future.
Whataboutism in everyday life
We often encounter whataboutism when someone has the feeling of being lectured to or having to change something about their own behavior or beliefs. Here are some examples of whataboutism that we may regularly encounter in our private or professional lives:
"In order to reduce our CO2 emissions, we should rather shut down the coal-fired power plants."... when it comes to the fact that the introduction of a speed limit could reduce CO2 emissions from traffic.
This alludes to the fact 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 doesn't change the fact that a speed limit would also have a positive effect on the climate. Whataboutism is an attempt at distraction in order to avoid having to limit oneself for a better world.
"Hitler was a vegetarian, though."... in a heated debate about whether it would be better to be vegetarian or vegan life should.
This whataboutism can actually be heard from time to time in discussions about meat consumption. The example is intended to suggest that vegetarians are evil people and it's better not to start at all. But you can certainly think of enough bad meat eaters, can't you? 😉 Apart from that Hitler most likely not even a 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 it is pointed out that the other side is no better. The however, does not change the fact thatthat right-wing extremists are particularly prone to violence.
Whataboutism in politics and the media
Whataboutism is also obviously used in political discussions, where people are seen by cameras and therefore usually also by millions of people - as well as in social media. Here are a few examples:
"So many people are wondering why the attorney general's office or the special counsel is not looking into the many crimes committed by 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, as here and as so often, he himself gets caught in the closing line, 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 comment on a report on police violence in a news program.
Whatboutism in the media is not uncommon. In this example, a news program was about police violence. A possible rise in the crime rate is of course no logical reason for the police to become more violent. The bogus argument is once again only intended to create a distraction.
"We only talk about meat all the time, we should talk about heating and living 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 shift the focus of the debate to other "climate killers". But the topic under discussion was animal-based foods. Because around 69 percent of food-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 nothing to say to our farmers in this country."... Tilman Kuban (Junge Union) in his speech at the CDU party conference on the climate and environmentally friendly vegan diet.
The politician Tilman Kuban is alluding to the fact that avocados and Soy the rainforest cut down becomes. On the one hand, around 77 percent of the global soy harvest ends up as animal feed for the Factory farming.₂ Secondly, "the others have to change before I change" is a pretty childish argument. So here's 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 counterargument cannot even be denied, as it is true in terms of content. However, be aware that in this context it is merely a sham argument that is largely worthless and definitely not useful in the context of the specific discussion. Those who use whataboutism are usually not (or no longer) in a position to argue professionally.
I would therefore like to give you a few tips on how to expose and counter whataboutism.
1. stay on topic
Focusing on the topic of discussion is the best remedy for whataboutism. So insist that clarify the original topic or question appropriately. 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 the 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 then introduce the speed limit all the more?".
3. use logic, information and facts
Try to counter whataboutism logically and fact-based. The better informed you are about the topic and the better prepared you are 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 contribute to solving the problem under discussion.
5. move away from the idea of perfection
Whataboutism often benefits from the assumption that you have to behave perfectly. However, it is human to make mistakes and there is always room for improvement. Instead of expecting perfection, we should be 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'm not even going to start" in order to shirk responsibility. I explain why this is illogical in the linked blog post.
6. demanding responsibility and being a positive example for others
Invite your counterpart to be a role model for other people and, above all, their own children and grandchildren - and Taking responsibility for the original topic, instead of diverting attention to other things.
Of course, exemplify the desired values yourself. Don't point the finger at others, but rather show them how positive change works in practice. Because together is always better than against each other.
Anyone who resorts to whataboutism agrees with you
If someone once again obviously uses whataboutism, you can usually see this as confirmation that your counterpart can no longer come up with any logical arguments for their concerns. As a result, your own position gains strength and you can take advantage of the momentto convince other people of your personal position with 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 this article has given you a better understanding of whataboutism, its peculiarities and how to deal with it. Do you have any questions or suggestions? Or can you think of any other tips for countering? Then just write me a comment.
Stay informed and objective,
PS: I myself keep coming across whataboutism when it comes to veganism. In the article Convince meat eatersI will give you some logical arguments to win other people over to the side of justice, mercy and compassion towards animals.
₁ Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE): How harmful are animal-based foods to the climate? (as at: 16.11.2022) available at https://www.landwirtschaft.de/diskussion-und-dialog/umwelt/wie-klimaschaedlich-sind-tierische-lebensmittel. [30.05.2023].
₂ Albert Schweitzer Stiftung für unsere Mitwelt: Why soy sausage does not harm the rainforest (as of 01.06.2018). https://t1p.de/jzvz. [30.05.2023].