Pussy hats galore! In their sceptical view of the mass demonstrations after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the likes of Piers Morgan and Sarah Vine suggested that the millions of female protestors across the Western world should reconsider their priorities: what about Saudi Arabia? Down with these apologists, shrieked the feminists, for using such diversionary tactics.
According to an online dictionary (en.oxforddictionaries.com), whataboutery is ‘the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue’. Joel Patterson, on Freedomain Radio, sees it as a tendency of the Left: ‘You bring up a criticism of something, like say Islamic terrorism, and instead of having your criticism evaluated, accepted or rebutted, someone completely bypasses everything that you had just said with a ‘what about’ statement’. An example from that side of the ideological divide occurs whenever Muslim homophobia is mentioned. ‘But what about the Bible?’
Such whataboutery presents a false equivalence. Just as critics of Western foreign policy imply that ISIS is no more barbaric than the USAF, a fundamentalist creed that throws gay men off tall buildings in the name of its prophet is no worse in principle than opposition to same-sex marriage. This is deflection, and it can be irritatingly obstructive.
Yet whataboutery may be more fairly attributed to conservatives. It’s a repeated jibe against anyone criticising ‘progressive’ ideas below Guardian articles. Typically, such questions are meant to expose hypocrisy, but the defence works because it undermines the intelligence of the critic. On feminist website Standard Issue, Hannah Dunleavy attacked ‘whatabout’ arguments as ‘a go-to for people who don’t want to engage in the conversation but don’t want anyone else to either’.
Here’s six ‘whatabouts’ from our side (feel free to add more below).
Fascists killed millions. What about Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot?
The Crusades were a savage attack on Islam. What about the massacres by Genghis Khan?
Slavery was a hideous abuse of Africans by white men. What about the Moor pirates?
Tory toffs had a privileged education. What about all those Labour politicians?
Thatcher destroyed the mining industry. What about the mines closed under Harold Wilson?
Muslims are the most frequent victims of hate crime. What about anti-Semitism?
All of the above make a legitimate point. But social conservatives should understand that whataboutery is not the most effective debating tactic. It’s a passive act, missing the opportunity for more strident argument. When my students pose questions in an essay, I tell them in the margin: ‘Don’t ask questions; answer them’. Too easily a whatabout challenge is followed by obfuscation or red herrings. And sometimes it sounds like the ‘it’s not fair’ whine of a child.
A better response to the unchecked privilege and double standards of the metropolitan commentariat and social justice warriors is a thrust of contrary truth. In a debate on free speech at Policy Exchange, feminist pundit and failed comedienne Kate Smurthwaite monotonised on her personal experience of trolling. She had been subjected to misogynist abuse, sometimes laced with despicable rape-related remarks.
But Smurthwaite was overstating her case by defining online aggression as a sexist plot to chase women off the internet. In response, Douglas Murray did not ask ‘What about male victims?’ Instead, he confidently asserted that he gets considerably more frequent vitriol than Kate, including regular death threats. She was then struggling: she could hardly refute Douglas’ self-report, or argue that his murderous messages weren’t as bad as the Neanderthals on her Twitter feed.
Undoubtedly Kate Smurthwaite gets more than her share of sexist trolling. As does Jessica Valenti, the feminist who the Guardian revealed as the most abused of its regular commentators, in a report apparently confirming that female writers are treated worse than male counterparts. But Valenti gets gendered criticism because all she ever writes about is gender, often with outrageous lines about male oppression lurking in every corner. Simon Jenkins and George Monbiot don’t get so much, because they aren’t obsessed with gender politics. That’s not to excuse sexism, but there’s an element here of people in glass houses throwing stones. Context is crucial, and such detail is likely to be lost in simplistic whatabout exchanges.
Whataboutery has increased as a reaction to identity politics. Often it arises when a speaker unreasonably narrows the focus to a subgroup, neglecting the broader population affected by the phenomenon of interest. For example, white middle-class feminists who claim to pursue sex equality while sidestepping FGM as a cultural practice should be confronted with universal principle. Their selective targeting of the whitemale contributes to Muslim girls being afforded fewer rights than other members of society.
We should emphasise the implications and impact of hypocritical blind spots, not merely highlighting their existence. With a more punchy delivery, we can breach the shaky ramparts of relativism over and over again, until the whole edifice crumbles. What about it?