June 22, 2015
When an adult calls out a child for indulging in an objectionable (by the standards of the adult) behavior, say “Don’t slouch” or “Don’t pick your nose” and the child points out that the adult indulges in these and perhaps even more objectionable behaviors, the (often first and) ultimate response of the adult is to snap back and admonish the child for “talking back” and “to just do as told”.
The power equation here is clear: the adult does not need to explain themself. The child needs to just to do as told.
In a more religious context imagine that (the Judeo-Abrahamic conception of an omnipotent being called ) God came down to admonish humans for killing and a human points out that God kills far more through disease and floods and famine and a larger percentage of innocents like new born babies who could scarcely be accused of committing sin in this life.
One can imagine that if the human is not immediately smitten or turned into a pile of ashes, that even a charitable response would be that God’s actions are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals and must not be questioned. Indeed to do so has a term: Blasphemy.
What accusations of Whataboutism mean
Whataboutism is a Cold War term that Western propagandists use to shutdown down any discussion that not only points out
(a) the hypocrisy of their hectoring or accusations by analogy with similar (often worse) examples of the West’s own behavior; and
(b) tries to use the analogy as an attempt to make the Western propagandist understand the nuances of the accused actions in a framework that would be more familiar to the West.
That term has made a comeback as the current Russian government no longer meekly accepts haranguing from their Western counterparts without reference to the West’s far worse behavior and indeed provocation of the issue at hand to begin with.
Whataboutism as an Admonishment
Similar to how an adult admonishes a child for “Talking back” or the Judeo-Abrahamic god (or “His” earthly agent) would accuse a human of blasphemy in questioning “His” word, so is it with Whataboutism.
It is the rejection of not just an imperfect analogy – that the action that the child is committing is in some material way different from that committed by the adult – but in a deeper sense, the rejection of the moral standing of the accused to make such an analogy.
After all, there can be no equivalence between an adult and a child; or (if one is religious) a god and Human. Even engaging in such a discussion establishes a sense of equivalence and thus there can be no discussion by those who are clearly superior with those that are clearly inferior.
Examples of Usage of Whatboutism
Russia can be breathlessly be accused of spying, “invading” or “bullying” other countries, military sabre rattling, sanctions list, a “foreign agent” law and on on.
When one points out Western spying is magnitudes more sophisticated, pervasive; that even if one accepts the Western establishment view that Russian “invaded Crimea” given that the population overwhelmingly welcomed becoming Russian, it bears no resemblance to the Shock and Awe invasions of US-led coalitions far from home of populations who far from welcoming foreign troops fought them tooth and nail with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, millions of refugees and infrastructure bombed back to the stone age; that the U.S. – as Obama candidly admitted – twists the arms of even its “allies” let alone neutrals, using its formidable economic and legal clout; that NATO, a force whose budget is a magnitude larger than the Russians and who have bombed countries that posed it no threat has expanded beyond any rationale (opposed by experienced American Cold Warriors) and conducts war games right on Russia’s borders; that the U.S. has a Foreign Agent law of its own (which was the inspiration for Russia’s including the terminology); all this is dismissed by Western punditry as Whataboutism.
Origins in American Exceptionalism
In the United States, the view of American Exceptionalism in the sense of an almost Biblical dominion over the Earth as blessed by the Judeo-Abrahamic god, is drilled from birth and propagated by every pronouncement by American leaders, celebrities and media. Hence the casual unquestioned mentions in U.S. discourse of “Leader of the Free World”, “World Policeman”, “We’re Number One” are more than slogans: they represent the ethos that the U.S. like the Judeo-Abrahamic god is beyond any judgment by the mere mortals who make up 95% of the rest of humanity.
In this World View “talking back” to the U.S. Government’s lecturing and fairly obvious hypocrisy must be suppressed and the offending party discredited.
Whataboutism is a cowardly, agitprop term introduced in the Cold War and used by Western propagandists to deflect the obvious hypocrisy of the agitprop, with a complete refusal to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the accused “talking back” or using an analogy to explain actions that the Western propagandist finds objectionable.