Those who’ve decorated their social media accounts with Ukrainian flag decals but had nothing at all to say about the U.S.-sponsored Saudi genocide in Yemen these past eight years get really annoyed when they’re reminded of this inconsistency. These same people want the international community to shun and isolate Russia, but can’t say whether the United States deserves the same punishment for its numerous 21st century war crimes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya.
We have a word for people like this: hypocrites. They claim to be antiracist, but clearly value Ukrainian lives above Yemeni ones. They claim to be anti-imperialist, but aren’t prepared for their home country to suffer the same consequences for its own murderous imperial conquests that they now wish to inflict upon Putin’s Russia.
Luckily for those who hold these ethically irreconcilable views, their thought leaders have created a word that exonerates them from their own hypocrisy, and instead places the blame on those who criticize them for it: whataboutism.
Because of its peculiar etymology, it’s difficult to know exactly when the term came into being, but linguist Benjamin Zimmer credits its current widespread usage to a blog post by Edward Lucas inThe Economiston October 29, 2007. The subject of the piece, oddly enough, was Cold War-era Russia. In the article, Lucas describes whataboutism as a tactic employed by the Soviet Union to excuse their own transgressions.
A slightly less bonkers approach by the Kremlin’s useful idiots was to match every Soviet crime with a real or imagined western one. It was called “whataboutism”: “So you object to Soviet interventions in eastern Europe? Then what about the American assault on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas?” “You mind about Soviet Jews? Then what about blacks in South Africa?”
As you can see, the word whataboutism was popularized by Western chauvinists to shut down any debate over whether or not America has the moral credibility to condemn Russian aggression.
According to whataboutism, any mention of hypocrisy is an illegitimate defense against accusations of wrongdoing. This is a convenient dynamic for those hip to the workings of “whataboutist” discourse, but of course, logically, it’s completely absurd.
Take the following example: Student A accuses Student B of copying his test answers, and Student B reminds Student A that he copied Student C’s test answers last week. Student A accuses Student B of “whataboutism,” rendering his own past offenses irrelevant.
Now let’s suppose that Student B made the first accusation. Student B accuses Student A of copying Student C’s test answers. Student A responds by accusing Student B of copying histest answers. Student B can now accuse Student A of the same “whataboutism” that he himself was guilty of in the former example.
In each of these cases, the timeline of events is identical: last week Student A copied off of Student C, and this week Student B copied off of Student A. The only difference in each of the above scenarios is who made the initial accusation.
During the 2016 election, supporters of Donald Trump would often respond to allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump by citing Hillary Clinton’s alleged bullying and shaming of her husband’s victims.
In different dinner table arguments, Trump supporters would cite Hillary’s mistreatment of Bill’s “bimbos” (the Clinton campaign’s own categorization, not mine), and Democrats would respond by citing the numerous alleged sexual offenses of Donald Trump.
In the first example, Trump supporters are guilty of whataboutism. In the second, the Hillary supporters. Of course, the truth to any nonpartisan observer is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both repugnant human beings who lack the moral authority to criticize each other’s record on matters of sexual abuse.
Therefore, whataboutism as a concept is utterly meaningless. It’s nothing more than a made-up word that hypocrites use to gaslight whoever calls them on their bullshit.
The hypocrisy of the United States on matters of imperialism and militarism poses not just a moral problem, but a practical one. If we actually want to hold Russia to account for its war crimes against the Ukrainians, then we should also expect to be held responsible for our own war crimes in recent years. How would that happen? What would that look like? How would our government respond to being made a global pariah ourselves? And in the aftermath of such a conflict, would our country be at all recognizable?
These are impossible questions to answer, and undesirable ones to ponder for those who most fervently insist on further escalating the ongoing violence in Ukraine. But they’re perfectly legitimate questions to ask, and no accusations of “whataboutism” should manipulate us into believing otherwise. The word itself is as empty as those who weaponize it.