“Why did you fail in Geography?” the questioning would begin, with me in the hot seat like Mark Zuckerberg. My parents and relatives were everyone else, taking turns to destroy me.
“But dad, what about the fact that the entire class failed?” I would ask. I had no clue where oranges were growing in Maharashtra but even as a 10-year-old, I had mastered the classic Soviet tactic of “whataboutery”, or deflecting the problem by raising another problem, that the New Yorker labelled as “a strategy of false moral equivalences”. If everyone failed then it became acceptable for you also to fail. You don’t have to deal with the larger problem of being poor in the subject if you can raise suspicion over the evil Geography teacher itself. How could she fail everyone?
Make no mistake, I wasn’t the only one in my family doing it. We engage in whataboutery every day, all the time. The other day I was pointing out how dad’s stock investments were tanking like Ravindra Jadeja’s career and his quick comeback was “But what about the windfall profit we made in 2006?” Well, dad, it’s no longer 2006. Mom is a lot subtler and goes for the emotional punch. “But what about all the years that I’ve sacrificed for you? They count for nothing?” All I had just done was pointed out that the dal was missing some salt. If I ask my sister to get me something, her automated response is “Fuck off! What about that time when I asked you to get me XYZ?”
There are no socially acceptable comebacks to any of these statements.
Whataboutery dates back to the 1960s, as this piece headlined “Due West: ‘Whataboutism’ Is Back – and Thriving” points out. “It was used to ironically describe the Soviet Union’s efforts at countering Western criticism. To those who lambasted their human rights record the Soviets would reply with something along the lines of ‘What about America, where they lynch blacks?!’ or ‘What about your unemployment rate? Ordinary people in the US (or the UK or Germany) are denied the basic right to work and pay!’” Of course, this line of logic is familiar to anyone who has spent five minutes on Indian Twitter.
Whataboutery can solve everything. There isn’t a problem you cannot avoid – in politics, social life, crime or history – by bringing up another problem. Everyone from a social media troll to Donald Trump is on it these days. Lately, however, we’ve entered the dark side, plunging to the depths of human decency and moral behaviour.
Asifa’s case breaks your heart? But what about the Hindu girl in Assam? What about rapes by Maulanas? Oh the Unnao rape was by a BJP legislator? How about all the rapes that took place under the last 70 years of Congress rule?
Security issues with Aadhaar? But what about the Facebook data leak? Did you stop using Facebook after that? Communal riots have been on the rise? But what about 1984? What about Muzaffarnagar? Fraudsters are flying out of the country? But what about 2G? What about Coalgate? Certain channels are peddling fake news? But what about NDTV and Barkha with their campaigns to defame India?
Whataboutery is not merely an argument anymore – it’s a competition. It’s my hashtag vs your hashtag, my online army vs your online army. The way to ace it is to be aware of all reference points through which you can bring down your opponent.
Accusing people of selective outrage is the hallmark of great whataboutery. It is practically impossible for everyone to be connected all the time and equally outrage on every single issue in a way that the other side deems fit. So obviously, it is fertile ground for a takedown. “Oh where were you on the third Tuesday of March in 2003 when Ricky Ponting was batting with a spring in his willow?” they ask.
When in doubt, turn to the classics.
“Why didn’t you speak up in 1984?”
“Well I was born in 1992.”
“Ugh, fuck off.”
A faithful companion to whataboutery is the strawman argument, or the spiritedly refuting an argument that wasn’t presented in the first place. “Oh so you want free speech for college students? Then don’t complain when these students destroy the country and we have to give up Kashmir!”.
Another great strategy is to discredit the other side with a counter allegation to insinuate that they have no standing or moral right to ask questions. I might have done something horrid but you also did something bad in the past, which means that you lose all credibility for all time and forfeit the right to question me? Instead, let us both celebrate our inefficiency and mislead the population.
We don’t need intelligent debate and questioning because that runs the risk of exposing our shortcomings and failures. The whole point of whataboutery is to avoid a problem by pointing out a different problem. That way, neither problem gets solved and you win brownie points for your oratory skills.
Always remember, the goal of all whataboutery is to never get to the bottom of difficult questions – and to never ask the right ones.