Right now, the media is flooded with two burning issues: Covid-19 and the #BlackLivesMatter protests. Let's say you shared something related to the latter on social media. Someone comments, "What about coronavirus?" and criticises you for worrying about an American issue while people are dying of a pandemic in Bangladesh. This may or may not devolve into a comment war.
This category of fallacious arguments is known as whataboutism, and one who performs it is called a whataboutist. In short, "whataboutism" is a device used to discredit and counter an argument by drawing attention to a similar or completely different topic, thus steering the discussion to an irrelevant lane. The term originated in the 70s, referring to PR tactics Soviet propagandists used during the Cold War.
Although this word is relatively new, it can be applied to many different scenarios. Maybe you're feeding the stray dogs in the neighbourhood. A random passerby will disapprove of you caring more for animals than human beings, when in reality, they probably have never fed the needy themselves.
Hypocrisy is a common trait among whataboutists; they don't really care about the issues they raise. They take pleasure in guilt-tripping people whose opinions they disagree with by forcing them to spare thoughts to another unrelated thing. Some whataboutists rear their ugly heads every time the news of a sexual assault goes viral. Instead of sympathising with the victim, they question that person's character, appearance and whereabouts. It's obvious how detrimental such remarks can be to the victim's already traumatised mental state, and to the purpose of bringing justice.
Whataboutism is also used to deflect an apology when the accused party points to similar or more egregious misconducts of the accusers rather than owning up. For instance, when someone's problematic behaviour is exposed on social media, that individual might call the accusers out for cyberbullying, failing to hold themselves accountable for their actions. Even worse if that individual provides doctored screenshots in an attempt to incriminate the accusers. These flimsy tactics to protect their bruised ego eventually do not help, as it leads to more backlash.
All of us are whataboutists—because we all make mistakes, and no one knows about everything. However, before starting a sentence with "what about", we can pause and reflect. Firstly, if you spot a post online about something you don't like, you better not insert your own opinion, since most probably it will be irrelevant to both the context and yourself. Reading comment wars between random strangers on YouTube can be entertaining, but don't be one of those people. Comment wars go nowhere and benefit no one; they only devalue topics worthy of discussion, like police brutality in America.
Lastly, if someone points a finger at you, don't bring their past errors to light. If you think you've been wrongly accused, try to prove your innocence without bringing someone else down, especially if they're not involved in the conflict. To sum up, don't be a jerk online.
1. The Washington Post (August 18, 2017). The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump.
2. Dictionary.com. We're All Guilty Of Whataboutism: Here's Why.
3. Merriam-Webster.com. What About 'Whataboutism'? If everyone is guilty of something, is no one guilty of anything?
Adhora Ahmed daydreams too much. Send her reality checks at email@example.com