To highlight what the other side has done is one of the commonest forms of evasion of personal moral responsibility”— Cardinal Cahal Daly
In my previous article for the Majority, I spoke about how nationalism and nationalists rely on paradoxes to both validate their own opinions and dismiss the facts of others. It is time, therefore, to dissect and discredit their preferred technique, “whataboutery”, or the Scottish version, “whitabootery”.
Simply put, whataboutery serves two functions, firstly to try to put the person who asks the question on the defensive, and secondly to allow the person using whataboutery to deflect away and avoid answering the question asked.
Whataboutery is a form of the logical fallacy of false equivalence. The technique, first used widely by the USSR, is straightforward: simply respond to any criticism with a question attacking your opponent. All questions about the ills and injustices of the regime; political oppression, genocide, nuclear catastrophes, corruption and mismanagement, to name but a few, were met with questions on racial injustice in America and South Africa, heavy-handed police tactics in the UK against miners and strikers, dictatorship in Spain and so on. All meant to put the West on the defensive.
But two wrongs don’t make a right.
These days, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Nicola Sturgeon (what a wonderful list to be a part of) use this technique every day. It was even satirised in the 2014 film The Interview in the scene where Dave Skylark (James Franco) confronts Kim Jung-Un (Randall Park) over his nuclear weapons program leading to mass famine in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kim Jung-Un retorts by mentioning that the incarceration rate per capita in the United States is the highest in the world.
Both are true, but it is fundamentally a false equivalence aimed, not at elevating and supporting change but, at dismissing the need for change on the basis that all are equally bad, though obviously, this is not true. Whataboutery portrays the fundamental insecurity of those who use this method of arguing, knowing that they cannot defend their position through rational argument, so they must deflect.
Nationalists love whataboutery because their ideology is based on deflection: their ills are always someone else’s fault and no matter what they do, someone else has done something supposedly worse. One need only think of how the disgraced MP Margaret Ferrier has been defended by references to Dominic Cummings’s infamous drive, claiming she has suffered “trial by media” despite the earlier nationalist feeding frenzy over Dominic Cummings. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
A typical day-to-day example of whataboutery is this exchange between Mr Cole-Hamilton MSP and a twitter user, who responds to Cole-Hamilton’s point about Scottish Nationalism’s attempts to disguise itself as not being populist Nationalism, with a question: “And Brexit isn’t about populaist separatism?”
The respondent is not asking for a debate on how populism functions in British politics, they are not asking for Mr Cole-Hamilton’s position, one which he has already made very clear, nor are they trying to make a considered point on supposed similarities between Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern.
Instead they trying to discredit Cole-Hamilton by bringing up something unrelated, in an attempt to deny the veracity of his statement and shift blame from their side (the SNP’s use of nationalist and populist rhetoric) to Brexit, and attempts to link a pro-EU politician to Brexit simply because his party is connected to another party which sits in the same building as the current UK government which supports Brexit.
On the 13th of May, when questioned about the level of care home deaths in Scotland being proportionally double to those in the rest of the UK, Nicola Sturgeon retorted by questioning the validity of the UK’s statistics and suggesting that the rest of the UK was underreporting deaths when we know for a fact that the UK government was overreporting.
When the Office for National Statistics released its findings, which showed Scotland had the third highest rise in death rates in Europe from the start of the pandemic until the middle of June, she repeatedly claimed that England had five times the case numbers of Scotland at the time despite the fact that the statistics she used “do not allow for a meaningful comparison to be made“.
In these cases we see how whataboutery functions to attack a reasonable position by demanding the person answer for things that are totally unrelated to the original question or challenge. Its function is to deflect and to hold the debate ransom by implying the challenger is responsible for other evils in society.
It’s an attempt to capture the moral high ground by digging a tunnel under the hill. Whataboutery is the last redoubt of those who cannot offer a valid argument, it is defensive, and it is puerile.
In the fight to end divisive nationalism we must be alert to these kind of responses and neutralise them by not responding to the whataboutery question, calling it out for what it is, and then insisting that the original question be answered.
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