What exactly is ‘whataboutery’? Well, it’s a way of responding to a difficult subject or accusation by making a counter-accusation. Or it’s when a difficult subject is being discussed and someone raises a different subject to divert attention.
And where do we see this type of behaviour? Well, everywhere really. Whenever there’s a difficult subject to address from politics to the British Empire to feminism, someone somewhere will not be able to resist ‘whatabouting’. It’s a reflex action for many people. It’s a way of justifying challenging behaviour and not taking responsibility to address the subject being discussed.
And it happens way too often about too many difficult subjects. It’s time to face up to this technique of deflection. Let’s talk about what we can do about all this whatabouting.
What do we mean?
To understand this issue clearly, here are some examples taken from conversations I have had with people.
- When discussing the millions of people killed by the British Empire a WhatAbouter responds by saying:
- “Yeah, well what about Belgium and France, they killed people too?”
- When discussing male violence against women and the fear women live under, a WhatAbouter responds by saying:
- “Well, it’s not all men, and what about the attacks men are under now?”
- When discussing racism, a WhatAbouter responds by saying:
- “it’s all very well talking about racism, but what about white children who are poor?”
Now those examples are all conversations I had had to have with people. In some cases, the different issue being raised is a valid one. These are also subjects to discuss. But the point is, those comments are all ways of not discussing the difficult subject being initially mentioned. The whatabouting is to change the topic of conversation to something else, which invalidates the first person’s point or their lived experience.
What is the point of it?
And why do people do this? Why do they bother? Well, it’s because the original subject being discussed is difficult, complex or makes them feel defensive. So to gain authority, or to make themselves feel better, people feel they have to whatabout the difficult subject.
The impact of this is that having conversations about difficult subjects becomes an even more complex task. If we are discussing male violence against women (let’s face it, we need to) then it must be directly talked about. If the conversation moves on quickly through whatabouting to a different subject, then we never discuss the thing we need to discuss.
The point of all this whatabouting is to lessen the subject we’re discussing. It’s to say it’s equal or less than another subject. It happens through the media, in people’s conversations, at work, and pretty much anywhere where conversations like this occur. It happens to me a lot when I am on a night out. People want to raise subjects they know I am interested in, only so that they can disagree with me, or whatabout the things I am interested in, and make themselves feel better.
Is the real issue that people whatabout difficult things to make themselves feel less guilty? Or to feel less responsible in some way? If the difficult thing is the same as another difficult thing, then we don’t need to discuss it or do anything about it. Is this how people rationalise it in their minds? Or do they know, on some level, that they don’t have a rational argument about the subject, so they effectively lose their argument by moving it along to something else? I often wonder this when I watch politicians being interviewed.
What do we do about it?
This is something I have thought about a lot. The thing is, we need to talk about these subjects and not deflect and change the subject. We need to talk about why women live in fear of violence, why people of colour feel unsafe and why our institutional structures are based on white privilege. And that’s just some of the subjects. There are so many more.
So as this is something that happens to me a lot, here are a few things to try when it happens to you.
- Stay calm – if you can, take a deep breath, listen and allow that person to finish talking
- Backtrack – take the conversation back to the original subject, say things like ‘yes that’s true, but I am talking about this’ or ‘yes, that’s true but it doesn’t make it right’
- Call it out – and if you feel you can call out the whatabouting for what it is, point out that deflecting and changing the subject is a way of avoiding the original subject
These are things I have tried and have had some success with. Successful whatabouters will still want to disagree, argue and whatabout some more. They are experienced at doing this. It’s a mechanism for many people to avoid the things they don’t want to talk about.
The thing is if we never talk about these things we will never address them. So call out whatabouting when it happens to you. We need to talk about these things, and we need to stop the whataboutery in its tracks.
And if this is sounding daunting, we run a training course called ‘Challenging Conversations’ which will help with discussing these difficult subjects. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.