It is difficult to speak of any wrong today without someone piping up a protest against the protest because of an extraneous issue that affects the life of the original protester. Almost any complaint will be met with a “what about this” to deflect the criticism toward a logical straw man.
Case in point is Stephen Fry’s letter to Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK, the International Olympic Committee and the local Olympic committee of the United Kingdom as represented by Lord Coe. Mr Fry is an eloquent, classy and refined gentleman of words. He is the embodiment of the saying that “an Englishman with the proper education can strip paint off a wall with his language”.
The letter lead to, predictably, a massive amount of “what about” from the homophobic parts of the British press. Still smarting from the loss in the same-sex marriage debate, the Telegraph wrote this piece.
Whataboutism has a long history, and it was perfected by the Soviet propaganda machine so that any criticism of the Soviet Union was met with a tired response of some flaw in the western societies. If an American politician in the 1960s complained about Soviet persecution of dissidents, the predictable response from the Soviet Union propagandists were “but in the southern states you lynch black people”.
It is, of course, a tactic to disarm criticism. It is a method where a propagandist can agree to a policy that is being criticised without stating support for the criticism. It is a tactic to shoot the messenger rather than to respond to the message.
This tactic, best illustrated by the Telegraph piece linked above, is also very commonly used in the NSA and surveillance state brouhaha. The media have built a very big business of saying ‘what about’ when anything regarding Mr Snowden is up for discussion. This makes it possible for the media not to discuss the things that were revealed.
In that way, the blooming culture of whataboutism is quite insufferable, and intellectually dishonest. It means to shut down debate, to deflect from the issues raised by the debate. It is just as pernicious as when Soviet propagandists used it to justify Stalinist terror in the 20th century.