A better kind of whataboutism

The Standard January 21, 2021

The term “whataboutism” has made a recent comeback. Generally used in a negative sense, it is associated with the way the Soviet Union responded to criticism of massacres and gulags, or forced labor camps, during the Cold War by asking “what about” various ways the United States or other Western nations had enabled human rights abuses and oppression.  Russian propaganda deflected from the subject at hand and reversed the discussion to highlight offenses just as bad or worse which were allowed by critics of the U.S.S.R.

By pointing out the hypocrisy of a double standard, the criticized party escapes any self-reflection regarding their own bad behavior. If this negative, unhealthy kind of whataboutism is used as a rhetorical device, no individual or group ever can analyze the bad actions or thinking of anyone or any entity because they themselves are marred by differing levels of wrongdoing.   

Jesus, the perfect Son of God, regularly pointed out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of that time.  He asked them to consider what about the way they told other people to live versus the way they acted. “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.’” (Matthew 23:1-6) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Jesus encouraged a kind of personal whataboutism which led to self-reflection and then to any appropriate repentance. What about the way I say I should live as opposed to the way I actually do? What about how I give this person or group the benefit of the doubt but not that other individual or group? What about my tendency to empathize with them but not with them?  What about my desire for leniency for her but not for him?  What about my expectations for how they should treat me compared to how I treat them?

If we have any convictions whatsoever, we will fail to live up to our ideals on some level. Although we can’t help being hypocrites, we certainly can and should try our best to be more consistent and fair. Instead of using whataboutism to deflect blame, let’s use it personally as a tool to avoid hypocrisy.

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