The Danger of Whataboutery

Looking through recent mass and social media, one frequently finds a refusal to acknowledge a critique of intolerance or injustice on the grounds that the person making the critique has no moral standing given other cases of injustice that he/she did not critique. It is argued that such people selectively raise their voices only when the victims of injustice are of a specific type or background, and the selectivity of critique reveals it to be hypocritical. Given that these other incidents, where the protestors were allegedly silent, are often unarguable incidents of injustice, this dismissal is taken seriously (judging from reactions on social media). The dismissal usually starts with a question “What about…….”, leading to this phenomenon being called “whataboutery”.

This is a disingenuous argument that will lead us down a treacherous and slippery slope. It claims that you have the right to protest injustice only when you have protested every other similar injustice. And given that it is physically impossible to protest every injustice, it amounts to saying you should not protest at all. People are not perfect: they have interests, biases, and limitations on what they can comprehend. It is to be expected that every person will be selective in the causes on which they raise their voice.

A wise teacher of mine once advised me that when you are faced with a question to which you do not know the answer, you have two choices: a difficult one and an easy one. The difficult choice is to admit you do not know the answer, taking on the responsibility of confronting the consequences of this admission. And the easy choice, which most people take, is to expand the question thereby avoiding it. This is what is happening when people avoid a discussion on a certain case of injustice by raising other similar cases.

We should accept that all protest is imperfect, treat each act of protest solely on its own terms, and confront the issues it raises. If we create a climate that is conducive to this happening, then the multiplicity of protest, together with the discourse it catalyses, will automatically cast a wider net over the cases of injustice. To insist that one must only acknowledge the perfect protestor is tantamount to denying the right or ability to protest, and this is not healthy for a vibrant democratic society.

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