Written by Hannah Dunleavy

In The News

An idiot’s guide to whataboutery

Finding it difficult to engage in meaningful debate online? What about those people who don’t even have the internet, says Hannah Dunleavy. Don’t you care about them?

Women’s March, eh? What about the men who were marching? Photo by Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

So, OK, what’s whataboutery about?

Trolls come in many forms and they’re not all busting out the “die in a fire” tweets over breakfast. Like straw man fallacies and fake facts, whataboutery’s a go-to for people who don’t want to engage in the conversation but don’t want anyone else to either.

Put simply, it’s an attempt to shut down a debate by exploiting a perceived scale of urgency or bad hombre-ness and implying that caring about anything other than the worst offences is a waste of time. Or a heartless act. Or a communist plot.

What’s that about?

OK, here’s an example. I’m writing about whataboutery, which is inarguably far from being the worst crime perpetrated online. “But what about women who get terrible abuse hurled at them?” Mr Whatabout would say to me. “What about the death threats? The slander? If you really care you’d focus your attention on that. The abuse they get clearly doesn’t matter to you.”

But that’s not true. Surely?

Well, obviously. I’d put up with an infinite amount of whataboutery on Twitter if it meant the company would take action on the worst of the trolls. No question. But the two things aren’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

So, is there really no place for whataboutery in the world?

There might be. An A&E department might wonder ‘what about’ that guy with the broken leg when considering whether to treat a woman with a splinter. And fair enough, what with them being medical professionals and all.

Internet whataboutery isn’t like that. It’s more like a guy who once saw an episode of Casualty charging into a hospital and demanding everyone get treated one person at a time, in the order he decides.

Because he cares about everyone getting treatment?

You’d think. But that’s rarely the case. Whataboutery is often an attempt to stop anybody being treated at all. Witness the eruption of concern for Britain’s homeless on the Daily Mail message boards every time it runs a story on immigrants. What about the homeless, they scream, what about them?

“Whataboutery says we should consider ourselves lucky for getting paid at all. And that we should be grateful for how we only got threatened when we could have been punched instead.”

But surely all those people who said that really do care about the homeless?

Has there been a rush of support for the homeless since the refugee crisis started?


OK, here’s another example. Recently, I made a comment on social media about it being a shame that Labour had not yet had a female leader. A reply suggested I stop inferring the Labour Party is sexist because what about what Milo Yiannopoulos says about women.

Is he that..?

Cunt. Yep, that’s him.

So were they suggesting…

That he is the benchmark for sexism? Yes, they were. And that until he stops being nasty to us women, we just keep our whingeing and our hopes for a place at the adults’ table to ourselves. One job at a time ladies, one job at a time.

But doesn’t that argument lead…

Down an illogical road? At the end of which people are saying, “Say what you like about Jack the Ripper, he didn’t kill as many people as Pol Pot.” You’ve got it.

So, do women get a lot of whataboutery online?

Yes, but to be fair, everybody does. Anyone voicing support for a group of strikers will always face the argument: “But what about people on minimum wage? Shouldn’t you care more about them getting a pay rise first?” And anyone taking the position that the west should do something – indeed anything – to tackle climate change will inevitably encounter the words, “But what about China?”

And what’s the correct response to that?

I don’t think you can go wrong with, “If China was slamming their cock in the door would you start unfastening your belt?”

But why let whataboutery worry us? Isn’t it just idiots doing it?

Well yes, it is idiots. But a lot of them have a large audience and many of them are in jobs where you’d hope they’d be a bit better at debating by now. Like journalists. And politicians.

A huge plank of Donald Trump’s defence against accusations of sexual assault was “What about those accusations against Bill Clinton?” Philip Davies MP cried, “What about men?” when Parliament was discussing women victims of honour killings.

Gov Mike Huckabee and columnist Sarah Vine used whataboutery to attack the Women’s March (“But what about the women in Saudi?”).

And Piers Morgan used “What about Polanski?” to deflect from the fact that he was being a total jebend.

But Polanski’s a wrong’un, right?

And the way women are treated in Saudi is appalling. Full stop. But if you’re capitalising on the misery of some women by using it as a stick to hit other women with, you might be surprised to discover it’s you that’s the twat in this conversation.

Whataboutery doesn’t care about victims, it merely aims to lower the bar of what other people can expect in terms of basic human decency. It says we should consider ourselves lucky for getting paid at all. And that we should be grateful for how we only got threatened when we could have been punched instead. And, at a time when a President is using whataboutery as a vital stream in his full-on river of bullshit, we need to stop doing it and start raising that bar again.

But what about Clinton’s emails?

OK, I’m done.


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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.