Sustainability made simple

How to Recognize, Expose Counter Whataboutism

whataboutism definition
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pexels - August de Richelieu

Whataboutism is a common discussion strategy used in both work and personal environments. We’ll take a closer look at the definition of whataboutism, why it’s used, and share some tips on how to counteract it.

Whataboutism Definition

According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, whataboutism is defined as follows:

[Whataboutism] is not merely the changing of a subject to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original person was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

You’ve probably encountered whataboutism in a discussion, or maybe you’ve even taken advantage of this fallacy in an argument yourself. For some, it’s a conscious strategy; for others, it’s simply a knee-jerk reaction. 

People often resort to whataboutism in conversation when they have no more arguments with which to defend their position. In order to avoid agreeing with the other side or admit that they’re wrong, they simply change the subject quickly, often using a counter-question like: “But what about…?” This can also catch the speaker off-guard in the short term and make the arguments presented seem unimportant and useless.

This tactic is very popular in the political sphere, and was often used as a propaganda tactic during the Cold War. Whenever the Soviet Union was publicly criticized, the accusations weren’t engaged or countered. Instead, the focus was switched to the wrong-doings of the United States. Politicians are still using this technique as a way to save face as well as discredit others. 

Recognizing Manipulation in Conversations

If you pay attention, you’ll recognize whataboutism tactics more often than you might think. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - Free-Photos )

Now that you know the definition of whataboutism, you’ll be able to recognize it in conversation. Watch out for these three things:

  • Distraction: the counter-question has nothing to do with the topic of discussion
  • Body Language: the person asking the question has defensive body language 
  • Tone of Voice: the counter-question is often provocative and/or spoken in a sharp tone

However, whataboutism isn’t always presented in a question form. When it comes to how we can live more sustainably and reduce our carbon footprint, typical whataboutism responses would be:

  • “As long as other continents are producing uncontrolled CO2 emissions, there’s really no point in us dealing with it in the USA either.”
  • “But vegans eat avocados, quinoa and other non-regional products.”
  • “We always talk about reducing our personal carbon footprint, but what about all the big companies and businesses that aren’t sustainable either?”

How to Counter Whataboutism

argument tactics
Whataboutism tactics are used in workplaces, in-person conversations as well as online. Feel free to call people out on it, and try not to take it personally. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pexels - Andrea Piacquadio)

Whataboutism isn’t designed to advance a discussion. Instead of addressing a complaint and trying to find possible solutions, the conversation just goes around in circles. This is especially problematic on a political level, as the distraction strategy inhibits progress.

The following tips may help you when responding to whataboutism:

  1. If you agree with the gist of the counter-argument but still want to expose it as whataboutism, you can respond: “You’re right, that’s also a problem. However, I’d like to get back to the topic at hand.”
  2. If a counter-argument is factually incorrect, it’s best to respond with data or scientifically proven facts.
  3. Most importantly, stay calm! Try not to take the attack personally, just keep the facts in mind. If they’re using whataboutism tactics, you’ve technically already won, they’re just too stubborn to agree and move on. Just stick to the topic and continue to argue calmly and rationally. 

This article has been translated from German by Karen Stankiewicz. You can find the original here: Whataboutism: Was das ist und wie du kontern kannst

** Links to retailers marked with ** or underlined orange are partially partner links: If you buy here, you actively support, because we will receive a small part of the sales proceeds. More info.

Do you like this post?

Thank you very much for voting!