Whataboutery is the art of derailing something by trying to foreground some other thing – but what about…?. The classic of the form goes ‘why are you helping those foreign people when we have our own homeless people to take care of?’ The people who practise whataboutery can be counted on to not care in the slightest about the cause they put forward. The aim of whataboutery is to upset, overwhelm and undermine anyone trying to get anything done.
It’s worth noting that genuine activists support each other. People who rescue cats do not come on to posts from people who rescue dogs going ‘but what about cats? Why do you hate cats?’ When it comes to human issues, you often find that the people who are out today protesting about war in Ukraine are the ones who were out previously protesting about war in Palestine. Those of us who speak out against violence tend to speak out, for whatever cause most seems to need us at the time. My focus is domestic violence, but I care about ending all violence. And of course activists aren’t perfect, and have biases and issues of their own. If we wait for the perfect activist to come along, no one will ever resist anything that needs standing up to.
It’s amazing how many people on social media now seem to care about Palestine when normally they don’t. It’s amazing how many people want to talk about Yemen, and Syria who never showed the slightest interest in those countries before. This is whataboutery, and it’s not about supporting causes or protecting life.
As far as I can tell, the best thing to do if you get hit by whataboutery in any context, is to take them seriously and ask what they would like you to amplify. Ask how you can actively support the cause they mention and ask what they are doing that you can draw attention to. The whataboutery brigade tend to go quiet in face of this, which makes them less tiring to deal with than getting into any kind of conflict with them. It also quickly establishes if you’re dealing with someone truly devoted to a cause, or someone who just wants to derail you. Ignoring and blocking are also valid choices.
There are always other issues to talk about. As refugees move across Europe, we do need to talk about how differently white refugees are treated from brown and black refugees. We do need to be alert to this kind of injustice. No war is acceptable, no aggression is justified and everywhere this happens, matters. We urgently need to end all violence. But the whataboutery brigade don’t actually care about any of the real issues and should not be indulged.