This is our truth, tell us yours
There are three kinds of whataboutery.
The first is actually useful. Imagine, for instance, someone saying ‘The NHS doesn’t do enough for people with X.’ Someone else says, ‘Yes, and what about people with Y?’ Together, there’s potential for the two to reach a conclusion, that maybe the problem isn’t how the NHS deals with X or Y, but how it deals with Z, where Z is a set of topics of which X and Y are just two of the elements of the set.
The second kind of whataboutery is the exact opposite. Imagine our first example again, but where Y is not an analogue of X, but an example intended to illustrate the impossibility of doing anything, because there are so many problems to be tackled. It’s usually deployed by people who don’t give a shit about X or Y, but who wish to argue against a general principle, like the NHS or free health care. Sometimes it’s a reasonable argument, a rhetorical device, but sometimes it’s deployed in a disingenuous way to de-rail the argument,
The third kind of whataboutery though is not about the argument or the principles involved. It’s about the person making the argument – not so much ‘what about Y’ but ‘what about me?’
Take a look at this article on the HuffPo website. It’s ‘whataboutme’ery’ in all its sordid reality. One of the hallmarks of ‘whataboutme’ery’ is that it doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the debates, or the facts, just a willingness to draw attention to the author. Take the question that starts the second paragraph.Wouldn’t it be great to have a day to remember the millions of Black Africans who were victims of slavery? Yes, it would. In fact, it’s such a good idea people have already done it.
I cited the first example of whataboutery, the way in which saying ‘what about Y’ can lead to a generalization about something. Take a look at this booklet produced for International Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. From the specifics of Auschwitz to Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, the links are painstakingly mapped out and the lessons learned.
It would be easy to draw the conclusion, despite her protestations, that Sophia Eribo is an anti Semite, using type 2 whataboutery to make her case. I don’t think so though. I think it’s all about Sophia. Take a look at this article about Nigeria. One paragraph is about Nigeria; the rest, firmly, is about Sophia. Having read that, it’s easy to conclude that anything Sophia writes is not really about anything except Sophia.