Whataboutism: A rhetorical defense that imputes hypocrisy to the accuser. Said to have been coined by western journalists and public officials to describe a Cold War-era tactic of their Soviet counterparts; popularized by writers at The Economist. Also known as the tu quoque fallacy (to quoque is Latin for “you, too”) or “the pot calling the kettle black.”
Behind the Iron Curtain, whataboutism was frequently summed up by the phrase “And you are lynching Negroes!”—the bleak punchline of a joke that circulated throughout the Soviet bloc. Here’s a 1962 version:
An American and a Soviet car salesman argue which country makes better cars. Finally, the American asks: “How many decades does it take an average Soviet man to earn enough money to buy a Soviet car?” After a thoughtful pause, the Soviet replies: “And you are lynching Negroes!”
I couldn’t pinpoint the original usage of whataboutism—it isn’t in the OED or other standard references—but it’s had a robust and well-documented post-Soviet life. Here, from August 2013, is Olga Khazan in The Atlantic on “The Soviet-Era Strategy That Explains What Russia Is Doing with Snowden”:
In [Edward] Snowden, Russia has found the ultimate whataboutism mascot. By granting him asylum, Russia casts itself, even if momentarily, as a defender of human rights, and the U.S. as the oppressor.
And here is “Whataboutism,” from the January 31, 2008, Economist:
Soviet propagandists during the cold war were trained in a tactic that their western interlocutors nicknamed “whataboutism”. Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a “What about...” (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth). … Whataboutism seemed to have died a natural death at the end of the cold war. But now it seems to be making a comeback.
I also found an early nonpolitical usage, in the 1990 book Educating the Intelligent Child, by UK-born Victor Serebriakoff (who was the grandson of Russian émigrés, which may or may not be relevant):
However, we have to beware of what I call ‘But-what-about?-ism’. There is an absurd concept of morality which says that no good thing shall be done for anyone unless it can be done for everyone.
There is, of course, a whataboutism hashtag on Twitter.
The variant whataboutery has a meaning identical to whataboutism, but without the Soviet/Russian overtones—for good reason, since it originated in Northern Ireland. (It’s honored with a Wiktionary definition.) In a 2010 book, Beauty and Atrocity: People, Politics, and Ireland’s Fight for Peace, Joshua Levine provides some background:
There is a Northern Ireland neologism, ‘Whataboutery’, that is used to describe the bouts of accusation-slinging that characterize local politics. When a politician from one side charges the other side with some wrongdoing, the matter will rarely be discussed rationally. Instead it will be answered with a corresponding accusation: ‘What about such and such injustice?’ Whataboutery is symptomatic of the chasm in the interpretation of history that exists between the communities.
The earliest citation I found for whataboutery, from 2000, credits a BBC Ulster program, “Talk Back,” a daily current-affairs call-in show that launched in 1986, with the coinage.
Whataboutery turns up on Twitter, too, but rarely from so distinguished an author as this one:
Whataboutery: Don't let "X is bad" distract from "Y is appalling." But sometimes "Stop whining about X, look at appalling Y" is justified.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) November 13, 2013