What about ‘Whataboutery’

We've all been there.

You've got a Year 11 bang to rights. They did it. You saw them do it. They saw you see them do it. Game over, right?

Well, no. Unfortunately, as I'm sure we've all experienced, you will now be engaged in twelve rounds of: 'What about last week when Kevin did the same thing? You didn't care then'; 'What about all the times I've been good today – you should let me off!'; 'What about the Arab-Israeli conflict? You really think it's worth punishing me when so many worse things are going on in the world?'

Whataboutery. The attempt to deflect by moving the terms of the discussion. 

I hate it. I hate it as much when the Year 11s try it – I find a resolute refusal to engage in such silliness soon gets the message around not to bother – as I do when I hear it in the staff room / the football field / the pub.

It's such an easy, and sneaky, way to derail the direction of a conversation. It pulls the other person on to ground they do not wish to be on – I don't want to debate if/why Mr X let you get away with it yesterday – and rejects the premise of the discussion. Your point is invalid on this occasion because of this other occasion, you've not considered, which I am now going to force you to discuss instead. It's a distraction technique, pure and simple.

With students, consistency of practice is the key to defeating Whataboutery. If you always do the same thing, then you can reject any attempt to undermine you through recalling incidents from the past: and what great memories they have! I hate the lack of pragmaticism in a 'no excuses' culture because, you know, sometimes there are. However, there is much to be said for ensuring everyone knows where your lines are (which, hopefully, are in exactly the same place as your colleagues'. But that's a blog for another day).

With adults, such behaviour is more difficult. I see time and again, on Edu-Twitter, debates collapsing into: 'I reject your argument because whatabout the time you did this …'. In fact, reading discussions over the last few weeks reminds me of the Cherokee Indian story about two wolves.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

I think Whataboutery is about feeding the wrong wolf. It means things can never properly move on and heal because we want to keep the wound close to the surface. At its most simple, we might suggest that our anger and pain – and that of the people around us – is a great card to play in discussion with people we don't like: 'I don't have to listen to you. What about the time you did x?' It's a card you can never lose through playing.

We see Whataboutery in ideological discourse more than anything else. When we find ourselves debating with people who hold a different worldview than ourselves, we reach for the worst of them for examples of Whataboutery. "How can they be right about this when they (or their fellows) were so wrong about that?"

And it will never stop. 

Until we don't feed that wolf anymore.

*** Edit: irony is dead *** 

I've already been messaged to say: 'that's fine, but what about …'


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