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We need ‘whataboutism’ now more than ever

From Charlie Hebdo to King Abdullah’s passing, there’s nothing wrong with complicating the mainstream narrative

January 26, 2015 1:00PM ET

In 2008 The Economist ran a short piece on the resurgence of whataboutism, a Soviet propaganda tactic employed during the Cold War in which foreign criticism of any aspect of Russian sociopolitical life was met with a counterexample of Western decadence, violence or excess (as in, “People in the Soviet Union have no rights? Well, what about racism in the U.S.?”). Whataboutism is an example of the logical fallacy of the appeal to hypocrisy, or trying to counter an argument by claiming that the people you are debating do not act in line with their position. Of course, the problem with whataboutism is that providing counterexamples in no way engages with or disproves the original point being made.

For a number of critics and columnists, there could be no better examples of leftist knee-jerk whataboutism than some of the sentiments aired in the aftermath of the horrific Jan. 7 killings at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. When public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky pointed out that the West has a double standard in its understanding and definition of terrorism, he was condemned as a member of the “but brigade” — those who engage in knee-jerk whataboutism. When Teju Cole wrote a thoughtful piece in The New Yorker in which he noted that there is a clear hierarchy in who is worthy of mourning and that threats to liberty worldwide are often spearheaded by the same “developed” nations that claim to defend such liberty, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted that it was “the most extraordinary piece of whataboutism I have read.” And on a personal level, when I sent out a tweet just after the killings in which I wrote, “[Anders] Breivik killed 77 in Norway & no-one asked me as a white male of Nordic Christian background if I felt the need to condemn it,” in addition to 16,000 retweets and favorites, I received hundreds of responses in which I was accused of being an apologist, whataboutist and purveyor of false equivalency and moral relativism.

There are two points to make about such condemnations. First and somewhat ironically, given the context of the Paris killings, they serve to stifle debate on the nature of power by painting critical responses to global events as nothing more than childish finger pointing. After all, The Economist’s critique of Soviet whataboutism was that it was essentially an exercise in tactical mudslinging: Take attention away from the crimes of those you support by pointing out the crimes of those you do not.

Yet in the aftermath of the Paris murders, no single event could have destroyed accusations of whataboutism against people such as Chomsky and Cole more perfectly than the Jan. 23 death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. 

One of the core requirements for xenophobic thought to take hold in society is a broad unwillingness to tackle – or even recognize – the existence of double standards.

Chomsky’s point was that while the West claims to be horrified by the murderous, anti-democratic fanaticism of Islamic terrorists, it thinks nothing of allying with a fundamentalist dictatorship that beheads people in public for “crimes” such as adultery and sorcery and sentences bloggers to be whipped 1,000 times for insulting Islam. Then right on cue and only days after a faux march in the streets of Paris in support of liberty, Western leaders fell over themselves to offer fawning eulogies for the man who had overseen these gross human rights violations.

What about Saudi Arabia’s “cautious reformer” Abdullah? That’s what.

This brings me to my second point: One of the core requirements for xenophobic thought to take hold in society is a broad unwillingness to tackle — or even recognize — the existence of double standards. When “others” commit crimes, they do so as standard bearers for all members of their community, but when one of “us” commits a crime, then the or she is an individual and is in no way representative of our given religious, political or ideological group.

Thus a central contributor to xenophobia is the belief that badness is innate in “them” while goodness is innate in “us.” This is the logic that makes both moderate Muslims and Western terrorists exceptions to the rule. Similarly, it enables us to see Islamic terrorism as ideological and systemic, while, for example, U.S. global violence is not only not considered systemic — it’s always in response to particular circumstances — it isn’t even linked back to the very citizens who support the violence with their votes, flags and rallies.

Of course, a great deal of the work of compartmentalizing and sanitizing our own state violence and our support for the state violence of other nations is done by and through politics and the media. Wars may be understood to be evil, but when “we” are involved in them (either directly or by proxy), they are necessary evils in the service of democracy. In this rhetorical landscape, bombings are “surgical strikes,” civilian victims are “collateral damage,” and torture is “enhanced interrogation.” If there is a pattern to be found in our aggression, that pattern exists only as a result of and reaction to the aggression of others and never the result of our desire for power. In this way and unlike the demands we place on, for example, moderate Muslims, few of us in the U.S. and Europe are forced to condemn violence, even when it is committed under our flags and paid for with our tax money. Instead we get embarrassingly mistaken reports about British cities being totally Muslim and under Sharia.

What the so-called whataboutists do is question the unquestioned and thrust contradictions, double standards and hypocrisies into the open. This isn’t the naive justification or rationalization of murder; it is the challenge to think critically about the (sometimes painful) truth about our place in the world.

In the end, a little more whataboutism might be good for all of us.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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