"the commonest form of moral evasion in Ireland today"1

Cardinal Cahal Daly

"Whataboutery" is a factor in modern partisan political arguments. It arises where there are two distinct sides who share a history of mutual animosity, and where each side can be said to have wronged the other.

In Northern Ireland, where the term seems to have originated, there is a continuous spectrum of opinion on the big issue of whether the province is better off in the United Kingdom or in political union with the rest of Ireland. There are republicans, nationalists, "neutrals", unionists, and loyalists. Forget how you might use those terms to describe political factions in other countries- in Norn Iron, each applies to a specific, small set of particular parties and their traditional supporters and activists. The first and last factions I mention here are noted for the terrorist groups associated with their cause.

In this divided society, where each side has a long history doing or justifying terrible things, political arguments take on a peculiar dimension. Moderates will deal very quickly with the sins of their own "side"- issuing condemnations here and there- and then, they will seek to remind everyone that not so long ago, the other side's militants did something far far worse. The phrase used to do this will probably start "What about....".

"Yes, but what about Robert McCartney?"

"Yes, but what about Lisa Dorrian?"

"Yes, but what about last year's Twelfth?"

"Yes, but what about the year before last's Twelfth?"

"Yes, but what about Enniskillen?"

"Yes, but what about Bloody Sunday?"

"Yes, but what about the G.P.O. fire?"

"Yes, but what about Oliver Cromwell?"

Etc, ad (literal) nauseum, all the way back to Cain and Abel no doubt.

Hence "whataboutery" is the practise of deflecting attention away from your own behaviour by bringing up an equivalent behaviour on the part of your political enemies. Opinion seems divided on whether the term was invented by John Hume or Cardinal Cahal Daly.

The earliest episode of whataboutery described as such in the annals of the BBC News Website concerns the justification of the loyalist bombing of a School in September 2001 with a claim that, "nobody is listening to the fact that their people are being attacked and intimidated by Ardoyne republicans".

Of course, this type of argument is not unique to Northern Ireland. The Arab-Israeli Conflict has a long history of terrible wrongs perpetrated by two sides- and this history is used to justify current wrongs. In all fields of disagreement, people will seek to mask their own failings by pointing out their opponents' failings- industrial relations, party politics, warfare, have all had their share of whataboutery.

More about whataboutery:
  • http://archives.tcm.ie/carlownationalist/2004/02/25/story20042.asp
Mockery of whataboutery:
  • http://www.portadownnews.com/30May05.htm
Examples of whatabourery:
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/3029945.stm
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/1527010.stm
  • soc.culture.irish (Pretty much all of it- every word.)

  1. And that's saying something!

Oolong says, rather wonderfully, "Yes, but what about that time when your side said 'What about the whataboutery' huh? Huh? What about that?". What indeed?

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