Gillian Schutte: The problematics of whataboutism

Gillian Schutte. Picture: Independent Newspapers

Gillian Schutte. Picture: Independent Newspapers

Published Jun 26, 2024


When I first encountered the term “whataboutism,” my skin crawled.

What was this obnoxious term being tossed around with such smug conceit in social media debates?

Middle-aged liberal academics, mostly members of “TheRoundTable!”—a Facebook page brimming with Daily Maverick editors, elitist NGO directors, and other self-satisfied liberals - seemed to revel in blocking any views that didn’t align with their own by employing this term with supersized superciliousness.

If memory serves me right, this was my first brush with “whataboutism”.

I had unwittingly followed a friend onto this page when I stumbled upon a discussion in which the group members were praising Barack Obama as the finest speechmaker, leader, and humanist to have ever graced our lands.

He was here to address the nation at the funeral of President Nelson Mandela.

Naturally, I reminded them that Obama had an extensive and bloody record of bombing sovereign countries and suggested that, even if resurrected from the dead, Fidel Castro would have been a better choice to address our nation.

I added that I thought former President Jacob Zuma gave a better speech in that it was more honest, less overwrought with over-the-top platitudes, adjectives and self-genuflection.

As to be expected, not only was I bombarded with “whataboutism” comebacks from all directions, but I was also labelled a Stalinist on par with Slavoj Žižek by one Daryl Glaser, a political science professor at Wits University.

The irksomeness of Whataboutism

For anyone with a head on their shoulders, it is clear that whataboutism is a 21st century rhetorical device used to deflect criticism by pointing to the wrongdoings of others.

One can liken it to the deformed discourse of neo-intersectionality, a discourse that takes on some of the tenets of the original framework of intersectionality but morphs into a weaponised version used to take out opponents in a scramble for power based on identity politics.

This discourse is obdurate in that it offers the perceived opponent no way out.

Rather, it keeps people trapped in a harsh and alienating punitive zone, up against a dense wall of terminal guilt.

Similarly, what whataboutism does, instead of addressing the issue at hand, is to redirect attention to a different issue, often implying that the original criticism is invalid because it does not fit snugly into their narrow liberal framing.

This term gained prominence during the Cold War, where it was used to describe Soviet responses to Western criticisms by highlighting Western flaws.

Nowadays you can use it against your friends, family and anyone who stands in the way of your liberal dogma.

It is then, no surprise that in contemporary political discourse, whataboutism is most frequently used by liberals to criticise arguments from the left.

This is what they are trained to do in most humanities departments these days.

Take out the views of those who do not worship the market.

It is one of many manufactured discourses that have been weaponised to shut down debate, especially when leftist critiques of liberal policies or actions are raised.

Ahistorical and Selective Outrage

Whataboutism is fundamentally ahistorical.

In this way it mirrors racism and white privilege. It focuses on present issues while erasing historical context. The mostly educated and elitist proponents of this term simply overlook the systemic and historical injustices that shape current realities for people other than them.

You can be sure that when leftists critique contemporary liberal policies by referencing past failures or ongoing systemic issues, a posse of privileged pundits will be shouting from the ivory tower that they are errant Stalinist whataboutists.

Liberals, it seems, remain perpetually oblivious to the fact that labelling these critiques as whataboutism tramples on, dismisses and oppresses the oppressed majority’s version of history and the ongoing usurpation this history forces onto them in the contemporary neocolonial landscape.

This is especially true of their attack on the decolonisation project where African views most often clash with Settler views. It is at this intersection when whataboutism abounds, all to shut down African perspectives and elevate white logic.

Here on the left we know that history is not a series of isolated events but a continuum where past actions influence and continue to play out in present conditions. To disregard historical context is to deny the intersection of social, economic, and political phenomena.

When liberals accuse the left of whataboutism, they often imply that historical injustices are irrelevant to current discussions, which undermines the radical left’s emphasis on structural change and long-term accountability.

Shooting Down Radical Critique

The use of whataboutism as a term effectively curtails radical critique by narrowing the scope of acceptable discourse. In their dismissal of leftist arguments as mere deflections, liberals create a rhetorical barrier and wilfully prevent any deeper or divergent examination of systemic issues.

It is a delegitimising tactic that serves to maintain the status quo by erasing critiques that challenge the foundational aspects of liberal policies.

For example - when the radical left critiques the failures of liberalism and its inability to address economic inequality, systemic racism, and environmental destruction, these arguments are labelled as whataboutism so as to avoid addressing their substance and core.

It is nothing more than a strategy that ensures that the conversation remains within the confines of moderate thought, excluding radical and transformative perspectives that advocate for structural change or revolution .

Neoliberal Construct for Neoliberal Agenda

Whataboutism is also a neoliberal term designed to serve the neoliberal agenda. Neoliberalism, with its worship of free markets and deregulation, seeks to depoliticise systemic issues and reduce them to matters of personal accountability. Neoliberal discourse strategically shifts the focus away from systemic analysis to individual instances by framing leftist critiques as whataboutism.

Liberal gatekeepers are adept at undermining the radical left’s efforts to highlight broader structural problems and collectivism. In their labelling of systemic critiques whataboutism, neoliberal discourse entrenches this individualisation, making it difficult to address the root causes of social and economic inequalities.

It is indisputable that the neoliberal agenda benefits from limiting the scope of acceptable critique and that they do this through dismissing systemic critiques as whataboutism. In this way neoliberal discourse can avoid engaging with the radical left’s call for fundamental change.

It is the reduction of all divergent views to whataboutism that allows liberal discourse to avoid confronting the contradictions and failures of its own ideological foundations.

So next time an elitist liberal gaslighter shouts whataboutism at you don’t let them shame you into submission. When they try to shut you up, hit them with sharp, well-aimed counterarguments.

Point out their hypocrisy and selective outrage with a smile in your expanded view, reminding them that history is a complex web, not a series of neat, isolated events.

Challenge their narrow-mindedness with a quick retort or even a verbal chisa mpama, and keep pushing for a debate that’s as inclusive as it is incisive.

Turn their favourite term into your plaything of choice, illuminating the very issues they’d rather sweep under the rug of white- centric market-worshipping ideology.

*Gillian Schutte is a film-maker, and a well-known social justice and race-justice activist and public intellectual.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.

IOL Opinion