An Unsavory Primer on Whataboutism

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Written by Megha Saha Featured image by Tanay PM

“Stay in bed and grow your hair”, said John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were noteworthy proponents of the pacifist counterculture of their time. But peace never stood a chance, did it? I used to be of the opinion that we need to pick our battles. Not every villain should be reckoned with. Deeper scrutiny of what peace has afforded us reveals a rather unflattering picture. Of course, I’m talking about all of our individual angst. But don’t get it twisted- all of it adds up to something formidable.

Currently, every single instance of mobilization seems to give rise to a spiteful offshoot. Every movement is greeted with a knee-jerk counter-movement. ‘Whataoboutism’ or ‘whataboutery’ emerged as a term widely used to describe a tactic employed in political discourse. The exact point of time when this term was first used remains uncertain. However, it has always meant the same thing. It’s a ploy. It’s a deftly designed device that can singlehandedly dismiss hefty amount of trauma with a “what about xyz though?” Merely the shapes and forms of whataboutery have changed. In 2020, it’s no longer just used in political campaigns. It is everyone’s cup of tea- fascist governments and disgruntled internet trolls alike.

At best, such an approach seems to be the result of our collective failure to acknowledge that none of our troubles exist in a bubble and nor do we. Maybe a better understanding of cause and effect would come in handy here. However, a more plausible and insidious agenda behind the same can be an attempt at erasing inconvenient narratives. Suffering and generational trauma do not make the cut anymore. A sensational and visceral video of a migrant worker coming to terms with the loss of family and livelihood in the face of a pandemic is met with an inconsiderate and loathsome rebuttal in the form of #metoomigrant. I use the term ‘rebuttal’ for a very specific purpose. Somehow, we stray so far away from what we do not wish to acknowledge, that we find the need to rebut it. Somehow, an obvious deduction is not considered obvious anymore. Marginalization has become a matter of evidence and corroboration. When #BlackLivesMatter is opposed with #AllLivesMatter- it is not regrettable, it is a disease. It is the all too sudden and dramatic departure of empathy and understanding. It is not a matter of semantics and should not be thought of as such. 

I think it’s imperative that we accept that we aren’t endowed with the skill to decode another person or group’s lived experiences. We can learn about it with the very best intentions and still may never know what it must have felt like to walk a mile in their shoes. Historically, every society has been riddled with unequal bargaining power among its members. It’s a matter of fact, not deduction. The alleviation of certain voices does not pose a threat to the existence of others by default. So why do public institutions and now, anyone with an internet connection feel threatened enough to resort to whataboutery? It is because they gain from the status quo of said unequal bargaining power. A “what about” statement often appears in the garb of well-meaning dialogue. However, it punches a hole into the already frayed fabric of justice. To cite an example, there is conclusive proof of the effectiveness of the #MeToo movement in the context of how Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and their likes were brought to justice. There is overwhelming evidence as to the merit of the movement that quickly spread across countries. But, not one time in my very limited experience have I come across a victim who is able to make their shuddering voice heard without an aspersion-clad “what about…”

It’s 2020. Why do we keep saying that like it means anything? 

#activism #art #politics

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