Criticizing whataboutism contradicts supporting rule of law

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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In discussions of international relations, people who see themselves as morally righteous often dismiss their critics as being guilty of “whataboutism,” a pejorative term that implies the use of rudimentary distraction tactics. However, upon closer inspection, it is difficult to reconcile support for rule of law with disdain for whataboutism.

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Whataboutism in the context of international relations is best illustrated with a simple example. To avoid controversy, I will purposely use an outdated one, lest a subset of readers start hyperventilating.

In 1915, following the outbreak of World War I, imagine two university students discussing the conflict. The first claims that the cause of the War is Germany’s imperial machinations. The second responds: “What about Britain and France’s empires?” earning them an accusation of whataboutism.

The key sentiment is that instead of addressing the first student’s claim, the second student used a cheap trick as an evasion tactic. In principle, Britain and France’s empires may or may not have played a role, but that does not undermine the role that Germany’s imperialism played. In the eyes of the first student, if the second student wants to bring up Anglo-French expansionism, they should first start by acknowledging the veracity of the claim that German expansionism is the cause of the war. Alternatively, they can directly contest that claim, but they should not arbitrarily switch the focus elsewhere.

Today, accusations of whataboutism are regularly thrown around in discussions of international conflicts, especially by people who see themselves as being on the right side of history. In some cases, I sympathize strongly with those claiming whataboutism, as the other person is attempting the rhetorical equivalent of using a legal technicality to get out of a crime that they are manifestly guilty of.

In other situations, I am not so sure, because starting a sentence with “what about” can mean that a double standard or act of hypocrisy is about to be exposed. Notably, double standards and hypocrisy are the antithesis of rule of law, which is a principle that anyone claiming the moral high ground must surely espouse.

Rule of law is the philosophy that everyone in society – including rulers – should be held accountable to the same laws. In the context of international relations, it means that all countries – big and small, rich and poor, powerful and weak – should have to comply with the same set of laws, and have their transgressions detected and sanctioned homogenously.

Imagine a 1950s observer of the Algerian War of Independence criticizing the French for killing civilians and demanding that they be punished; and someone retorting that the British had slayed thousands of non-combatants in their own colonies without censure. It is tempting for the observer to dismiss the responder’s comment as mere whataboutism and continuing to demand accountability on behalf of the deceased Algerians.

However, the actions of both parties are difficult to reconcile with an earnest belief in the rule of law. If the responder wanted to expose a double standard, then the correct course of action would be to affirm the injustice that Algerians had suffered, and the need for the transgressors to be punished, and to then demand the same for any comparable atrocities committed by the British.

Similarly, upon hearing the responder’s claims about the British, the observer of the Algerian War of Independence should comment that if the British had committed any crimes, they too should be held accountable.

Moreover, a genuine subscription to the rule of law means that your side must be held accountable even if it has committed fewer transgressions than the other side. Your transgressions don’t mean that the other side gets to deflect attention from their transgressions, but they also mean that you must acknowledge them openly when they are raised.

People discussing international conflicts will often use social media expressively rather than as a channel for learning something new. They want to declare their support for one side and feel good about themselves for supporting the good guys. Therefore, when their posts elicit whataboutism, rather than responding constructively, they are often tempted to wade even deeper into the pool of expressive moral one-upmanship by screaming “whataboutism!” and going on with their day.

A better response would be to pause and think about the whataboutism. Laws and moral principles applied unevenly are sometimes worse than ones that are totally absent. Consistency and universality are essential tenets of a just legal system. Even a bot programmed to practice whataboutism by a nefarious troll should make you pause and think, because maybe there really is a double standard worth acknowledging. The French philosopher captured this sentiment when he quipped: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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