During the Cold War, a ping pong match developed between American and Soviet propagandists. America would point to Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. The Soviets would mention the horrors in Vietnam. America would point to the Soviet backing of Castro. The Soviets would bring up apartheid South Africa. It was called whataboutism.
Whataboutism continues in our international debates. Things haven't been too good for American moral exceptionalism these last 15 years. They've never been that great. But it's still a little too commonplace to meet with a whataboutist line whenever a critic from America or any Western European country condemns human rights excesses elsewhere. "Russia's treatment of gay people is terrible." "Well, your treatment of gay people wasn't so great until relatively recently. Also, how about your prison industrial complex?" "Iran tortures its prisoners." "You put your prisoners in solitary confinement, which is a form of torture." And so on.
I'll let propagandists at the higher levels of government engage in this behavior. The rest of us, the thinkers, the intellectuals, the common citizens who just care about decent treatment for their fellow humans can do better. When you engage in whataboutism, when you show more interest in condemning the hypocrisy of your critics than in considering where your critics may be right, you in effect play into the whims and desires of those at the very top of your government, those who are committing those human rights violations that you don't condone. So, let's try this conversation.
"Russia's treatment of gay people is terrible."
"Yes it is. It's absolutely horrible. It should change."
[There follows a lengthy, intelligent conversation, specifically geared towards discussing gay rights in Russia.]
"By the way, I also feel that America should improve it's prison system."
"Why yes, sir. That is a very good point."
[There follows a lengthy, intelligent conversation, specifically geared towards discussing America's prison industrial complex.]
"It seems we have come to an agreement that there are human rights violations in both America and Russia that should be corrected."
"Yes, we have. We are friends."
Whataboutism has pervaded the mainstream discourse. I have witnessed such discussions over and over in our pop culture, on roundtables on cable news, Real Time with Bill Maher, on The View. Whataboutism avoids substance. Whataboutism is smug. Whataboutism is a waste of everyone's time.
Whataboutism is pernicious. As I noted before, a whataboutist cares more about defending the honor and integrity of his own country of which he is a citizen, than about the human rights violations that occur within that country. A whataboutist prefers to establish his own moral superiority than to improve his own morality. A whataboutist, in effect, defends the monsters in his country, even if he doesn't particularly care for those monsters.
I have heard the arguments about the evils of neoliberalism, which could possibly be fought with whataboutism. If one can show that America's bombing of Afghanistan may not - surprise, surprise - bring about women's and gay rights in the country, then the whataboutist has an important role to play. The Taliban may not care about women, but America doesn't care about Afghani lives. If one can prove that America's interests in gay rights in any given African country have more to do with advancing disadvantageous bargaining positions on trade, we can better understand some of the constellational thinking that may be involved in fighting for human rights.
Still, on the level of one-on-one discussion, on the level of talking to a friend about a human rights problem, on the level of intelligent rights-based considerations, we need to reject whataboutism. A whataboutist does not deserve your ear. He does not deserve your respect. He deserves your indifference, which is a form of contempt.