Ideas

Whataboutery – From Ambedkar To Armageddon: Principles And Pitfalls

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (Suthir/Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • Hypocrisy and selectivity are as intrinsic a human nature as lying, and when political agenda enters the equation, the results are immediate.

You are saying this now. But what about the fact that you said the exact opposite yesterday?

Anyone who has ever outed hypocrisy has employed the phrase “what about” in thought if not words.

“What about” and hypocrisy don't conform to the notoriously existential chicken-and-egg conundrum. Clearly, hypocrisy (or selectivity; see later) came first, necessitating the birth of “what about” so as the mother could be biometrically identified.

To be sure, why hypocrisy exists is a question psychologists and scientists have struggled with for decades. While some scientists are of the opinion that humans “have learnt that it pays to seem moral since it lets you avoid censure and guilt, but even better is appearing moral without having to pay the cost of actually being moral,” others think it is to do with moral relativism: “We apply the same moral relativism when judging the actions of people like ourselves. When ‘people like us’ torture, it is justified; when people unlike us do, it is an atrocity.”

Be that as it may, most if not all humans are hypocrites, and “what about” is integral to outing their hypocrisy. This is a fact so elementary and self-evident that it is embarrassing to even state it. Confounding, therefore, that men and women who inhabit the world of news and digital print don't grasp this; perhaps because the media narrative has traditionally been controlled by hypocrites who gladly out the hypocrisy of others but when their hypocrisy, or the hypocrisy of their ideology or of their political masters, is outed, they cry “Whataboutery” at the first instance of a rebuttal or the sighting of a tweet. Or as one scientist puts it: “When contemplating one’s own transgression, motives of rationalization and justification temper the initial negative response and lead to more lenient judgments.”

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The left – of the fatigues, the champagne and the armchair mélange – is particularly adept at alleging Whataboutery as a means to end debates. This is ironic because, as we shall explore soon, Whataboutery was invented by the Soviets.

No man worth his salt can escape the satisfaction of outing the hypocrisy of others. Whether the act releases endorphins is debatable. What is not, is that it is an endowment of community living, of interaction with fellow humans. Spotting traits of moral intransigence possibly provides an evolutionary advantage to a species internally at loggerheads. It follows, therefore, that every sensible human being has used the phrase “what about” consciously or otherwise. No use pretending to the contrary – you don't want the charge of perjury in addition to hypocrisy thrown at you.

Hypocrisy and selectivity are bedfellows. If you point out selectivity, in the media or a running narrative or a news report, by asking a question that cites prior precedence or by outing the hypocrisy of the reporter, you have no option but to use the phrase “what about”, again in thought if not words.

Let us begin with the example of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Commenting on selectivity in pointing out the social evils and regressive traits of just the Hindu society, he said:

“The social evils which characterize the Hindu Society, have been well known. The publication of 'Mother India' by Miss Mayo gave these evils the widest publicity. But while 'Mother India' served the purpose of exposing the evils and calling their authors at the bar of the world to answer for their sins, it created the unfortunate impression throughout the world that while the Hindus were groveling in the mud of these social evils and were conservative, the Muslims in India were free from them, and as compared to the Hindus, were a progressive people. That such an impression should prevail is surprising to those who know the Muslim Society in India at close quarters.”

In today's discourse, especially one managed by intellectuals of limited luminosity and bountiful bias, Ambedkar would have been accused immediately of indulging in Whataboutery. “Look,” they would have cried, "Ambedkar is hurt by the Wire, Kafila, and Scroll long reads that expound in great detail the many social evils in Hindu society, and so he has resorted to asking "what about" the social evils in Muslim society. Shameless bhakt. Dog-whistling Islamophobe. Unfollow him. Down-vote his books on Amazon.”

What Ambedkar was merely doing was pointing out the selectivity and hypocrisy of those who go to town highlighting only the evils that stem from Hinduism. And as stated earlier, pointing this out necessitated the use of the phrase “what about”; and even though Ambedkar didn’t use it himself, those who accused him of Whataboutery said he did. As to why Ambedkar felt the need to do so has been explained earlier by this writer.

Selectivity is a device that allows the biased to slap labels and define the narrative at will. The church attacks fable, the growing intolerance story line, the Lynchistan tag – these are all instances where selectivity was employed knowingly. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of more examples of media selectivity. This writer has discussed earlier the damage such selectivity-driven narratives can cause.

To reiterate, if calling out selectivity through Whataboutery is to be condemned or ridiculed, then let the first stone be hurled at Dr Ambedkar.

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In the wake of the recent gruesome murder of Gauri Lankesh – a firebrand left-wing activist and journalist, and one incidentally convicted for printing lies against members of a political party she despised, vast sections of the English-language media displayed the kind of outrage rarely exhibited for instances of similar crimes against Indian journalists writing in regional languages. Within an hour of Lankesh’s murder, many celebrity journalists and media influencers had as though solved the crime itself. As writer and investigative journalist Chitra Subramaniam wrote of this collective seizure: Medias swiftness to judge came at the expense of accuracy.

What followed next, and the days after, was a narrative one has become all too familiar with: growing fascism, creeping intolerance and mounting fanaticism were responsible for Lankesh's murder. No other ideology, no other animosity, no other possibility was accommodated. We know more than the police, we know more than the relatives of the deceased, we know more. We just do. Gut. Our gut knows.

In the all-consuming media madness, this writer tweeted a table that listed details of Indian journalists murdered since 2013. There were 22 of them, including Lankesh; the latter was the only one who wrote in English or appeared in the English media.

The tweet listed only facts, no opinions. It spread like wildfire, burning the barns of those who felt compelled to respond viciously, so troubled were they by guilt and shame.

So what did the table say? Simply that the murder of a journalist belonging to a particular ideology and writing in English and appearing prominently in the English media was outraged upon noticeably and markedly more than the murder of her fellow journalists of unsure or no ideologies and who wrote in regional languages. The other 21 were also journalists and also putting in sweat and toil, but they were forgotten. No candle marches for them, no hashtags, no putting up of their names and snapshots as Twitter display pictures.

Columnists Sreemoy Talukdar and Anand Vardhan have elaborated on this perfidy, obvious to all except to those who cry Whataboutery. What the table said in numbers was expressed soon in words by journalist associations in Assam that, while condemning the killing of Lankesh, decried media indifference to 32 of their fallen comrades, now unrecalled and disremembered.

Such counters have also exposed something else, and confirmed the long-held suspicion that outrage and news cycles and listicles and running narratives in the Indian media – across all languages – are driven primarily by prominent, celebrity journalists and media influencers who write in English or appear in the English media. What the English media outrages on today, the rest follow. Incidentally, the table did not for a moment suggest Lankesh's murder was just another murder in a long line of murders, but the guilt-ridden rooftop screamers misconstrued it to be so. If I can shame you more than you can shame me, I can lessen my shame. What you have placed in front of me is not copper but Whataboutery-plated mirror. It does not reflect. I will not reflect.

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Finding Whataboutery is a task not without its complexities, especially when those caught with their pants down are the very people who accuse others of Whataboutery at the slightest indication of a lost argument.

Many a time, Whataboutery is easy to spot, for the phrase “what about” is used.

Increasingly, though, and also because those who accuse others of Whataboutery don't want to be caught doing the same lest they incur shame and ridicule, Whataboutery comes cleverly disguised, making it difficult to identify unless one witnesses it in real time. In the absence of the keywords “what about”, searching for Whataboutery can be arduous. But not impossible.

Some examples:

Translation: "Oh, yes? And what about when Modi goes abroad and criticises our country?"

Translation: “But what about hugging farmers?”

Translation: "But what about the fact that you are not protesting against murders of CPI cadres?"

Translation: "But what about the fact that BJP also always politicises attacks?"

Translation: "You call the hanging of Yakub justice? What about justice for the victims of 1984, 1992, 2002?”

Translation: "Really? And what about equality before law for the BJP MLA?"

Translation: "But what about the silence of Indian artists on Nawaz?"

Translation: "Why is Modi targeting only Zakir Naik? What about other preachers of hate?"

Translation: "So the Congress deliberately subverted facts in Ishrat case. But what about the Sameer Khan Pathan encounter case?"

Translation: "Stop citing Kejriwal's anti-national behavior. What about your own behaviour as cited by the SC?"

Translation: "So Islam is preaching suicide bombing, you say. And what about LTTE doing the same back in the 70s?"

Translation: "But what about the fact that your organisation is silent on murders of CPI cadres?"

Translation: "Oh, yes? And what about the loudspeakers at weddings that blare your songs through the night?"

Translation: "You have the temerity to talk of Sardar Patel's legacy? You? What about the fact that your father-in-law defended Godse in court?"

Translation: "A Congress leader has resigned. But what about the fact that BJP leaders with similar charges haven’t resigned?"

Translation: "Maoists beheaded a cop. But what about the fact that security forces and Salwa Judum chopped off a toddler's thumb?"

Translation: "Triple talaq must go. But what about Hindu personal law?"

Translation: "Yes, Justice Karnan may have committed contempt. But what about the Rajasthan HC judge?"

Translation: "You ask Kashmiri youth to shun violence and integrate. But what about stone-pelters killed by security forces in Handwara?"

Translation: "You are talking of issues concerning the Middle East. But what about your silence on Israel-Palestine?"

Translation: "What about the village schools? Are they any better than the madrasas?"

Translation: "Everyone is talking of French beachwear. What about our Talaq laws?"

Translation: "You are condemning the Orlando gay bar massacre. But what about your inaction on decriminalising homosexuality?"

Translation: "You are giving persecuted Hindu refugees asylum. What about the Rohingya?"

Translation: "You outraged on dress code dictat by Islamic fundamentalists. But what about your silence on dress code dictat by Hindu fundamentalists?"

Translation: "If you can judge Congress through the foul words of Mani, then what about the foul words of Swami and judging BJP through it?"

Translation: "A left-wing publishing house doesn't print right-wing thoughts. But what about the right-wing publishing house that doesn't print left-wing thoughts?"

Translation: "You condemned the killing of Hindu bloggers in Bangladesh. But what about your silence on the killing of Kalburgi?"

Translation: "You are vocal on the left and the Congress interference in Nalanda. But what about your silence on the RSS interference in other universities?"

Translation: "You deploy pellet guns on Kashmiri rioters. But what about other rioters? Why no pellet guns for them?

Translation: "Taxpayers are bailing out Ambani's company. What about banks, then – why can’t they be bailed out similarly? No, don’t like this."

Translation: "You are outraging on how America treats our citizens. But what about how India treats our citizens? Why the silence?"

Translation: "You can allow persecuted Hindus to come to India. But what about persecuted Ahmadis, Shias and Balochs?"

Translation: "You call it a scandal when a media house withholds important papers for a year. But what about your silence when Assange does the same?"

Translation: "You are marching to Srinagar. What about your not marching to Bastar?"

Translation: "You have given Bharat Ratna to Malviya. What about Netaji? What about Lala Lajpat Rai?"

Translation: "Good that the RSS backs temple entry to women. But what about the fact that women cannot head the RSS?"

Translation: "Good that you are investigating the death of a school boy from a private school. But what about the fact that you aren't investigating the death of a school boy from a government school?"

Translation: "Why Kovind? What about Narendra Jadhav?"

"Translation: Kejriwal called Modi a psychopath. What about when Modi called Manmohan Singh a nikamma and ‘Maunmohan’?"

Translation: "What about Tagore, Phule, Tilak, Gokhale, Vivekananda, Akbar, Shivaji, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Ashoka?"

Translation: "Ok, so you are cracking down on Ford Foundation. What about Saudi-funded Wahhabi outfits? Why not crack down on them?"

Translation: "Perfect. Focus all your energies on Yoga Day. What about our collapsing banking system, our errant tax guys? Nope, no need to focus on them."

Translation: "Yes, sure, skewer poor Kejriwal, go on. What about the BJP and the Congress? They never throw muck at their political opponents, is it?"

Translation: "Good you acted on Triple Talaq. But what about anti-women Hindu property laws? When will you act on them?"

Translation: "Nirbhaya's killers are given death but what about Bilkis' killers? Why are they given life?"

Translation: "Pawar is silent on the rot in BCCI, yes. But what about Modi and Jaitley? Why are they silent on the rot in BCCI?"

Translation: Akshay is standing in solidarity with Subhash Chandra. But what about his not standing in solidarity with Sanjay Leela?"

Translation: "We are talking and settling issues with Naga militants, great. But what about the fact that we are ignoring talking and settling issues with Kashmiri separatists?"

Translation: "Ok, so a terrorist was influenced by Zakir Naik. But what about the fact that the Norwegian terrorist was influenced by Hindutva groups?"

Translation: "So the Roys owe the banks Rs 48 crore. What about Adani owing the banks 72,000 crore?"

Translation: "Sonu says he wakes up to noisy Azan. But what about the fact that I wake up to noisy bhajan?"

One may ask: when Whataboutery is an essential device used by all intelligent humans to out hypocrisy and selectivity, why be selective in listing examples of Whataboutery of a chosen few?

The answer is simple. While Whataboutery is indeed practised by all, the ones referenced in this article are some of the prominent keepers of the flame who regularly ridicule Whataboutery even as they use it themselves. This, believe psychologists, is to do with the fact that a hypocrite seldom admits to being a hypocrite; the self-deception is so entrenched that he or she is unaware that others have begun to view him or her as more immoral than even an outright liar. In other words, people gladly tolerate someone who ridicules Whataboutery while admitting to also indulging in it; what they detest is a hypocrite who ridicules Whataboutery but never accepts that he uses it himself.

Why, then, do those who rejoice in hypocrisy and selectivity ridicule Whataboutery? Perhaps because it shows a mirror to their judgment and logic, of measuring up men and women, and historical events, on their own scale. So a Churchill is still regarded as one of the greatest Britons because he “won” them the war. But “what about” the fact that he was a racist bigot, a proponent of Social Darwinism, a shameless imperialist, and had sanctioned the use of chemical weapons during the Great War, and was directly responsible for the murder of four million Indians during the Bengal Famine? Now, wait a minute. Don’t indulge in Whataboutery.

In the same vein, Chairman Mao is on currency notes, is worshipped by millions, including a substantial number of Indians, for taking China forward, standing tall against the West, and flying the flag of socialism and brotherhood. But “what about” the fact that he was a ruthless dictator and killed upwards of 45 million, of his own people, through his catastrophic Great Leap Forward? Quiet, you. Enough of your Whataboutery.

Castro, Rhodes, Tipu, Leopold, Indira Gandhi, Lee Quan Yew, Allama Iqbal, Guevara – the list is as endless as the excuses to consecrate these specimens as heroes and saviours of the world. The hypocrites adore the grey because it cushions their irrational reasoning and validation of crimes and misdemeanours. This is especially true of the left. How else can they justify to themselves their everlasting faith in an ideology that has led to the destruction of whole nations and the murder of more than 100 million people but by wiping away inconvenient truths and instead hawking notions of fraternity, equality and righteousness?

When accosted with such truths, their standard response inevitably is: But what about Hitler who also killed millions? Rather than reflect on the choices they have made, the very same people, when caught peddling hypocrisy and selectivity, and asked to justify their worship and appreciation of evil men and women, or of holy books that profess bigotry in addition to benevolence, cry Whataboutery. Grey is what you get when you mix good and evil and rouge.

Whataboutery was first made popular by the Soviets, who answered every accusation of human rights violations made against them by the Americans with "What about your own human rights violations, Yankee?" In essence, the Soviets were doing an Ambedkar – pointing out the hypocrisy and selectivity of the Americans. Or, as the English would have rather used the phrase: "Well, that's a bit rich coming from you, isn't it?

It needs to be stressed here that Whataboutery, even though it is necessary for outing hypocrisy and selectivity, cannot be used to justify or explain away the wrong act itself. Discrediting the hypocrite or a selectivist is one thing, not acting on the accusation is quite another.

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Pointing out a previous wrong or an embarrassing precedence (that, it must be kept in mind, occurred contemporaneously and not centuries earlier) to out selectivity and hypocrisy does not and cannot cancel out the fact that two wrongs don't make a right. Why this has to be stressed is because those who accuse others of, first Whataboutery, next, use the above argument to rub it in, even though the only intention of the Whatabouterers may have been to out the hypocrisy and not cushion or explain away the wrong.

To return to Ambedkar's Whataboutery as an example, the next arrow let go at him would have been: "So now you are telling us not to write about Hindu evils, is that it? Listen, you Sanghi. Muslim evils don’t cancel out Hindu evils, got it? Gosh, did you really write the Constitution?"

Whataboutery is not only an essential means to out hypocrisy and selectivity, it also serves as a crucial cerebral exercise in a non-political, non-sociological context. As any scientist knows, Whataboutery is critical to providing solutions to any given scientific challenge. Indeed, attend a drug-discovery conference and you would understand. Most questions that follow a talk are Whataboutery questions. "Professor. Impressed with your data on the drug that inhibits the RNA polymerase of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. But "what about" the fact that it might also bind to the human RNA polymerase and interfere in its functioning?" At which point the anxious scientist would answer: "Yes, quite right. We are presently working on trying to minimise the drug's effect on the human polymerase. Hopefully, I'll be able to present that data in the next conference. If you invite me again."

Now the scientist, if he was a Communist – a long shot as rational, logical minds don't usually fall for cults and canards – would have retorted: "Here we go. You and your Whataboutery, again. Which mofussil university did you say you are from? Ignoring your abysmal command over English, why can’t you just look at the drug's effects on the pathogen's polymerase, for heaven's sake? Do you really have to bring in the drug's side effects?"

With the exception of the few who made the mistake of rushing in where angels fear to tread, scientists generally like to keep to themselves and their community, unperturbed by Whataboutery questions, respecting them even, as illustrated by the exchange that took place following a lecture delivered by a scientist at a gathering of non-scientists. When asked if he supported animal rights and was a signatory to a campaign against cruelty to animals, the scientist answered in the affirmative. It turned out to be a well-laid trap. “Oh, yeah? Then ‘what about’ the fact that you routinely test your molecules and your drugs on harmless, innocent animals? You inject them with unknown substances. You kill them. Do you take their prior permission to do so?”

The scientist was humbled. He learnt the hard way that he also was a hypocrite. He tried to explain that if one didn’t test drugs on animals, those drugs wouldn’t be available to cure millions of humans, and animals, of horrible diseases. But he knew better inside. No explanation could censure the guilt. The scientist had been outed.

That scientist was none other than this writer.

Away from the lab, things are not that genial. Hypocrisy and selectivity are as intrinsic a human nature as lying, and when political agenda enters the equation, the results are immediate. Followers of all ideologies partake in it, but only some of them take the moral high ground and accuse others of Whataboutery. These are typically those who want to win an argument at any cost, dismissing the possibility that their logic and reasoning are nothing but a tired Torvill and a drowsy Dean skating on thin ice. Sooner or later, the grey vanishes and the sun appears and the ice melts and the choreography goes for a toss and the music is out of key and you are left waltzing to a song that only you like, with steps that only you know, and a performance that only you applaud.

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