Over the past six months or so, it has become the most frequently deployed—and typically double-standard—word of the Secular and Leftist Outrage Brigade (SLOB).
In response to a question after his talk on Eight Threats to Freedom of Expression at the Bangalore LitFest in early December, historian Ramachandra Guha spoke about the need to speak out for writers elsewhere in the world. He lamented the fact that while the Left in India had been vocal about the hounding of painter M. F. Husain and the killings of academics like M.M. Kalburgi, it had been silent about Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, who, in 2009, was sentenced to prison for 11 years.
What Guha was essentially saying is that one should not be selective about upholding freedom of expression. If the Indian Left was standing up for freedom of expression in India, it should do the same for freedom of expression in China, never mind the ideological affinity with that country’s government.
That is a totally unimpeachable line of reasoning. Who can find fault with that sentiment?
Yet, just a few minutes before this, Guha was ticking off Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for doing something similar: “We should completely have contempt for what Arun Jaitley practices—whataboutery.” The reference was to Jaitley asking writers, artists and film personalities returning sundry awards because of the supposedly growing climate of intolerance under the Narendra Modi government why they were silent during earlier incidents of intolerance.
How is Jaitley pointing to the one-sidedness of the award wapsi brigade different from Guha saying the Indian Left should also have spoken out for Xiaobo? It isn’t. Yet, it is Jaitley who will have to bear the slur of whataboutery.
Whataboutery has a long history (see box: A History Of Whataboutery), but was hardly known in India. However, over the past six months or so, it has become the favourite word of the Secular and Leftist Outrage Brigade (SLOB).
Its frequent deployment—invariably as a sneer or sarcastic remark—has two aims. One, to belittle and discredit anyone who dares to call out the SLOB’s double standards in criticizing only one kind of intolerance/atrocity/violence. Two, in doing so, to deflect attention away from this selectiveness.
For many years, the selective amnesia of the SLOB went unchallenged because they dominated the academic institutions and the media. There were just not enough public platforms available to the many voices that pointed to the SLOB’s double standards.
The rise of online journalism and social media ended the free run of such blatant one-sidedness. The SLOB began to be called out over the selective outrage it indulged in—hysteria over majoritarian communalism/ intolerance and a blind eye towards or muted criticism of minority communalism/ intolerance; accusing security forces for even legitimate action while remaining silent (if not rationalizing) senseless violence by sundry militant organisations.
Initially, the SLOB was indulgent, even dismissive towards this challenge: “Yes, yes, okay, 1984 was wrong, now can we get back to talking about 2002?” When faced with the charge of double standards, they would grudgingly admit that yes, the plight of Taslima Nasreen was unfortunate, but would gloss over the fact that they were not vocal in their support.
Then came the two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right argument, making it out as if the SLOB’s critics were justifying other kinds of violence/ bigotry. This completely—and cleverly—eclipsed the fact that it was, in fact, the SLOB’s selective silence that was being outed. That people saying “look at 1984” whenever 2002 was raised were not justifying the latter but questioning why the political leadership during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was not being held to account in the same way that the political leadership during 2002 was; that pointing out that a publisher refusing to honour a contract with writer Joe D’Cruz because he praised Modi was no different from the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s book was not justifying the latter, but questioning the SLOB silence over the former.
Even that pretence has been dropped in the past year, when the SLOB launched the intolerance campaign. The award wapsi movement was supposed to be the trump card—who, it was thought, would dare question writers and artists with impeccable credentials? Unfortunately, that assumption proved wrong. The majority of those using social media to expose the SLOB were young people who hardly knew about the eminent award returnees and were, therefore, not in awe of them. So they had no hesitation in questioning the earlier silence of these litterateurs, film makers, painters and sundry intellectuals.
The gloves were off and the SLOB’s indulgent smiles gave way to the whataboutery sneer. The message was clear: yes, we may suffer from selective amnesia but you have to turn a blind eye to that. The next step was to brazen it out: yes, we are selective in our outrage but that is our right, you can’t tell us what to be outraged about.
This line of argument again neatly sidesteps one fact—no one is questioning anyone’s right to be selective in outrage. But the questioning of this selectiveness was a response to the SLOB’s attempt to create the impression that the only violence/ intolerance happening in the country is what it outrages about. The western media is also quick to pick on only incidents highlighted by the SLOB propaganda, ignoring other incidents, and paints a picture of a country that has suddenly turned intolerant/violent/ultra-conservative after May 2014. That is why the SLOB resents the whataboutery crowd—because it shows that the outrage is not only selective, but also motivated.
The SLOB will have one believe that whataboutism is something only the crass right wing indulges in. But SLOBs indulge in whataboutery too, and much more hypocritically. The most recent example is “but what about when the BJP disrupted Parliament for the 10 years it was in the opposition” (the Congress also says this, but BJP-Congress whataboutery is part of politics).
SLOB whataboutism isn’t a recent phenomenon. “But what about what Israel is doing”, “but what about how Sri Lanka treats its Tamil minority” were lines that were constantly thrown at anyone condemning barbarous violence by Palestinian militant groups in West Asia or of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. “What about bringing those involved in the 1992 Mumbai riots to book” was a refrain one heard when those involved in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case were convicted. SLOB whataboutism is often cloaked in euphemisms like “look at the context”. The context is invariably some other earlier incident, which is seen to have provoked violence. The “context” for the Mumbai blasts of 1993, for example, was the December 1992 riots. And let’s not forget the most glaring contextual whataboutery of them all—the “when a big tree falls” remark by Rajiv Gandhi—his only acknowledgement of the targeted massacre of Sikhs in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
In fact, the whataboutery directed against the SLOB stops short of justifying the violence/intolerance that it accuses the latter of ignoring. SLOB whataboutery, on the other hand, teeters dangerously towards justifying and rationalising certain kinds of violence by wanting to put it in a “context”.
Does whataboutery serve any purpose? It generally doesn’t. But it is an inevitable response to double standards and hypocrisy. Two tweets by Rajya Sabha MP Baijayant “Jay” Panda sum up the senselessness of it all:
“(1/2) #Whataboutery-vs-Hypocrisy #Whataboutery is when you divert attention from an outrage w/example of another, opposite, ignored one…”
“(2/2) #Whataboutery-vs-Hypocrisy #Hypocrisy is whn you hv consistent trk rcrd of selective outrage agnst 1 grp vs anothr instd of on princpl.”
A History Of Whataboutery
Though in use in India for less than a year, whataboutery and whataboutism have a long history. But first, the definitions.
Collins Dictionary: noun (of two communities in conflict) the practice of repeatedly blaming the other side and referring to events from the past
Wiktionary.org: Protesting at hypocrisy; responding to criticism by accusing one’s opponent of similar or worse faults. Protesting at inconsistency; refusing to act in one instance unless similar action is taken in other similar instances.
Writing in The Economist in 2008, journalist Edward Lucas hints that it originated during the Cold War when the Soviet Union would counter any criticism of it with a “what about” and point to something the Western Bloc had done. According to Lucas, western negotiators coined the term “whataboutism” to refer to this. This account has been confirmed by Konstantin Eggert, a commentator for a Russian news station, Radio Kommersant, writing in sputniknews.com in 2012.
The term may have been coined during the Cold War, but Slate journalist Joshua Keating says a similar phenomenon existed in the late 19th century. He quotes British historian Orlando Figes who reproduces a 1853 memorandum by a Russian professor to Czar Nicholas 1 pointing out the double standards of France and Britain in criticizing Russian expansionism even as they went about taking over more and more colonies.
Apparently the term began to go out of use after the end of the Cold War but has resurfaced recently, with Russia throwing back at the western countries their own human rights violations when faced with criticism of its actions.
The term has also been used in the context of several troubled legacies—Ireland and West Asia being the most notable ones.