The first time I heard the term ‘whataboutery’ was on a recent BBC Big Question’s debate regarding whether Human Rights has achieved more than religion over the course of human history. Aside from the unsubstantiated self-congratulating apologetics of many of the Human Rights supporters in the panel, what I found most annoying was Maryam Namazie’s frequent interruptions, appeals to emotion, question begging, and her shouting over MDI representative Abdullah Al-Andalusi as he was comprehensively detailing the cruel oppression of state actors through the use of ‘human rights’, showcasing that neither the former nor religion are immune from misuse or misinterpretation.
Whatever your opinion on Abdullah’s stance — or my own for that matter — I think what can be agreed upon is that Maryam wasn’t exactly gracious with her use of the ‘megaphone technique’ for discussion. Despite her typically unappealing and uncivilized behavior, one thing did catch my attention: her frequent utterance of the word ‘whataboutery’.
At first, I thought this was just some made up term by Maryam, but a quick google search led me to find that many other people — particularly many Islamophobes — have made this a popular one word response to just about everything thrown at them. A further search led me to the formal (actual) term that is meant to represent what they have a problem with: the informal fallacy of relative privation.
Then it clicked. I was already familiar with the formal label, but didn’t realize it had been given a makeover. Like most atheists who pat themselves on the back when they think they’ve made up some new words to describe their lack of belief (weak atheism), Maryam and others think they’re being clever by relabeling their objections. Perhaps they want to give the impression that there is some hidden intelligence to their incoherence. Who knows.
In any case, now I understood the meaning of the term. However, I was still confused about how it was being used, not only by Maryam, but many other Islamophobes purporting to speak for Human Rights and rationality.
You see, the informal fallacy of relative privation, also known as ‘The Appeal to Greater Problems’ or ‘Not as Bad as This….Argument’ is a tactic used by many people to shut down discourse by suggesting that there are worse problems in the world than what is being discussed, therefore such matters should not be brought up to begin with. You will often hear of “people starving in Africa” as an example used by parents to shut down complaints from their over-privileged children. In a way, this is an example of the fallacy at play, however it goes deeper by suggesting that any argument made that does not reach the moral equivalence of something considered worse is therefore invalid. In this case, the example used above is only similar to the fallacy in form, but not in substance — so let’s not start expecting our children to shout out “fallacy!” every time we attempt to teach them about being grateful for what they have.
However, when it comes to debate we need to be a little more careful when trying to bring up priorities. On the one hand, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that people starving is a far bigger deal than say, educational reforms, but on the other hand it is fallacious to suggest that the former makes the latter an invalid argument or subject of discussion. Now, this is the simple understanding of the fallacy, and if this is all you understand about the fallacy, then you’re going to incorrectly equate all such comparisons — and the intentions behind them — as fallacious. This will therefore lead you to committing some fallacies of your own, which can be especially embarrassing for self-proclaimed bastions of free thinking, like Maryam and others.
For example, in the BBC Big Question’s debate mentioned earlier, Maryam brought up the contention that:
He [Abdullah] said women are equal under Islamic Law, and that’s what we see in many countries like Iran, like Saudi Arabia under Islamic Law. Men and women are not considered equal, they are seen to be complimentary to each other, which is why women have no rights.
To which Abdullah responded:
First of all, most of the laws you’ve seen in Muslim countries were bequeathed to us by the British Empire a hundred years ago…
To which then he was rudely interrupted by Maryam (again), accusing him of “whataboutery” and that “anytime the topic of Islam comes up, he talks about something else.”
Here is a good representation of what the fallacy of relative privation is not. Maryam accuses Islamic Law of taking away women’s rights, where then Abdullah responds that most Muslim countries are not practicing Islamic Law because their current legal systems have mostly been taken from their former non-Muslim colonizers. No where in his response to her accusation did he even come close to appealing to worse problems — rather he was simply showing that Marayam’s contention was incorrect based on the fact that the oppression she speaks of has nothing to do with Islam. Whether you agree with this point or not is irrelevant to the problem here: no where was ‘whataboutery’ committed.
The fact that Abdullah discusses “something else” whenever Islam is brought into the limelight, does not mean that he is attempting to invalidate the claims being made by raising a greater problem, attempting to point the finger at hypocrisy (tu quoque fallacy, a cousin of relative privation), nor distracting the opponent and the audience away from the objections (red herring fallacy). On the contrary, he was making a valid point by trying to clear misconceptions and misrepresentations of history and Islamic Law. As I stated before, whether you agree or not with his argument is irrelevant to this discussion, because what is being discussed is whether or not a fallacy has been committed.
Maryam’s misunderstanding of the fallacy and her subsequent misuse of it actually proves that she herself has committed a fallacy — one committed far too often by Islamophobes in general when they make this objection: what is known as the fallacy of lacking proportion:
Either exaggerating or downplaying a point that is a crucial step in a piece of reasoning…It’s a mistake of not adopting the proper perspective. An extreme form of downplaying occurs in the Fallacy of Suppressed Evidence [the intentional covering of evidence contrary to your position].
This is especially seen in discussions and debates where people attempt to explain why terrorism is committed by individuals subscribing to Islam, contrary to the official narrative that the religion and its practitioners are “inherently barbaric”. For simply pointing out the valid grievances of a large portion of the world’s population regarding the foreign policies of certain nation states, these people are accused of ‘whataboutery’, and at worse, for justifying terrorism. The accusation of ‘whataboutery’ seems then to be less about pointing out what is fallacious and more about protecting the black and white narrative of cultural supremacists insistent on whitewashing the crimes committed under the name of their own ideals. In a way then, by accusing Muslims or those attempting to give a balanced view of the issues of ‘whataboutery’, it seems that Islamophobes are actually projecting their own form of argumentation by completely downplaying any evidences contrary to their own perspective.
However, can the same be said for Muslims attempting to defend Islam from accusations of immorality? Perhaps, depending on how the arguments are made in its favor. If a Muslim were, for instance, to downplay terrorism because people are starving in Africa, then I would think this to be a very fallacious and rather insensitive thing to say. However, when a Muslim attempts to point out the exaggerated, overplayed, and abused issue of terrorism and the subsequent ignoring of greater issues which cause it (state terrorism), this is in no way a case of ‘whataboutery’, but a case of reversing the fallacy of lacking proportion.
What better way to hide an unsubstantiated cultural superiority complex, the lack of guilt for the deaths of millions by the governments you support, and the subsequent bigotry and persecution against those you disagree with — ultimately resulting from such sentiments — than to shout “whataboutery” from an ivory tower.
 The term ‘Negative Atheism’ was created by the late Antony Flew several decades prior to the term ‘Weak Atheism’ and has been well-known in philosophical academic circles ever since, unbeknownst to the “superior intellects” of many an internet atheist.