In a Word . . . Whataboutism

Commentators on the Troubles embraced the term ‘whataboutery’

 

It is not often that one (me!) experiences here such simple joy as detailing the history of a word begotten in this newspaper. Now an adult of 43 in the great wheel of the world it, and its history, was discussed in the columns of the Wall Street Journal last month. “Whataboutism” has arrived.

Columnist Ben Zimmer used it when discussing an interview by the NBC’s Megyn Kelly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. No less.

Putin, he said, employed the tried-and-true tactic of “whataboutism” when asked about Russia meddling in American elections. He changed the subject to US interference abroad: “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal election processes,” Putin said.

With admirable erudition Ben Zimmer explained “whataboutism is another name for the logical fallacy of tu quoque (Latin for `you also’), in which an accusation is met with a counter-accusation, pivoting away from the original criticism.” Familiar? Of course.

He delved deeper. The roots of whataboutism go back to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he said. On January 30th, 1974, The Irish Times published a letter by Sean O’Conaill, a history teacher in Coleraine, Co Derry. He wrote of “the Whatabouts” – “people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional IRA with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy’.”

Three days after that, in this same newspaper, John Healy picked up the theme in his Backbencher column, citing Mr O’Conaill’s letter. “We have a bellyful of Whataboutery in these killing days, and the one clear fact to emerge is that people, Orange and Green, are dying as a result of it,” he wrote.

Commentators on the Troubles embraced the term “whataboutery” and frequently mentioned it in the ensuing years of strife, remarked Mr Zimmer.

He contacted Sean O’Conaill last month who expressed some surprise that his “whatabout” had spread so far and wide since his 1974 letter to the editor. But, as to the carry-on of Messrs (indeed!) Putin and Trump, Sean O’Conaill added, “I claim no responsibility whatever for their shenanigans.”

Well done Sean, now retired but still a regular contributor to this newspaper, including to its letters page.

Whataboutism. Father, Sean O’Conaill. No obvious mother. Midwife, John Healy. Reared in Northern Ireland. Currently residing in US.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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