The noun whataboutery denotes the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue—synonym: whataboutism.
It refers to the way in which counter-accusations may take the form of questions introduced by What about —?.
The term whataboutery was coined in 1974 with reference to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, i.e. to the period of conflict in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement of 10th April 1998.
On Wednesday 30th January 1974, The Irish Times (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) published a letter titled The Irish moral problem, in which Sean O’Conaill, from Coleraine, County Derry, denounced the moral confusion that the Provisional IRA’s violence had created among the Irish people. He coined the plural noun Whatabouts to designate the persons who answered condemnations of the Provisional Irish Republican Army with countercharges in the form of questions introduced by What about —?:
Is it possible that the long imperial experience has had one effect worse than any other—to deprive the Irish people of their moral faculty? If this were so it would indeed be horrifying. True, those who catalogue Ireland’s grievances so industriously have failed to mention such a possibility, but perhaps that too is significant.
I would not suggest such a thing were it not for the Whatabouts. These are the people who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the “enemy”, and therefore the justice of the Provisionals’ cause: “What about Bloody Sunday, internment, torture, force feeding, army intimidation?”. Every call to stop is answered in the same way: “What about the Treaty of Limerick; the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921; Lenadoon?”. Neither is the Church immune: “The Catholic Church has never supported the national cause. What about Papal sanction for the Norman invasion; condemnation of the Fenians by Moriarty; Parnell?”.
Three days later, on Saturday 2nd February 1974, in the same newspaper, ‘Backbencher’ (i.e. the Irish journalist John Healy (1930-91)) coined whataboutery with reference to Sean O’Conaill’s letter in his column Inside Politics, titled that day Enter the cultural British army:
As a correspondent noted in a recent letter to this paper, we are very big on Whatabout Morality, matching one historic injustice with another justified injustice.
We have a bellyfull [sic] 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.
It is producing the rounds of death for like men in a bar, one round calls for another, one Green bullet calls for a responding Orange bullet, one Green grave for a matching Orange grave.
The two earliest occurrences that I have found of whataboutery after its coinage:
– also refer to the Troubles in Northern Ireland,
– appear in declarations made by two Irish dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church.
The first occurrence is from a speech delivered by William John Conway (1913-77), Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland—as quoted in Thousands say peace prayers, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Monday 16th December 1974:
Prayers for deliverance from terrorism were said throughout Ireland yesterday in some 4,000 Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and in Ulster, at the start of the Province’s biggest peace campaign, an estimated 400,000 people attended church.
Speaking at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, Cardinal Conway, said that one of the things that the campaign for peace was aimed at was “whataboutery.”
He said that when faced with something embarrassing or shameful, people were inclined to point the finger at some other incident and say: “Yes, but what about such and such?”
“This campaign of prayer is asking us all—everybody—to look at ourselves first, to look into our hearts fearlessly and honestly, and ask whether we are doing all we can to bring about peace.”
The second-earliest occurrence of whataboutery that I have found is from a speech in which Dr. Cahal Brendan Daly (1917-2009), Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, appealed to the Provisional IRA leadership to end their campaign of violence; this speech was delivered at the Social Study Conference in Kilkenny on Wednesday 4th August 1976, and thus quoted the following day in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland):
An appeal to conscience was paramount, said the bishop: “Nor must one despair of a change of heart, an awakening of conscience on the part of the leadership and the rank and file of the paramilitary groups themselves and I speak directly here only of the republican leadership and combatants.
“They may retort ‘What about the others?’ — ‘What about the sectarian killings?’ — ‘What about the brutalities of the Brits?’ — ‘What about Girdwood and Bloody Sunday?’.
“I would appeal to them to remember that ‘whataboutery’ is one of the commonest forms of evasion of personal responsibility.”
The earliest use that I have found of whataboutery without reference to the Troubles in Northern Ireland is from ‘Paint them black and send them back’, by Kathy Sheridan, in The Irish Times (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 3rd December 1994. The author looked back at January 1970, during apartheid in South Africa, when the Springboks (the team representing South Africa at rugby union) came to Dublin:
Trade union leaders continued to huff and puff about blacking every conceivable service the Springboks might require, which were swiftly countered by a fierce outbreak of whataboutery in The Irish Times Letters pages. What about. . . the unions’ own closed shop policies; the travelling people; the fact that the Dutch got to the Cape before the Bantus; the revelation that only 20 Dublin landladies out of 1,000 offered to take black lodgers; the right to play games with anyone we liked. . .
The rumble of armoured cars breaks the dawn silence in Shankill Road, Belfast, after a night of rioting last autumn during which three people died—from The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 23rd May 1970: