Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Whataboutism: What it is and how to beat it, by Emily Conrad

The Dictionary.com word of the day on May 16th was, “whataboutism.” The definition wasn’t quite what I expected. I’ll share that with you, and then I’d like to suggest a couple of alternate definitions, if I may.

Dictionary and plant

  1. The official definition is available here. Basically, it’s a tactic to excuse one’s own faults by pointing out others’ faults, as in, “What about all the typos in published books? The two in my query letter shouldn’t have been a big deal. We’re all human.”
  2. A tactic to claim a right to the blessing someone else was given, as in, “What about her publishing contract, God? Don’t I deserve one, too?”
  3. A tactic to pull another person else down with us, as in, “What about him? Shouldn't his work have been rejected for too much telling, too?”
  4. A phrase used to check on the welfare or to advocate for another person, as in, “What about Jane? Do you have a minute to listen to her pitch, too?”
(Side note: The word was first used long after the publication of the dictionary I photographed for this post, so though it made for nice pictures, it doesn't have an entry to match the post.)

Whataboutism may sound kind of playful and funny at the outset, but the examples of it at work aren’t so funny anymore. Whether the official definition or one of my made-up ones, whataboutism is all about comparison and entitlement.

This is an incredibly easy trap to fall into as a writer.

Whether the official definition or one of my made-up ones, whataboutism is all about #comparison and entitlement. This is an incredibly easy trap to fall into as a #writer. #butJesus via @emilyrconrad on #seriouslywrite
A close up of an old Webster's Dictionary entry for the word what

Whataboutism can disguise itself by dropping the phrase it’s known for while keeping the comparison and entitlement. Instead of “What about the agent that asked to see her full manuscript? Why didn’t that agent request mine?” we may ask, “She got a request. Why didn’t I?”

And if we’re really going to get honest here, we’re probably mentally cataloguing what we feel are the faults in that other writer’s manuscript. Our focus is on ourselves, and though we’re not resorting to the childish phrase “What about…?”, we are insulting another writer, her work, and the journey it’s taken her to get where she is.

But she just started writing last year. I’ve been doing this for over a decade. Her journey’s nothing compared to mine.

Instead of focusing on how I know these thought processes so well, let’s just agree with a cringe that comparison and entitlement are ugly beasts.

They are also ancient ones.

There’s a “what about” question in the Bible. In John 21:21, after Jesus predicts the kind of death Peter will face, Peter spots John.

So when Peter saw him, he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” (NET)

Though I’d previously assumed Peter asked this out of jealousy or frustration over his own fate, my MacArthur study Bible suggests Peter asked out of concern for John. If MacArthur is correct, Peter’s version of whataboutism is about as noble as it gets.

Either way, Jesus doesn’t seem to be a fan of the question. Read His response for yourself:

“If I want him to live until I come back, what concern is that of yours? You follow me!” (John 21:22, NET)

Despite concurrently serving the same God in similar ministries, Peter and John weren’t given the luxury of comparison.

As Christian writers, we’re not, either.

Despite concurrently serving the same God in similar ministries, Peter and John weren’t given the luxury of #comparison. As Christian #writers, we’re not, either. via @emilyrconrad on #seriouslywrite

What God decides for one of us is between that person and God. No one else should try to insert themselves into the conversation.

Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. (1 Corinthians 12:4 and 6, NET)

Continue reading in 1 Corinthians 12, and you’ll see that instead of comparing ourselves to others, we’re told to recognize that each of us is one part of a larger body. We serve different purposes in different ways, but we each have purpose in Christ.

Instead of arguing about what we might feel entitled to, we’re told to “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And God will exalt you in due time, if you humble yourselves under his mighty hand by casting all your cares on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:5-7, NET)

When we practice humility toward others and toward God, He gives us grace and eventually… exalts us? That sounds too good to be true—and apart from the grace of God, it is. But this doesn’t mean our work is guaranteed to someday hit the big bestseller lists, because the bestseller lists aren’t the point. Christ is the point, and when we have Him, we truly have everything we need.

It’s our job to follow Him. Let’s pursue excellence as we do so.

But, come to think of it, there is one way we’re encouraged to notice what others are up to. The Bible encourages us to outdo each other in showing honor (see Romans 12:10). We can’t compete like that if we haven’t noticed what our brothers and sisters in Christ are up to. Instead of a mean-spirited or self-focused “What about…?” mentality, this mindset centers around, “How can I lift up someone else?”

An old Webster's Dictionary
Since I’ve already taken the liberty of inventing definitions for whataboutism, why not make up a whole new word?

  1. A tactic to lift others up in Christian love, as in, "How can I bless that person I’m tempted to be jealous of? How can I promote others to spread to a hurting world the hope reflected in Christian writing? How can I encourage someone today, even if my dreams still seem a long way off?"
When you recognize whataboutism, push it out of your life with something new: howcanism.

“Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, NET)


Whataboutism: What it is to the #Christianwriter and how to beat it by @emilyrconrad on #seriouslywrite

Emily Conrad headshotEmily Conrad writes Christian romance and a blog to encourage women of faith. Her debut novel, Justice, released from Pelican Book Group in 2018. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two rescue dogs. She loves Jesus and enjoys road trips to the mountains, crafting stories, and drinking coffee. (It’s no coincidence Justice is set mostly in a coffee shop!) She offers free short stories on her website and loves to connect with readers on social media.



Jake thought he was meant to marry Brooklyn, but now she's pregnant, and he had nothing to do with it. Brooklyn can’t bring herself to name the father as she wrestles with questions about what her pregnancy means and how it will affect her relationship with Jake. If Harold Keen, the man who owns the bookstore across from Jake's coffee shop, has anything to do with it, the baby will ruin them both. Can Jake and Brooklyn overcome the obstacles thrown in their path, and finally find the truth in God's love and in each other?

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