By Dr. Anthony Policastro

I often write about the types of psychological defense mechanisms that individuals use to deal with troubling news.

One of them originated in ancient Greece. There is an early dialogue between Socrates and one of his students. Socrates berates the student for saying something other than he is actually thinking. The response is well you do it too. Socrates answers: “Well, if that’s true, it only makes me just as bad as you.”

The basic point is that if they both do it, they are both doing things wrong. It doesn’t excuse the accusers inappropriate behavior.

The formal term for this type of psychological defense mechanism is “whataboutism.” The term was first used in the 1970s. It was thrown back and forth by the communist and non-communist powers. Every time one would make an accusation against the other, there would be a “What about . . .” response.

We often see this in human interaction. For example, one spouse might accuse the other of lying. The response is then, “Well you lie too.” 

The implication is that it’s OK for me to do it because the other person does it as well. It allows the person to feel better about being wrong. That is why it is a psychological defense mechanism. It helps free the mind from guilt.

Right now this type of logic is frequently used by our politicians. If they are accused of something, they point to the opposite side and say “What about.” The implication is that the one side is not so bad if the other side does the same thing.

The problem is that all it means is that everyone is bad. It does not excuse behavior. It does not make a person who does something wrong any less wrong. It just allows them to deal with the guilt from a psychological standpoint.

This type of thinking was not correct in ancient Greece when Socrates addressed his student. It is still not correct over 2000 years later.

“Whataboutism” is simply a way of saying “Well yes I am wrong but so are you.” The individual saying it often does not realize that the implication is that they are clearly guilty of what the accusation is. They are not denying it. They are simply trying to say it is OK because others do it as well.

It is just one more example of how we humans try and keep our minds free of guilt. Psychological defense mechanisms keep us psychologically healthy.