I’m sure as internet dwellers we’ve all come across some whataboutery recently. Maybe even today. Particularly prevalent in places like internet comment threads, whataboutery is an enemy of coherent debate and takes two forms. The first is an incredulous disbelief that the internet is a big place and the related fear that anything frivolous in tone can only exist because a more serious article has been denied that online space by the frivolity (“How can you justify this piece about baby pandas when there is famine in South Sudan?”). The other school is deflection whataboutery, where a legitimate point about a bad thing is shouted down because the writer did not explicitly condemn all other bad things in the universe at the same time (“Why are you only mentioning the famine in south Sudan, what about the massive death toll caused by alcoholism in Russia?”).
I mention this because whataboutery is bloody annoying and because there’s been a lot of it around this week, mostly as a result of the continuing adventures of a man who can dance a bit, sing a smidge, and who appears to possess so few brain cells that he must surely be a collaboration between the members of Blue and N-Dubz to create someone even dumber than them – Chris Brown.
Last week Brown was in the news for getting a tattoo which almost certainly wasn’t supposed to be to beaten face of his ex, Rihanna, but sure looked grotesquely similar to that infamous police photo. A non-dumbass human would have avoided such ambiguous adornment, but not Brown. In any case, it didn’t change anyone’s minds about him, but it did spark one protestor to sticker his albums in HMV with a warning announcing that “This man beats women”. And it was these factors which has broken the whataboutery camel’s back.
Actually that’s not completely true but those asking why Brown gets “singled out” for criticism, while other woman-beating singers don’t, have popped up in greater numbers and more prominent places than previously. Thing is, their whataboutery is misplaced. They ask why no one criticises John Lennon or James Brown for their woman-beating, seemingly ignoring the differences between today and 1967 as if they don’t matter. On the contrary, they do. The phrase “domestic violence” wasn’t even used in parliament before 1973. Domestic abuse laws a have been tightened a lot since feminists started making it a focus for their campaigns in the 1970s. And then there’s the internet.
It’s impossible to overlook the role of the internet is the case of Chris Brown. That photo of Rihanna. Those obnoxious opinions expressed via tweets from Brown. The posturing post-controversy music videos from both parties. None of these things would have spread so far in 1974. Or 1984. Or even 2004, in the pre-Twitter, pre-Youtube era. People who have never heard a note of Chris Brown’s music know he is a prat. Would the same be true of Lennon and James Brown if they were to do the same now? Most likely yes, it would. The Twitter hordes would not stay silent. Iconoclasm is one of the duties the internet has chosen for itself, and not even Lennon is enough of a deity that he could have avoided a net grilling had he been born 40 years later.
And in any case, there’s no evidence that Chris Brown’s case is even that unusual. Many people can tell you that Ike Turner abused his wife, Tina. Those revelations took years to come out but they still did, even using old media channels. Or take French rock band Noir Désir, whose only foray into the conscious of music fans in the UK came via the news after their singer Bertrand Cantat beat his girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant, to death in a hotel room. Perhaps in these cases, like that of Brown, the fame of the beaten woman played a part in the publicity. It is a sad truth that people empathise more with those they know, or think they know, and the image of a beaten celebrity is more potent than that of a beaten ordinary person. Perhaps the real whataboutery, if there must be any at all, shouldn’t be about comparing Chris Brown to a bunch of men from another age, but asking why we can’t fret and act for all beaten women and men like we do for Rihanna.