Release The Scotsman: Responsible Use of Fallacies

There’s a trend when it comes to talking to people about the negative elements of communities they’re involved in. When people don’t double down and simply deny that there are nasty folks in their community, they like to play the “well they’re not a REAL feminist/atheist/kinky person/purple people eater.” This is known as the No True Scotsman fallacy, and it’s annoyingly common.

Understandably, few people like to be called out on using fallacies, so a typical response to getting called out is something like “Well I still don’t like them and I don’t want them around so they don’t count to me.” I often find myself responding to No True Scotsman call outs by saying “I know they’re technically part of feminism/atheism/people on Tumblr, but I really don’t condone what they’re doing and I have no desire to be associated with them. I don’t know why you’re talking to me about what they did, I hate it as much as you do.”

But that’s kind of bullshit. All of us have to collect our folks when they’re doing inappropriate shit, and if we want to avoid Scotsman accusations we have to be willing to recognize that even the people we hate can be and often are parts of the movements that we are part of.

Then again, we can’t all be held responsible for the behavior of every single other person who uses the same labels we do. There has to be a way for me to respond to White Feminists that isn’t just a No True Scotsman but doesn’t necessarily say “yup, these are my people!”

What are the behaviors someone has to do in order to be responsible towards the shitty members of their groups? Are there times that it isn’t fair to use No True Scotsman just because someone is trying to distance themselves from other members of their movements?

Let’s chat.

No you are not personally responsible for every other person in your movements. But if you want to distance yourself from the shitty elements, you have to do actual work. Meaning you actually have to distance yourself by saying “That is not appropriate stop doing that.” You also have to take actions. If the person is behaving in a shitty manner towards trans people, step up and say “I 100% believe that trans women are women.” Use preferred pronouns, don’t make trans identities the butt of jokes, and call out those who are doing the opposite. Essentially, do your own work and be a good ally or activist by calling out bad behavior when you see it*.

If you are doing your own work, if you are stepping up to the plate to try to improve your movement and community, if you are denouncing the awful actions of the shitty people in your movement, then and only then do you get to say “I did my best to change that part of feminism/atheism/etc. Those are not my people. I am not associated with them and I have made that clear.”

It’s not enough to stand by and assume everyone knows you disagree. It’s not enough to just passively dislike someone. You need to step up and make your own positions clear.

*Of course not everyone will notice/be aware of/have the spoons to deal with every single instance of someone else in their circles being shitty. Do your best and take care of yourself.

Edit 8/2: Ophelia Benson has a post up in which she responds to this post. She says that it is about her. This post is a general discussion of a logical fallacy and is not about any particular situation. It is not about Ophelia Benson.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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  1. I want a way to admit that fundamentally, it’s usually a good point, but that in the broader sense it proves less than nothing towards the unstated point that my “group” is soooooooo terrible.

    I suppose that pile of words is a decent attempt, but then it comes off as flippant.

  2. Yeah, but that depends. I mean, like with ‘people on Tumblr’, activists on Twitter and Tumblr have started harassment campaigns against Indians. And when they aren’t doing that, they’re concern trolling.

  3. The context of this fallacy usually comes when problematic individuals with attitudes at the extremes of a group’s culture are treated as representative. I’ve been accused of using it when trying to explain why I don’t subscribe to the brand of feminism espoused by certain, coincidentally, Very White Feminists. The route I’ve gone down is to stress that what I’m saying is more akin to “not *every* Scotsman”. As in, yes, acknowledge these people exist and sometimes use similar language to describe their politics as I do to describe my own, but stress the differences between what they believe and what I believe.

  4. Re: the 8/2 update:
    If this post is not about Ophelia Benson, then why was the first paragraph edited to remove the reference to “the recent debate about transphobia” when there is, in fact, exactly one “debate” about such things going on? This seems deceptive and dishonest. Perhaps you might say that you didn’t *mean* for it to be about her, but it’s going to be, whether you want it to be, or not, because you’re clearly aware of the “debate” in question. That you removed that opening statement demonstrates that she, in fact, was the subject of your thinking, and you’ve simply decided to try to hide that fact, while simultaneously asserting your personal purity pledge.

    1. To be honest I don’t really know what reference you’re talking about, since the only thing I edited today was to add the final piece. Are you thinking of this post?

      If folks want to see this piece as relevant to Ophelia then sure, it can be applied, but it’s just more general than that. I wrote most of the post before any of Ophelia’s current situation happened.

      1. I think the reference to “trans women are women,” given the clusterfuck at FtB is what people are seeing as a reference to Ophelia. It doesn’t take a huge desire on the part of the reader to make it about her.

        Trust me. I didn’t want it to be about her and that’s exactly what I thought when I read that paragraph.

        That said, if you say it’s not about Ophelia, I’ll take you at your word.

      2. You’re right, Olivia, I conflated the two articles. My sincere apologies.

        The remaining part about “perhaps … you didn’t mean it to be about her, but it’s going to be” is one part that I still stand by.

        1. Yeah, and that’s not Olivia’s fault, now is it?

          I’m glad you apologized, because you were completely out of line, but good fucking grief with all the accusations and finger pointing.

          1. Oh, fuck off, Will. Emotions are high and lots of people are on a hair-trigger. The Accusations and Finger Pointing that have caused the current problems are the fault of exactly one side in this issue, and it’s not the one that I’m on. I was wrong, and so I apologized. I’m certain that you are living in a blessed heavenly state having never made a wrong connection after being harassed for weeks on end.

          2. Are you kidding? Take some fucking responsibility. How are you going to come on here, make accusations that are utterly false, and then say that the current problems aren’t caused by people on your side? Y’all are the ones causing this problem in this thread right now.

            Being harassed does not entitle you or Ophelia or anyone else to start wildly making accusations against anyone for any reason, especially when they’ve done nothing to you and had nothing to do with your current problems.

          3. The only person who made a wrong accusation was ME. And I TOOK RESPONSIBILITY AND APOLOGIZED.

            I leave you to your little world. Note that blog posts regarding X do not exist in a vacuum where X is kind of a big thing right now in related circles. Funny how the OP said that my followup comment was “perfectly reasonable” but you are still itching for a fight. Maybe you need to do what I suggested you do. (“Fuck off.”)

          4. The only person who made a wrong accusation was ME. And I TOOK RESPONSIBILITY AND APOLOGIZED.

            Nope, Ophelia’s whole post is a wrong accusation. And people are accusing Olivia of lying. Talk about trying to pick a fight.

            I leave you to your little world. Note that blog posts regarding X do not exist in a vacuum where X is kind of a big thing right now in related circles. Funny how the OP said that my followup comment was “perfectly reasonable” but you are still itching for a fight. Maybe you need to do what I suggested you do. (“Fuck off.”)

            Flounce away now!

        2. Thank you for the apology.
          That seems perfectly reasonable. I certainly hope that the concepts behind it are broader than that and won’t be limited to the situation, but sure, if people want to read that in they can. I chose the example because it seemed clear and I hear it come up often.

      3. Also, by the way, gas-lighting people who point out what you’ve said can be taken a different way than you might have intended is not helpful in furthering the dialogue.

        1. Are you fucking joking? Let me get this straight. Olivia makes a post about a logical fallacy and how it sometimes plays out in social justice circles. Someone wrongly assumes it is about them. Olivia clarifies, says it’s applicable to a lot of people, and that’s gaslighting now?

          1. From Olivia’s comment above:

            “If folks want to see this piece as relevant to Ophelia then sure, it can be applied…”

            That’s gas-lighting. People aren’t willfully seeing a reference to Ophelia in “trans women are women”. That phrase played a huge role in the clusterfuck on FtB and since it has generated at least 2 posts at Skepchick on gender theory, it’s hardly surprising that people made the connection.

            But, you know, whatever. If you don’t want to see gas-lighting where it obviously is, I can’t make you understand… (See what I did there?)

          2. You’re truly grasping for straws and the mental gymnastics you are performing here are quite impressive.

            It’s not Olivia’s fault if people read something into what she wrote because Ophelia decided to make it all about her. Why should she take the blame for that? Further, do you think saying “trans women are women” was uttered for the very first time in conversation with Ophelia Benson in the comments section of her blog? Do you not think there have been countless arguments about this particular thing all over the media lately? Have you been paying no attention to the media discussions about that very topic? Are we never again allowed to utter the words “trans women are women” because it might offend Ophelia Benson?

  5. You don’t mention how to respond to the thing you are calling out. But the ongoing situation has amazing parallels to the cases where Harris and Shermer were called out. The person being criticised frames it as a “witch hunt”, ignores all the criticism while their fans go ballistic. Who also ignore all the substantive criticism and accuse everyone of acting in bad faith.

    Don’t know if there is any way to avoid it? I was a bit surprised when Harris and Shermer acted like this, although a lot less in hindsight. Do we just have to put up with battle lines of stans shouting at everyone who looks like they are criticising, while ignoring any criticism?

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