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No True Scotsman: Arguments from Purity

The anecdote that gave the “No True Scotsman” fallacy its name goes something like this: I make the claim that no Scotsman would ever put sugar in their tea. My friend says “I’m a Scotsman, and I put sugar in my tea.” I then counter by saying “well, no true Scotsman would put sugar in his tea.” The fallacy is in the variable definition of what constitutes a Scotsman, basically a “true” Scotsman being only someone who I deem appropriately Scottish. The fallacy applies to all sorts of arguments that base their premise on purity. “No true American would ever support Communism,” or “no true Black person would ever vote for Trump,” or even, more recently, “no true trans person would ever write a story based upon the attack helicopter meme.”

Aside from the inherent logic in arguing from purity — after all, who gets to decide what constitutes a true Scotsman —  there is something dangerous in the way that the fallacy is used to discount and diminish marginalized voices that do not adhere to the acceptable and expected parameters for those voices. While cis het white folks seem to exist in a great variety of forms — allies and enemies, harmful and helpful, and everything in between, marginalized peoples are often held to a higher standard, and are not allowed to step outside of accepted lines. Notice the vitriolic reaction when Angie Thomas, author of bestsellers The Hate U Give and On The Come Up tweeted in support of a white author Sarah Dressen. Dressen had expressed sadness when her books were rejected for a college reading list for being too juvenile and feminine, citing a quote from a young college student as the source of her ire. Thomas, a Black woman, was expected to support the young college student, person in the exchange who had less power as opposed to Dressen, the “powerful” famous writer. Although many white authors also tweeted in support of Dressen, Thomas and other writers of color in particular were called out because it seemed they, of all people, was not expected to side with power. “No true Black woman writer would support a fellow writer instead of a college student,” the message seemed to be.

The No True Scotsman fallacy reared its head again recently in response to the short story published in the speculative fiction publication Clarksworld, entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.”  The story, author, and publication received substantial backlash, and it was assumed, when the story first appeared online, that the author was certainly a cisgender heterosexual white person. Many even assumed that the author’s name, Isabel Fall, must be a pen name, for only a man would write something so blatantly offensive. “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” played upon the right-wing meme that has oft been used to denigrate non-binary and gender-queer individuals. The author, in response to the “no LGBTQ person would ever write such a story” sentiment of her attackers, felt the need to out herself as a trans woman. The attacks then followed the No True Scotsman fallacy almost to the letter, simply replacing trans woman with Scotsman. Despite the fact that many trans people felt the story resonated with them, and enjoyed the story for the satire that it was meant to be, many felt like the author’s use of right-wing terminology in her story was disloyal and hurtful. A true trans person would never write something that might hurt members of her trans community … right? The author eventually asked Clarksworld to remove her story, a move which reveals the extent to which the controversy personally affected her.

The question then became, are trans writers, Black writers, Asian writers, any marginalized writers, not allowed to take the risks that cis het white people regularly take in their writing? When a white person writes something potentially Harmful (capital H intended), the reaction of the industry is often to close ranks and support the person’s brave effort to do something controversial with their writing. Consider, for instance, when Laurie Forest wrote the controversial The Black Witch, Kirkus gave it a starred review and later even addressed the haters directly, reaffirming its support of the author and the book. The third book in the series will be published later this month. Marginalized people, on the other hand, are often proverbially cast out of the protective circle of the progressive community. In the case of Isabel Fall, even after she revealed herself as a trans women, many still denied her intentions, questioning whether or not she might be a rightist plant. Ethnic Chinese writer Amelie Wen-Zhao actually pulled her own book from publication after Twitter users named her book anti-Black. The author herself claimed that she drew upon her own experience of human trafficking in East Asia, and was not meant as a commentary on chattel slavery (the book was later published, but which much less fanfare and little buzz).  Online Progressive spaces invoke the No True Scottsman fallacy with alarming frequency, but rarely is it invoked equally. Marginalized people must, it seems, be perfect representatives for their group, at all times. They must align with the right people, have the right thoughts, and write the right words. Satire, anger, messy, off the wall, edgy, boundary pushing, and especially in-group critiques — these are dangerous for a marginalized writer, whereas a white writer like me might be celebrated for the same.

While it is true that this is due almost entirely to the way cis het white people view marginalized individuals — as ambassadors for their groups. Marginalized peoples must be wary, at all times, of perpetuating negative stereotypes or Harmful perceptions of their group. Ultimately however, requiring ideological purity from marginalized people simply perpetuates the othering idea of a monoculture, the myth of sameness. After all, even positive stereotypes do harm because they deny the fact that marginalized people have myriad voices, experiences, and truths. Sometimes those voices might make us uncomfortable. They might challenge what we think we know about a group, or about ourselves. We do not have to agree with those voices, but we neither should we suppress them, for they serve as a reminder of the diversity of thought that is inherent in all communities. All Scotsmen, as it turns out, are true Scotsmen.

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