No true Scotsman
Updated on 07 August 2022
No true believer ever wavers! No true warrior dies in his bed! No true Norwegian takes sugar in coffee! No true American dishonours the stars and stripes! The No-true-Scotsman fallacy or ‘move’, as it is formally known, is an attempt to defend a generalisation against counter-examples by dismissing them as irrelevant. It derives its name from the philosopher Antony Flew who illustrated the faulty reasoning involved with the story of a Scotsman who reacted to a gory sex crime by saying ‘No Scot would do such a thing!’ When a culprit turned up the next day, he dismissed the development by claiming ‘No true Scotsman would do such a thing.’ The reason this rebuttal is usually called a ‘move’ rather than a fallacy is because it does not involve any reasoning, fallacious or otherwise. An alternative term is ‘appeal to purity’.
There are several noteworthy components to the No-true-Scotsman (NTS) move. The first is that the category being promoted reflects a desired ideal rather than a likely reality. The second is that the goalposts can be repeatedly shifted to dismiss counter-examples. The third is that anybody can set themselves up as the definitive arbitrator of who’s in and who’s out. The move has the advantage of safeguarding ‘the real thing’ but is flawed in that the ideal of authenticity being promoted quickly becomes irrefutable, depending as it does on assertion rather than argument. Since discussion by assertion tends to advance the interests of those who shout loudest, a second potential point in its favour is that the move allows those with less substantive arguments to have a say against more intellectual elites. In other words, if you’re outgunned in the battle over truth-the-noun, which requires argument, turn truth into the adjective ‘true’, thus moving it out of the way, and fight the battle of assertion – which you can more readily win!
The NTS move is often used in the context of religious groups and political ideologies, exerting huge pressure on members to conform. Any society that draws strict boundaries between insiders and outsiders is likely to censor debate about beliefs and behaviours considered transgressive. It will determine by diktat what is acceptable and what is not. This in turn may result either in the persecution and/or excommunication of individuals by the group, or in the self-censorship and self-suppression of members who want to remain within it. Another possible outcome is that communities that favour assertion over discussion are more vulnerable to the dictate of self-appointed gatekeepers.
This blog considers examples of the NTS move as it has been used in relation to religion, political ideology, and patriotism.
No true Muslim
What is it to be a true Muslim? And who is to decide? Extremist groups such as ISIS, Taliban, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab justify violence and murder by claiming that their victims are infidels and apostates. They appeal to the concept of ‘takfir’, which is the act of accusing a Muslim of not being a pure believer, to discredit others – whether they be individuals or sects – and to justify atrocities against them. Takfir, as used by extremists, some of whom are known as ‘takfirists’, is a canonical example of the NTS move: ‘No true Muslim believes and behaves as you do, and it is my duty to punish you for it.’ Counter-arguments by opponents often appeal to the same fallacy by discrediting extremists as un-Islamic zealots who lack a true understanding of the Qur’an. Each party thus appeals to its own notion of what constitutes a ‘true Muslim’ to determine who’s in and who’s out and how they should be treated accordingly.
Non-Muslims have also made use of the NTS move to pronounce on the authenticity and transgression of Muslims. George W. Bush, in the wake of 9/11, asserted that the teachings of Islam ‘are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself’. Tony Blair stated in a 2006 speech: ‘Extremism is not the true voice of Islam. Neither is that voice necessarily to be found in those who are from one part only of Islamic thought, however assertively that voice makes itself heard.’ Barack Obama similarly asserted in 2015: ‘The terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology.’ He went on to explain why he avoided using the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ by saying: ‘Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.’ Blasphemy, inauthenticity, illegitimacy, perversion of the faith – this is the characteristic vocabulary of religious gatekeepers.
What is at issue here is not the attempt to determine the defining properties of a category: There are often good grounds for divergent interpretations, and there are better and worse arguments for promoting one interpretation over another. The aim of this blog is first to alert readers to the existence and prevalence of the NTS move and second to encourage the questions: True according to whom? On what evidence? With what justification? To what effect? Can this truth change over time, and if so, how?
No true liberal
One effect of the narrowing-down of categories to their supposed essence is the potential silencing of rival and equally authentic voices. Many might argue that no true liberal would ever ignore the rights of minorities, since the rights and freedoms of individuals along with the protection and promotion of minorities is a driving concern of liberalism. It is ironic therefore that the politically correct movement, in large part driven by liberal concerns for the sensitivity of minorities, should have resulted in the silencing of dissent. This silencing has come about for two reasons. One is a fear of causing offence; the other a fear of being bullied by the call-out culture of the Internet, where differences in opinions are often mob-judged to be expressions of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.
This silencing of dissent has had a knock-on effect, namely a willingness to let self-proclaimed ‘true’ members speak for everybody. In the blog on Hasty generalisations, we saw how multicultural policies may become blind to ‘minorities-within-minorities’ when they only listen to self-appointed spokesmen. Such spokesmen are often gatekeepers whose own power depends, as Blair rightly warned, on suppressing the voices of others.
The loudest voices on the Danish cartoon controversy were those that condemned the cartoons as offensive. The result was not only that those Muslims who claimed not to be offended were accused of being unbelievers and threatened with reprisal, but that non-Muslims adopted the same rhetoric and dismissed the unoffended as not being ‘real Muslims’. This was the Danish MP Naser Khader’s experience with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of the left-wing Danish paper Politiken. It was also British MP Maajid Nawaz’s experience in 2014; he explains that liberal thinkers like himself experience the ‘sniggering assumption’ that they are not ‘real Muslims’ when they seek to scrutinise their own culture. Nawaz argues that the ‘regressive left’ attitude of political correctness and cultural tolerance can prove harmful to minority communities, hindering their progress by silencing divergent voices and promoting bigotry instead. When the liberal left labels dissenting voices as racist and Islamophobic for speaking out on matters that deserve debate, it becomes illiberal, he concludes.
Truisms, like labels, are assertions that silence debate by appealing to moral superiority. In his 2012 book The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah Goldberg argues that phrases such as ‘diversity is strength’, ‘violence never solved anything’, and ‘I may disagree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it’, are not an invitation to engage in argument, but an attempt to win the argument by refusing to engage at all. As we have seen, the NTS move is also a truism – a self-evident truth – to those who assert it, at least.
We might ask, however, whether it necessarily lacks validity if a liberal were to say ‘All good liberals should give voice to minorities! No true liberal should shame dissenters into silence!’ without arguing their case? It may be less convincing to those who believe in fair process, with its cycle of engaging, exploring, explaining, acting, and evaluating, but that does not make it invalid or unconvincing. Once again, I urge readers not to dismiss logical fallacies, but to recognise them and, where necessary, engage with the arguments they tend to obscure, those having to do with authority, evidence, justification, and consequence.
No true American
My final example considers President Trump’s use of the NTS move. He uses a positive variant when he affirms that people he likes are ‘true American patriots’, such as Mike Pompeo at his swearing-in ceremony in May, and in his recent endorsement of Devin Nunes, whom he called ‘a true American Patriot the likes of which we rarely see in our modern day world’.
These open affirmations of patriotism contrast with Trump’s more implicit accusations of inauthenticity. From the birther movement, his expulsion of Dreamers, the travel ban, and his comments on the inability of Muslims to assimilate, to his characterisation of Mexicans as rapists (recently repeated), condemnation of immigrants from ‘shithole countries’ and the current controversy over his zero-tolerance illegal immigration policy, Trump’s approach seems to be systematically narrowing what he deems to be essentially American.
I conclude with the example of the National Football League (NFL) ‘kneelers’ – those American football players who, since Colin Kaepernick’s initial protest in August 2016, have protested their views about racial inequality and police brutality in the USA by kneeling during the pre-game national anthem. President Trump’s reaction has epitomised that of a gatekeeper, claiming that that the protesters should be fired and their kneeling banned because it is unpatriotic and disrespectful to flag and country. His rhetoric has been damning and hugely divisive, drawing a hard boundary between the kneelers and true patriots.
The twist in Trump’s polarisation of the NFL kneelers came in June this year when he tried to put the controversy to rest by offering a pardon to those acquaintances of NFL players whose unfair treatment can be officially attested. ‘The power to pardon is a beautiful thing’, said Trump as he made his conciliatory gesture. Significantly, a pardon presupposes that a crime has been committed, and so the positive in this case is that Trump is willing to consider the cause of the protest. This was first articulated by Kaepernick when he said that he ‘would not show pride in the flag of a country that oppresses black people and people of colour’, people who he claimed ‘lacked a voice and the power to effect change’. Trump is thus acknowledging possible injustices and the right of the voiceless to be heard.
On the other hand, Trump is extending this olive branch to the kneelers themselves, and by so doing he is, it seems to me, re-affirming that he has the authority not only to point the finger of blame but also to extend the hand of forgiveness. This is the twist then: The NTS move gives gatekeepers the power to determine who’s in and who’s out on the basis of criteria that they have control over. If those criteria remain unchallenged, their next move may well be to decide who wins a pardon for having been ostracised in the first place. This act of apparent magnanimity thus serves to entrench the initial charge of being unpatriotic, while simultaneously appearing fair-minded in addressing the legitimacy of the initial grievance: It accuses and absolves at one and the same time. No wonder Trump believes that the power of pardon is a beautiful thing.
In ‘No true Muslim’, we looked at examples of the exclusion of Muslims who do not fit the idealised category advocated by gatekeepers, whoever those gatekeepers may be. In ‘No true liberal’, we considered the silencing effect of political correctness and flagged the danger of relinquishing our own views to the supposedly greater authenticity of self-appointed gatekeepers. And in ‘No true American’ we saw how the NTS move can be used to further increase the power of the gatekeeper.
I hope that these examples have successfully illustrated the theme of this blog: that logical fallacies have a make and break quality; that they are not just fallacious, but often very forceful precisely because of their faults; and that at their best, they invite us to question both ourselves and others. As such, they are centrally relevant to the discussion of intercultural communication.