As discussed in an earlier essay, it is tempting to define a group you do not like by the worst people associated with it—this can easily lead to committing the fallacy of guilt by association. To illustrate, those on the left will be tempted to see the lock down protesters as racist because some associated with the protests have openly displayed racist symbols. Those on the right will be tempted to see those protesting police violence as violent and destructive because some associated with the protests have engaged in violence and vandalism. Not surprisingly, there is an equal temptation: to refuse to acknowledge bad elements of groups one likes. Giving in to this temptation can result in committing a version of the purity fallacy which could be called the Denial of Association.
This version of the fallacy occurs when a negative claim about a group based on certain members is rejected by asserting, without adequate support, that the alleged members are not true members of the group. The fallacy is also known as the No True Scotsman fallacy thanks to the philosopher Anthony Flew. For example, if a 2nd Amendment rights group is accused of being racist, they might simply assert that those displaying racist symbols at their events were not members of their group. This version of the fallacy has the following form:
Premise 1: Negative claim P has been made about group G based on M members of G.
Premise 2: It is claimed, without support, that the members of M are not true members of G.
Conclusion: Claim P is false.
This reasoning is fallacious because simply asserting that problematic alleged members are not true members does not prove that the claim is not true about the group. As always, it is important to remember that fallacious reasoning does not entail that the conclusion is false. A group’s defender could commit this fallacy while their conclusion is correct; they would have simply failed to give a good reason to accept their claim.
Like many fallacies, it draws its persuasive power primarily from psychological factors. Someone who has a positive view of the group has a psychological, but not logical, reason to reject the negative claim without adequate evidence. Few are willing to believe negative things about groups they like or identify with. In Flew’s original example, a Scotsman refuses to believe a story about the bad behavior of other Scotsmen on the grounds that no true Scotsman would do such things. People can also reject the claim on pragmatic grounds, such as when doing so would provide a political advantage.
The main defense against this fallacy is to consider whether the negative claim is being rejected on principled grounds or is being rejected without evidence, such as on psychological or pragmatic grounds. One way to try to overcome a psychological bias is to ask what evidence exists to reject the counterexample. If there is no such evidence, then all that would be left are psychological or pragmatic reasons—which have no logical weight.
Sorting out who or what belongs in a group can be a matter of substantial debate. For example, when people displaying racist symbols show up at gun rights events and lock down protests the question arises as to whether the protesters should be regarded, in general, as racist. Some might contend those openly displaying racist symbols should not define the broader group of protesters. Others contend that by tolerating the display of racist symbols the general group shows that it is racist. As another example, those peacefully protesting police violence generally disavow those who engage in violence and vandalism and claim that the violent protesters do not define their group. Others contend that because violence and looting sometimes occurs adjacent to or after peaceful protests, the protesters are violent looters.
Debates over group membership need not be fallacious. If a principled argument is given to support the exclusion, then this fallacy is not committed. For example, if a (fictional) 2nd amendment rights organization “Anti-Racists for Gun Rights”(ARGR) was accused of being racist because people at their protest displayed racist symbols, showing that none of the racists were members of ARGR (and perhaps videos showing ARGR members telling the racists to get away from them) would not commit this fallacy. As another example, if peaceful protesters can show that those who engaged in violence and looting are not part of their group, then it would not be fallacious for them to reject the claim that they are violent on the grounds that those committing the violence are not in their group.
Sorting out which people belong to a group and how the group should be defined can be quite challenging; but this should be done in a principled way. To define a group by the worst of those associated with it runs the risk of committing the guilt by association fallacy. Denying that problematic members are not true members of a group runs the risk of committing the denial of association fallacy. While both fallacies are psychologically appealing and can be highly effective means of persuasion, they have no merit as arguments.