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February 9, 2011 / Amanda Forest Vivian

Some common fallacies and rebuttals

A lot of the time, when you are having a conversation about disability and/or ableism, the person you are arguing with will make a fallacious argument. Most of the fallacies I’m describing in this post are fallacies of relevance. Wikipedia describes fallacies of relevance as “presenting an argument that may in itself be valid, but does not address the issue in question.”

Fallacies of relevance can be very difficult to respond to for several reasons.

  1. They involve an abrupt change of subject, which can confuse and distract you, causing you to lose your train of thought. Depending on your disability, this can have the effect of making you have to quit the conversation altogether.
  2. Often the change of subject isn’t obvious–it may even be unintentional on the part of the person who’s using the fallacy, if they are responding emotionally rather than logically. You may end up feeling that something isn’t right about what they said, but unable to identify exactly what it is.
  3. A lot of these fallacies involve stating something irrelevant that is true. You may become confused and think you are wrong because the other person said something true.
  4. A lot of these fallacies involve stating something irrelevant that is related to violence, the speaker’s personal feelings, or other emotionally powerful themes. You may become uncomfortable and think that it would be wrong to disagree, because you might be implying that you don’t care about violence, people’s feelings, etc.

I have experienced 1, 2, 3, and 4 in real-life and online conversations, and as a result I’ve become super interested in sitting around by myself and deconstructing what happened–why did I feel like I was wrong even as I sensed that the other person wasn’t being fair?

In these examples, John is a disabled self-advocate, while Mary is using various fallacies to oppose him. From example to example John and Mary are different people and have different relationships with each other. I tried to give John a few different disabilities, since most of these fallacies are fairly universal. But I felt awkward doing this, because I was mostly writing from my own experience; I hope I haven’t stuck in disabilities that don’t fit the example.

The Harder Fallacy

JOHN: I didn’t like the story we read in class. It was told from everyone’s point of view but the son with CP, and whenever it talked about the disabled son, it would just list everything he couldn’t do. We never learned about his personality or how he felt about anything. I thought it was an offensive portrayal of a disabled character.
MARY: Come on! Are you saying it’s not harder to have a kid with cerebral palsy? That’s a ridiculous thing to say.

John wasn’t talking about whether it’s harder to have a disabled kid than a non-disabled kid. He just wanted the disabled kid to have a point of view and a personality, like the other characters. If someone wanted, they could easily write a story that portrayed a family having a very hard time coping with their son’s disability, while still portraying the son as a well-rounded character and not a plot device.
Mary was responding to a totally different statement, which she made up in her head and is pretending (or actually thinks) is what John was saying. The way the harder fallacy works is that when someone makes any comment about disability being portrayed offensively or inaccurately, you respond to the following imaginary statement: “It isn’t harder to be disabled and it isn’t harder to live or work with a disabled person.”

(Fun fact: some people use a form of the harder fallacy to defend statements like, “This weather is retarded.” Their argument is that having an intellectual disability is harder than not having one, so therefore intellectual disabilities are bad, and words relating to them can be used to mean “bad.” I guess this is a legit argument, except that most people who make the argument don’t apply their “harder life=synonym for ‘bad'” rule consistently, and only apply it to stigmatized groups.)

The Uncomfortable Fallacy

MARY: Wow John, it’s so nice of you that you do that program where you go bowling with people who have special needs. I really admire you because I’m not the kind of person who can talk to special needs people.
JOHN: Well, they’re just people. I’m sure you could come bowling with us and it would be fine.
MARY: No I can’t. When I’m around special needs people, I feel really uncomfortable and don’t know what to say.

This is a less classic fallacy, and not quite an argument; but I think it’s worth exposing. Mary is confusing a feeling with a fact. She interprets her discomfort with “special needs people” to mean that they are a homogeneous group which one needs certain skills to interact with–skills which, she concludes, she must not have.
If Mary always feels uncomfortable around an entire minority group, it’s probably because she hasn’t been around people from that group very much, or has heard a lot of bad things about them. There is no way an entire group of people could be so similar that one person possesses the ability to either get along, or not get along, with all of them. The uncomfortable fallacy is when you think that being uncomfortable around another person necessarily indicates something about the person.

(Fun fact: You may be wondering why John considers this an argument, when Mary just told him he has admirable skills and is nice. Remember, John is disabled. From Mary’s attitude towards disability, we can guess that she probably doesn’t know John is disabled. But John knows that John is disabled, so he’s probably thinking, “I wonder how Mary would feel about me if she knew I was disabled. Or if she does know, why is she talking to me and why did she tell me she’s uncomfortable around other disabled people? Does she think I’m not really disabled?” And so on. Although Mary meant to compliment John, she simultaneously insulted him which makes him feel, well, uncomfortable.)

The Shocking Behavior Fallacy

MARY: My nephew Ralph has autism and it’s really sad. He insists on watching Thomas the Tank Engine every day, and he’s sixteen.
JOHN: Why is that sad? There’s nothing inherently wrong with an older person liking things that are aimed at kids. I feel like in our society, people label a lot of things as problems that aren’t actually problems.
MARY: That’s really insensitive. Ralph bites himself so badly that he has to go to the hospital.

John didn’t say that it’s not a problem to seriously hurt yourself, nor did he say that Ralph doesn’t have any problems. But Mary reacted as though he did say that, and now John is knocked off balance. He wonders, did he say that? How can he explain that that has nothing to do with what he was saying? Is there anything he can say now to avoid giving the impression that he thinks self-injury is okay?
In the Shocking Behavior Fallacy, you can use a shocking behavior to excuse something unrelated that you did to or said about the person who has the behavior. The fallacy functions by changing a very specific statement to a general one. Mary changed John’s specific statement–watching Thomas the Tank Engine is okay–to a very general statement–everything Ralph does is okay. Now she can prove John wrong by giving an example of something Ralph does that is not okay.

(Fun fact: This is actually one of the most dangerous fallacies in use. By equating one thing a person does with everything that person does, it creates a class of people about whose treatment no one is allowed to complain. Let’s change the example a little and say that Mary is a staff person working in an institution, and every time she sees Ralph trying to watch Thomas the Tank Engine she takes points away from him, which means that he doesn’t get to go on day trips. John thinks that Mary is micromanaging Ralph’s choices in an abusive way. Mary responds that Ralph has to be monitored closely and dealt with harshly because his problems are so severe; he bites himself, remember?
Professionals can fall into an inverse of the Shocking Behavior Fallacy, where instead of going from specific to general to shocking behavior, they go from shocking behavior to general to specific. Ralph has a really big problem, but instead of thinking of it as one problem, Mary starts thinking of it as who Ralph is. So whenever Mary sees Ralph doing something she doesn’t agree with, she responds as if he is biting himself. The results can be horrifying.)

The Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy

JOHN: It bothers me that doctors tell pregnant women that people with Down Syndrome can’t count change. They advise women to abort people like me, when they don’t even know what someone with Down Syndrome can do.
MARY: But most people with Down Syndrome aren’t like you. Just think, it would be so hard to have a kid who could never live on their own.

In this fallacy, you tell a person with a disability that they can’t use their feelings or experiences to make a point about their disability, because you just made a new, more specific definition of the group of people being talked about–a definition which no longer includes them. Mary has transformed John from someone who had authority on the subject, due to his experience, to someone whose experiences aren’t valid because he’s an exception.
Let’s briefly accept Mary’s new specific definition–a person who can never live on their own. It’s true, John could have some opinions about whether it’s wrong to abort such a person, but he can’t speak as someone from that particular group. But guess what? The prenatal test doesn’t measure whether someone could live on their own, it just measures whether they have Down Syndrome. If a fetus exactly like John is diagnosed with Down Syndrome, it doesn’t get a break because it’s John. Its mother’s doctor is just as likely to present the diagnosis as bad news, encourage an abortion, and list a bunch of things the child won’t be able to do that may or may not be true of the John-fetus in particular, or people with Down Syndrome in general. Being an exception gets the John-fetus absolutely nothing.
The reason the Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy is a fallacy is because of its suddenness. Stuff goes along, people with a particular disability are getting discriminated against, mild and severe alike. Everyone’s welcome in the stigmatized group. Then someone says, “Hey, I have this disability and all these things you’re saying about my disability aren’t true.” Bam! Apply the Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy and remove the person’s authority (they can keep the stigma).

(Fun fact: I’m sorry if the example comes off as melodramatic, but I’ve read a lot about this stuff and John is not exaggerating.)

The Contest Fallacy

JOHN: It makes me upset when my parents always say that they wish I wasn’t disabled.
MARY: But that’s totally legit. It limits what you can do with your life and it means things are going to be harder for you.
JOHN: I mean, I get that, but how would you feel if your parents were always saying they wish you weren’t a woman because things are harder for women?
MARY: That’s so stupid, John. Being a woman and being disabled aren’t the same thing!


JOHN: I’m not saying that parents don’t have a right to say if they’re upset about their kids being autistic, but, like…it’s basically like if every time there was something on TV or in a magazine about gay people, it was gay people’s parents saying that they wish their kid could be straight and how depressed they are.
MARY: Can’t you explain how you feel without doing Oppression Olympics? People try to make their kids straight all the time. Haven’t you ever heard of Love in Action?

In both examples, John tried to explain how he feels about something as a disabled person by replacing disabled people with a group that Mary belongs to; but Mary either turned it into a contest between the two groups, or thought that John was trying to have a contest.
The first example is easier to take apart because it’s obvious how much of a subject change there is from John’s analogy to Mary’s response. John was trying to explain that your parents can imagine an easy life for you to an extent that makes your real life much harder. Mary responded as if John was saying that because women and disabled people both have harder lives, they are exactly the same.
The second example is more tricky to discuss because it involves an accusation of Oppression Olympics. Oppression Olympics basically means that you say that your minority group has it worse than another minority group. Sometimes people do it intentionally in a conflict, but other people just have a lot of trouble understanding that the problems of the group they’re advocating for are not worse than the problems of everyone else in the world. Hence the astonishingly self-centered, and astonishingly common, declaration that whatever prejudice you care about it is “the last acceptable prejudice.”
Basically, Oppression Olympics is really annoying. You don’t want to do it. But was John doing it? Let’s think back.
Did John say that gay people aren’t oppressed?
Did he say that people with autism are more oppressed than gay people?
Did he say that gay people’s parents never try to make them straight?
No, he didn’t say any of those things.
He did state that the majority of media about gay people is not about parents wanting to cure their gay kids, which is true. Such a statement could be used in Oppression Olympics, if John was trying to argue that he is more oppressed than Mary–but in fact, rather than trying to “win” by convincing her that their oppressions are on different levels, he was trying to explain his experience in a way that would be accessible to her through her experience. It’s perfectly likely that his intentions were to connect with her, not to be malicious and deny her experience as a gay person.
I do think this can be a little dodgy, and the best way to make this kind of analogy is by comparing two groups that you belong to. However, not everyone can do this; and while John made a risky comparison, he was not wrong.

Undisabling Fallacies

Undisabling is when someone is speaking as a person with a disability, and you convince them that they don’t have a right to do that. I’m not going to go over these fallacies with a fine-toothed comb because a)there are tons of them, and b)they often contain elements of the Harder Fallacy, the Shocking Behavior Fallacy, and the Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy–so they should be pretty easy to figure out.
I should probably mention that a lot of the other fallacies are pretty innocent and are often used by people who don’t have these conversations very much and aren’t really thinking about what they’re saying. Undisabling fallacies tend to be used by people who are very very involved in these issues, and are really vicious.

  1. Mary tries to convince John that his disability either isn’t real, or isn’t severe enough for him to have an opinion. She does this by trying to make him feel guilty by telling him something bad that happened to someone else with the same disability. For example, if John has muscular dystrophy, Mary could tell him about someone she knew with muscular dystrophy who died when they were very young. John is set up as seeming to claim a bad experience that he didn’t have. He feels bad. This is the Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy, and is closely related to the Shocking Behavior Fallacy, although it’s not an exact application.
  2. John says something that goes against disability being the Super Sad Worst Thing–probably it was about Thomas the Tank Engine, knowing him. Mary takes this to mean that John is happy and doesn’t see his disability as a problem at all; therefore, she says, his disability must not be very severe; therefore he doesn’t understand. This is both the Harder Fallacy and the Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy.
  3. A really souped-up version of #1 where Mary tries to pick a behavior that she thinks will really gross John out, to the point that he’ll get super confused and never say anything about disability ever. I’ve seen some people in the Autistic community use the phrase “You don’t smear feces!” as an inside joke because it is so consistently used in this type of fallacy.
  4. John is being insensitive to Mary’s very negative feelings about disability by stating his own feelings and opinions, which of course she takes as being very positive because they are not like hers. Kind of Harder Fallacy-ish. Also kind of ties into what I’m about to describe.

Form Over Function Fallacies
I guess that all fallacies of relevance kind of are form over function, but these fallacies are ones in which stuff that is just incredibly, incredibly content-free gets used to win an argument. Again, these are difficult to separate and define, and parts of them are familiar, so I won’t be overlong in describing them.

  1. John has an intellectual disability. John and Mary are having an argument about something important to John, and he starts crying. Isaiah, who is also present, concludes that John is obviously too fragile to be thinking about this stuff or having these conversations, or is too childlike to understand the issues being discussed.
  2. John and Mary are having an argument about something important to Mary, and she starts crying. John feels bad for being insensitive or being too fixed on a particular point of view. Or if he doesn’t feel bad automatically, Mary or Isaiah tells him that he should feel bad.
  3. John has autism. He and Mary argue. Mary tells him that he is too fixed on his own point of view, because of his autism.
  4. John can have many different developmental or psychiatric disabilities, but he usually has autism. He and Mary argue. Mary tells him that he can’t understand the experiences of other disabled people, or their families and staff, because his disability makes him insensitive and unempathetic.
  5. The way John talks is unusual and/or impaired, and boy do Mary and Isaiah talk about that after he’s gone. He talks in a very rehearsed way or blanks out when asked a complicated question, so Mary and Isaiah figure that he’s either lying or has been trained by someone else and doesn’t really understand what he’s saying. He uses the wrong words a lot, or rambles, so he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. He uses very simple words, so he isn’t being serious. Infinite examples.
  6. I can’t really deconstruct these because they just are awful and if you don’t understand why, you never will.

Is everyone trying to trick you all the time?

(John tries to self-advocate.)
(Everyone he talks to uses a bunch of fallacies.)
(At first John is overwhelmed by the fallacies, but later he realizes they weren’t valid arguments.)
JOHN: Everyone is trying to trick me all the time.

Everyone is not trying to trick you all the time. Sometimes people think they’re being logical when they’re not.
I think people can have a very intense learned belief that disability is unimaginably terrible (which, by the way, feeds into the idea that disabled people are “other,” and don’t have their own points of view). This belief can make it hard for someone to listen to what you are actually saying. For example, you might be saying that most disabled people aren’t incredibly miserable people who make everyone else miserable. To someone who believes that disability is unimaginably terrible, what you’re saying is so shocking that they might perceive it as, “Being disabled, or being around a disabled person, is incredibly fun all the time.” Then they respond to the thing they thought you said.
This is an annoying and depressing phenomenon, of course, but it does mean that the use of fallacies is not always malicious even though it sucks.
Did I miss anything?


Leave a Comment
  1. Adelaide Dupont / Feb 9 2011 9:08 am

    This is about the third fallacy and probably a little bit about the second:

    What happens when I see the truth, but not the relevance?

    Or the irrelevance, but not that it is true?

    Sometimes I split them (like an equation with truth on one side and relevance on the other), and sometimes there’s a third thing in between.

    For example: I might believe that disability is terrible, but not unimaginable.

    And to call out the fallacy [to myself or to the other person] would I have to be sure or certain?

    And if they’re content-free, is it harder or easier to use/find rebuttal?

    “Everybody is not trying to trick you”.

    And being right/wrong and unfair/fair seem to come from two different parts. (Logic and feelings?)

    • Amanda Forest Vivian / Feb 9 2011 2:40 pm

      I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean. I mean, I think a lot of these irrelevant statements (biting yourself is bad) are true. That’s why they are disorienting but I might not get it.

      I think right=fair but it doesn’t always feel that way because it is easy to feel like you’re automatically unfair if someone else is upset. I’m not saying that you have to get in arguments about ableism with people who are going to cry, but if it does happen you’re not a bad person.

      I think there’s no rebuttal for completely content-free fallacies which is why they’re so annoying. But they are so awful that, for me at least, whenever I’ve realized I’m having one I’ve just stopped. The problem is just realizing or getting someone else to realize it.

      I just feel like I may not be answering you properly though. Am I basically responding to the things you said?

  2. Kathryn Bjornstad / Feb 9 2011 5:54 pm

    This is an amazing post, one of the best I’ve never seen on the subject. You’re very good at deconstructing these arguments, showing how they work, how the conversations make people on both sides feel, and why they’re problematic. I actually learned a lot and I think I have some better ideas on how to respond to these arguments. I’m bookmarking this page.


  3. eaucoin / Feb 26 2011 5:02 pm

    I’m bookmarking this too. I know I will have to read it again. A lot of times conversations can very subtly ostracize someone and this post shows how. From my own perspective, when something in an argument upsets me, I try to remind myself about things that aren’t true but feel true, but you have taken this to a whole other level. Did you acquire this information by studying debating?

  4. Z / Apr 1 2011 3:48 am

    I’ve never seen this put into words before, and I have to say that you did an absolutely amazing job on this post. I have never been able to articulate the specifics behind the frustration I feel when I have these types of arguments. Thanks for doing that for me!

  5. Gavin / Nov 13 2011 11:34 am

    Great page. May I have your help? What fallacy is it when someone says, “You shouldn’t complain because others have it worse.” I think it goes under relevant privation. Can you tell me more?

  6. RebeccaJo / Mar 18 2012 3:35 am

    Thank you for this. I have read about ableism and it is a fairly new word for me. Your writing helped me understand it better than anything else I have read.


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