The myth of the ‘slippery slope’


Since we’re now in ski season, I suppose it makes sense that we take a minute to celebrate this thing called a “slippery slope.” With apologies to the masochists known as cross-country skiers, skiing wouldn’t be much fun without some kind of slope, slippery or otherwise.

So, as a literal thing in the world, you have to love it. As a metaphor, though?  Ugh, the slippery slope is crippling us.

I refer, of course, to the slippery-slope argument, a rhetorical device you hear over and over again, particularly in political or social debates. It sounds cogent and rational. And it’s many times difficult to counter. But it’s almost always bogus.

The slippery slope argument can be used to marshal resistance against some form of permissiveness, or against its opposite, some kind of limit.

In the former category, we have the counter argument against gay marriage that states if we allow men to marry men, or women to marry other women, what’s to stop polygamy? What’s to stop a person from marrying his dog or her horse or his car? If we allow anyone to marry any person, persons or thing, what the heck will marriage even mean anymore?

In the latter column is the argument against limits, now being employed with ferocious combativeness by the gun lobby and Second Amendment purists who contend that legislation to control, say, banana-clip magazines that allow you to shoot 100 rounds a minute leads inevitably and inexorably to law-abiding citizens being picked clean of any means to defend themselves including kitchen knives by chrome-helmeted government thugs.

Not to pick on the right wing on this score. You hear plenty of slippery-slope nonsense on the left as well. There are some atheists, for instance, under the impression that a nativity scene in a public park is the first step toward  a theocratic state with Pat Robertson making all the rules. Civil liberatarians often resort to the slippery slope on such subjects as government surveillance and wire-tapping.

In most cases, right or left, people trotting out the slippery slope are not talking about the thing itself, but about some lurid nightmare fantasy they’ve convinced themselves is possible without absolutist diligence. What might sound absurd to you sounds just as absurd to the slippery sloper, but in a Kafka-esque, it-could-happen way.

This is, in many ways, a very American problem. Our Constitution creates absolutes when it comes to things like free speech, freedom of religion and, many believe, the right to bear arms. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say, “Well, that’s a gray area. Use your best judgment, but be smart about it.” The Constitution invites us to draw lines in the sand, to use a similar cliché.

But absolutist thinking should be regarded with great heaps of skepticism. Free speech is about as close to an absolute right as we have, but even that has limits. The Supreme Court has decided that you have no right to deliberately scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, or its metaphorical equivalent.

That case dates back almost a hundred years, yet the slippery slope from that decision should have delivered us by now to prisons full of people jailed for nothing other than saying illegal things. The 26th Amendment, to cite another example, granted the right to vote to anyone over the age of 18 more than 40 years ago. Slippery-slope arguments at the time insisted that the pressure would continue to push that age every lower, which means by now, first-graders should have the vote. It was argued a century ago that allowing women to vote would inevitably result in a government made up entirely of women. Yeah, how’s that working out?

The maddening thing is that slippery slopes do exist, in everything from sports-star salaries to Internet usage. The U.S. Senate’s current crisis in the use of the filibuster is an example of dealing with an especially pernicious slippery slope.

Every public decision to limit or permit rights or privileges has some kind of natural equilibrium in the real world. But few of us are wise enough to know what that level is beforehand.

Which is exactly why the slippery slope argument – which is rarely accompanied by any real evidence – is almost always a fallacy. If we allow A to happen, then B,C,D and E will follow with ever accelerating force until we come to rest in some hellish situation that we had not foreseen.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia employed the slippery slope argument against the health-care law last summer, stating that individual mandates to buy insurance on the free market could lead to the government legally forcing Americans to eat broccoli, which is a particularly weird kind of tyranny, if you ask me.

The point is not that the idea of mandatory broccoli intake is several degrees beyond ridiculous – though, I should add, I’m already on board with broccoli (yummy).

The point is that if anyone should be wary of slippery-slope thinking, you would think it would be someone sitting on the Supreme Court. And if the Supreme Court is engaging in this particularly persistant form of irrationality, then what hope do the rest of us have in combatting it.

The slippery slope is an illusion but it will remain a favorite tool for dishonest and deluded people until someone puts their foot down, and discovers that that foot is not sliding after all.


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