Our leaders used to debate real policy consequences. If we don’t stop these slippery slope debates, we’ll descend into anarchy! (More)

Slippery Slopes, Part I – Myths at the Top

With much of the country covered in snow and ice, we’ll take a couple of days to look at slippery slopes. Plus it’s a good way to connect musings on several topics. Today we’ll consider the myths that lie (in both senses of the word) at the tops of those slopes. Tomorrow we’ll quiver in terror over the abysses that lie (again, in both senses of the word) at their bottoms.

Today’s introduction is a classic slippery slope argument of the kind we often see in politics. It proposes a mythical, idealized past where our leaders debated real policy consequences, then implies our political debates longer meet that idealized standard, and finally threatens a descent into total anarchy if we don’t turn back to that mythical ideal. It even ends with an exclamation point!

But what exactly is a slippery slope?

The False Dilemma:

Of course logicians could not be satisfied with a term like Slippery Slope Fallacy. Oh, they used to be, back when logicians spoke in plain language so everyone could understand them. (Note: that would be back before Aristotle, at least.) But no. They have to come up with high-sounding terms so the rest of us can’t figure out what they mean. For a while they called it the Fallacy of False Extremes. But even that was kind of Plain Language-ish. So now it’s the False Dilemma. Or, if you really want to sound academic and exclude the masses, the False Dichotomy. If we don’t rein them in, next those logicians will call it Zenith-Nadir Irrationality, ZNI, which they’ll pronounce ZEE-nee … which we’ll never understand … and none of us will ever have a logical thought again!

Simply, a Slippery-Slope-False-Extremes-False-Dilemma-False-Dichotomy-Zenith-Nadir – just in case those dastardly logicians have already changed to that name – is a bogus argument that implies there is no stable middle ground between Wonderful and Awful. Once we leave Wonderful, it says, we always slide all the way down to Awful.

It’s not that there are no more decisions to be made. We usually describe that as “stepping off a cliff.” Instead, slippery slope arguments imply we can’t trust the decision-makers. Either they won’t notice the risk until it’s too late (like frogs in slowly-heated water), or they secretly want us to slide all the way down to Awful (like those dastardly logicians). Either way, a slippery slope argument says, this is our last chance to get back to Wonderful. Except….

Wonderful is a myth.

Take World War II, for example. Now that was a wonderful time. It was, in the title of historian Michael C.C. Adams’ book, The Best War Ever. Americans were united in our opposition to evil dictators. We set aside racism and sexism and greed and all worked together. No one criticized the troops or the government, and rightly so because our troops and our leaders were paragons of virtue and wisdom. We crushed evil with good and everyone knew it, so we were welcomed as liberators. Our troops came home victorious and proud, so none of them suffered nightmares or flashbacks or any of the rest of the PTSD we saw after Vietnam. Why can’t today’s Americans be as Wonderful as we were back then?

Except as Dr. Adams details, almost all of that is myth. Americans were not united during World War II. There were race riots. Women were both demonized and put on pedestals. There were both war profiteers and black markets for rationed goods. Newspapers criticized our troops and our leaders, and sometimes rightly as there were atrocities and command blunders. Our troops were often greeted with flowers and kisses, but not always and rarely for long. They did come home victorious and proud, and with flashbacks and nightmares and shame that they could not reveal, because society expected them to exemplify the myth of Wonderful.

And as Dr. Adams argues, comparing today to a mythical, idealized past is dangerous. It implies we are on a slippery slope toward Awful, our social tapestry fraying, our moral fiber rotting, the very kernel of our Exceptionalism ground into mush.

Just ask Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, or the legions of other fear mongers who say the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell will lead to people marrying goats, saying “Happy Holidays” is the first step in a plot to ban Christianity, and a 3% increase in the top marginal income tax rate will inevitably turn us into Stalinist Russia.

With an exclamation point!

But that’s for tomorrow….


Happy Friday!