If we don’t stop these slippery slope arguments, it will be anarchy! Like Somalia, except people will marry animals and furniture! (More)

Morning Feature: Slippery Slopes, Part II – Abysses at the Bottom (Non-Cynical Saturday)

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

Take LGBT rights. As DWG noted in a comment yesterday, conservative objections rarely focus on the marriage of two consensual adults. They warn of polyamory, pedophilia, and bestiality. Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch even warned of people marrying furniture:

This is a slippery slope. In addition to that at what point are we going to be okay marrying inanimate objects? Can I marry this table or this, you know, clock? Can we marry dogs? This is ridiculous, and biblically, again, I’m going to go right back to my fundamental Christian beliefs marriage is between one man and one woman.

I’ve seen tables with nice legs, but not that nice. Still, she got one clause right: “This is ridiculous.” Why make such an absurd argument?

Turning up the volume:

Most Americans no longer see LGBTs as a threat. An August 2010 AP/Roper poll found that 52% of Americans now favor recognizing LGBT unions, and a December 2010 Washington Post/ABC News poll found 77% favored repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The trend lines on those and other polls support for LGBT rights growing, including support for LGBT marriage. If the issue is two consensual adults getting married, most Americans just shrug.

So conservatives have to turn up the threat volume. The issue is not just two consensual adults getting married. It’s multiple adults marrying, or adults marrying children, or animals, or even furniture! In fact, it’s the whole “Gay Agenda!” What is that agenda? Well, as with all evil plots, it’s about taking over the world! Don’t believe Michael Swift’s clever satire, which in 1987 was read into the Congressional Record without noting it was satire? Here’s minute-by-minute proof! (So far, conservatives haven’t cited that. Maybe they missed the 3:33pm and 4:10pm entries.)

The (exclamation) point of an abyss at the bottom of a slippery slope is to make it as terrifying as possible. It’s not just letting two consenting adults marry; it’s the first step toward LGBTs seducing your children into marrying dogs (or tables)! It’s not just curbing bank executives’ million-dollar bonuses after an economic crash; it’s the first step toward another Holocaust! It’s not just saying “Happy Holidays;” it’s the first step toward banning Christmas!

And that first step is our last chance for a good decision. As noted yesterday, what distinguishes a slippery slope fallacy from an (often valid) “stepping off the cliff” argument is the presumption that we can’t trust our decision-makers. Either they won’t notice the threat until it’s too late – like frogs in slowly heating water – or they have a secret plan to slide us all the way into the abyss of Awful.

The “Magic Why”

Most of us make or are drawn in by slippery slope arguments from time to time. They seem very compelling, and it’s easy to follow the chain of consequences all the way down to Awful without ever asking why we must inevitably go all the way there. And that’s the key to both avoiding and overcoming slippery slope arguments:

  • Why do you think we can’t find a sensible middle ground?
  • Why do you think we won’t stop before we get all the way to Awful?

I call those “Magic Why” questions, because they open the locked boxes in which the flaws of a slippery slope argument hide. Slippery slope arguments are convincing because of what they say, and false because of what they rarely say: once we take this first step, we will never have another chance to make an intelligent, reasonable decision.

But why should that be true? We make most of our mistakes when we don’t anticipate danger, and the people who made the slippery slope argument rang the bell on those dangers. Doesn’t it make sense that we will be more alert, already knowing the dangers at that logical-but-absurd extreme?

If the other person still insists we’ll slide all the way to Awful, another Magic Why or two will often reveal that he/she doesn’t trust our leaders to make good choices. And another Magic Why or two after that may open a conversation that offers real hope … because then at least you’ll be discussing the real point of disagreement.

Or you can just use exclamation points.


Happy Saturday!