Three reasons slippery slope arguments are stupid:
1. Slippery slope arguments make you look like you can’t articulate a proper argument against what’s actually being discussed. “Why is this bad? Because it could lead to something bad happening.”
2. You can use them to say pretty much whatever you want:
If we allow straight people to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?
If we allow blacks and whites to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?
If we ban gay marriage, what next? Banning straight marriage?
If we let gay people raise kids, what next? Letting single parents raise kids?
If we make alcohol legal, what next? P?
If taxes on cigarettes go up, what next? Taxes on rich people going up? (I wish!)
If we change the time-honoured tradition of modern Western marriage, what next? Changing the time-honoured traditions of drink-driving and domestic violence?
If we eliminate gender restrictions on marriage, what next? Elimination of gender inequality in straight marriages?
If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? Elimination of alienation, victimisation and mental health issues among gay youth?
If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? I might have to buy them a wedding present?
3. Slippery slope arguments understand a change through a constructed narrative, rather than looking at the specific phenomenon and the actual history of change.
Swift recourse to slippery slope arguments implies that the only lens through which you can understand something is in part of a broad category of “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage” or “strange new developments” or “things my pastor told me God doesn’t like.”
This is actually a serious moral deficiency insofar as it displays a lack of ability to analyse the specific significance of something and how it affects people and society. So gay people in loving, mutual relationships are equated with sex addicts, paedophiles and men who have sex with dolphins.
Worse, proponents of slippery slope arguments project their own failures of moral imagination onto their opponents. Instead of listening and responding to the actual arguments of those who are arguing for (e.g.) gay marriage, they caricature their opponents’ moral logic into a simple reverse of their own: I want to preserve ‘traditional’ marriage. Therefore, You want to change ‘traditional’ marriage.
But “changing ‘traditional’ marriage” probably isn’t the best way of explaining the history of gay rights, and there’s certainly no alliance of polygamists and cousin-marriers plotting with gay people on what their next blow against ‘traditional’ marriage will be. If there’s any plotting, it will be about how to further increase the rights and respect of LGBTI people (see second-to-last statement in #2 above).
Of course, the increasing focusing of morality around individual freedoms, developing throughout (post-)modernity, may have something to do with the increasing support for LGBTI rights. (Or with why the marriage rights of individuals is a more important moral issue to most NZers than our ballooning economic inequality.) But individualism/liberalism can’t account for the entirety of the motivations and arguments for gay marriage. Moreover, the recent law change is the removal of a gender restriction, not a liberalisation of relationships.
Anyway, the trend towards individualism/liberalism doesn’t just mean “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage.” It’s just as much ‘to blame’ for the rise of the nuclear family, freedom of religion, and freedom to publish verbal diarrhoea about slippery slopes on the internet. Where were the slippery slope arguments then?
Two occasions where modified versions of slippery slope arguments might be OK:
1. Pointing out the logical implications of people’s assertions. This isn’t really a slippery slope argument so much as an examination of the wider scope of someone’s moral logic.
For example, if someone says “I think everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent” you can respond “So a brother and sister should be allowed to marry?” or “So one woman should be allowed to marry three men and a consenting goose?”
In which case the response is either, “Yes, I suppose you’re right, I’m happy to let people do what they want” or (more likely) “Hmmm, no, I’ll rephrase. I mean everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent and so long as it doesn’t harm them or others.”
And then – and here’s the important part – you get into a more constructive debate about which relationships we should see as inherently harmful, and why… and each case can be examined separately.
Of course this requires actually listening to what someone is saying and analysing their moral logic. For example, If someone’s moral logic is “I believe most people should be encouraged to enter healthy, lifelong, supportive marriages with people they love, and I don’t believe any particular gender roles are necessary components of a healthy marriage” the implications are going to be quite different to the liberal-permissive logic often assumed by slippery-slope proponents.
2. When there is an actual connection between what’s happening now and what might be the logical next step… and where the current step would actually make it easier for the next step to happen.
This is particularly useful if what is happening now is generally seen as harmless, but what might happen in the future is not. In this case, a slippery slope argument could form part of a range of considerations, showing that the consequences of what is happening now may be wider than people may think.
A good example might be expanding the powers of the GCSB. Even if you support some functions of the GCSB, we all know that all-encompassing Big Brother-esque powers is going too far, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Since we can observe an international process of increasing powers of surveillance agencies and reducing human liberties and privacy, particularly since 9/11, it makes sense to call place the current GCSB bill in this context and let possible future developments enter into our considerations. (In fact, maybe we should have thought more about these ‘slippery slopes’ when the GCSB first opened, or when the Terrorism Suppression Act was passed, etc.)
Obviously, this is very different to gay marriage / polygamy etc. The connections are a lot closer, and the various ‘steps’ are a lot more gradual and difficult to examine/evaluate separately. Moreover, since the laws are complex the process is a lot easier to understand than the individual developments – again unlike gay marriage.
The endless popularity of the Key government represents everything that’s wrong with post-modernism.
John Key is completely unphased by passé modern phenomena like expert opinions and statistics.
Statistics say he’s not fulfilling pledges to catch up to Australia, let alone those 170,000 jobs he promised … but Key is more interested in his own personal subjective experience of “many Australians” wanting him to “go over and be their Prime Minister”. Well shucks, when you put it that way, why are we wasting so much time and money on the drab modern rationality of statistics and research?
Experts highlight the racist undertones of Key’s constituency … but Key, ever the post-modern relativist, chimes in with the inexorable subjectivity of all truths that impact badly on his government: “Racism is subjective.” (Just like poverty is ‘merely relative‘).
Those pesky experts have been at it again this week… Current New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond joins the Law Society and the Human Rights Commission in raising alarm about the “assault upon the democratic rights of New Zealanders” that is the GCSB bill currently being rushed through Parliament.
Salmond says “When a body as authoritative and dispassionate as the Law Society feels forced to report to the United Nations that the Government in New Zealand is acting in conflict with the rule of law, all New Zealanders should be very worried.”
Don’t they realise that we enlightened post-moderns are skeptical of so-called experts, authority and dispassionateness?
And, like Paula Bennett before him, he’s given the Human Rights Commission the same treatment. Never mind that they’re worried enough to use their rarely used right to report directly to the Prime Minister. He doesn’t even care enough to note the difference between this report and a select committee submission!
In these post-modern times, the Human Rights Commission are just another bunch of irrelevant experts that can be safely ignored and even de-funded because Key and Co. know NZers won’t get off our couches about it.
I’ve said the popularity of this government represents what’s wrong with post-modernism. But Key’s cynical manipulation of post-modern subjectivity is only part of the problem.
The other side is the apathetic population who swallow this hollow ‘post-political’ ideology because we like his smile, or wish we too could go from Hollyford Ave to multi-millionairehood, or submit to the lazy self-fulfilling prophecy that we can’t change anything … or simply don’t care about anything beyond our personal experience as individual consumers.
As John Key himself said in 2007, “A quiet, obedient, and docile population; a culture of passivity and apathy; a meek acceptance of what politicians say and do – these things are not consistent with democracy.”
Sleepy Kiwis’ casual surrender of democracy is the chilling confirmation of this truism. We are turning Key’s words from a prophetic warning to a Machiavellian political strategy. And we will reap what we sow.
According to Section 5 of the Corrections Act 2004, the “purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society” through “safe, secure, humane and effective” sentences, assistance with rehabilitation and reintegration, the best decisions by courts and the Parole Board, and corrections facilities that meet the UN Standard Minimum Rules of the Treatment of Prisoners and other sections of the Act.
The implication is that prison punishment consists of a simple lack of liberty; to meet the standards of public safety and justice, we are taking prisoners out of the community and punishing them by depriving them of a certain degree and amount of liberty, deemed proportional to their unlawful actions. We’re not punishing them with physical violence and psychological humiliation. We don’t do it that way anymore … in theory.
So we know that something is seriously wrong with prisons when sentencing judges have to take into account the high likelihood of physical, sexual and emotional abuse when determining jail terms:
“Transgender prison decision ‘a breach of rights’“, Radio New Zealand News, 20/12/2012
A judge at Whangarei District Court on Wednesday sentenced Glen Cooper [a transgender criminal] to a reduced prison term, because the likelihood of harassment in a men’s jail.
The court heard Cooper had already been attacked in jail while awaiting sentence.
The Department of Corrections said Cooper has not had sex change surgery so must go to the men’s prison.
On National Radio this morning, Kim Workman from Rethinking Crime and Punishment talked about how our prisons have become very secure, but highly unsafe. This Wikipedia article is a good read, making the same points; we have very few escapes or positive drug tests, but troubling figures for prisoner assaults on staff and other prisoners, and for mental health and suicide.
Let’s not let our base, vindictive, foolish, scapegoating punitive instincts get in the way of making prisons safer. When you take away people’s freedom and responsibility to look after themselves, it becomes entirely your responsibility to look after them and keep them safe. Letting prisoners be exposed to abuse and violence can’t do any good, it goes against the legislated role of prisons, and in no way can it be considered just.