SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: A slippery slope all the way to … the point of no return?


Manic Street Preachers had a hit song in 1998 with a variation on a theme of slippery slopes.

The future teaches you to be alone
The present to be afraid and cold
“So if I can shoot rabbits then I can shoot fascists”

Bullets for your brain today
But we’ll forget it all again
Monuments put from pen to paper
Turns me into a gutless wonder

And if you tolerate this then your children will be next
And if you tolerate this then your children will be next
Will be next, will be next, will be next

The song is about the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, saying in essence that if “we” tolerate fascism somewhere else by not assisting in the fight against it, as with supporting the legally elected government in Spain at the time as it was engaged in a life-or-death struggle against Franco’s insurgency, fascism will be victorious, gain strength and visit our own homes.

As you probably already know, Franco won the war with the assistance of Hitler and Mussolini (the Soviet Union supplied the Republicans). Subsequently the proxy Guernica atrocity became a mere prelude to far worse elsewhere — but does this fact alone confirm the slope’s slipperiness, or were there too many other unknowable variables to be so sure?

Here is one definition of the slippery slope.

A slippery slope is an argument that suggests that a certain initial action could lead to a chain of events with a relatively extreme result, or that if we treat one case a certain way then we will have to treat more extreme cases the same way too. For example, a slippery slope argument could involve saying that if we allow a relatively minor event to take place now, then a major and tragic event will happen in the near future as a result.

The Guardian warns that usually the logic behind the slippery slope concept is fallacious.

In the field of informal logic, the slippery-slope argument is a fallacy when the endpoint does not follow necessarily from the initial step, which is especially obvious if there are many (unidentified) intervening stages involved.

However, the newspaper acknowledges a degree of attitudinal sense to the notion of a slippery slope.

The most sensible thing that can be meant by an appeal to slippery slopes is not a truth about the dynamics of public policy, but rather a worry about our moral psychology. The idea must be that, if we all get used to this one new thing being allowed, we will be less able to resist a slightly more alarming thing in the future.

Or, the way to boil a frog alive one degree at a time.

This all arises because earlier today, while writing, I contemplated the use of “slippery slope” to describe a certain situation. Before doing so, it seemed it might be useful to know more about the term, and after researching it, my understanding has improved.

However I kept “slippery slope” in the essay because I feel the context is appropriate.

To me, using “slippery slope” never implied absolute determinism — that the initial step always would lead to an alarming outcome. Rather, my interpretation has been that by undertaking the first step, conditions for the outcome were being made possible and encouraged, as when you learn that it’s hell getting the genie back in the bottle.

Wouldn’t you like to think it through first, before taking a step that might be irreversible?

Never mind. The slippery slope already has brought me to the Kenny Rogers Theorem, coming tomorrow.