After the US congress recently failed to pass any of the latest gun control bills, Arizona senator Jeff Flake argued on National Public Radio that if we’re going to bar people on a federal terrorism watch list from buying guns, “that argument could go further and say just put every American on the list.” His statement infuriated me, but not primarily because I am among the 90% of Americans who support more scrutiny of gun buyers. I was infuriated because Senator Flake used the dirtiest of all weapons to obliterate reasonable political discourse: the slippery slope fallacy.
Fallacious slippery slope arguments take the following form: If we allow A to happen, then extreme hypothetical event Z will eventually happen too; therefore we should never allow A to come about. No rational reason for why A would lead to Z is provided, nor is any plausible mechanism for getting from A to Z proposed. The speaker simply asserts that doing whatever it is that he or she objects to will lead to perdition.
The attraction of this false reasoning is that it allows the speaker to avoid grappling with the issue at hand. By shifting attention to scary hypotheticals, discussion of facts pertinent to the original argument is shut down. For instance, the argument that banning gay marriage is discriminatory and unconstitutional should have been met with counterarguments about why banning gay marriage is not discriminatory and unconstitutional. Since that’s a tough position to defend, many foes of gay marriage went with the argument that allowing same-sex couples to marry would lead to incest, pedophilia, and even more bizarrely, human-turtle marriages. These sorts of claims skirt all of the thorny legal and ethical issues, and appeal to negative emotions instead. The argument at hand (the unconstitutionality of banning gay marriage) becomes unfairly tainted by the fear and revulsion attached to pedophilia and incest.
A logical fallacy like the fallacious slippery slope has no place in political discussions. In fact, there is no place for slippery slope arguments in human discourse at all, with the possible exception of, “If you eat that first chip, you’re going to finish the whole bag.” (This isn’t a real slippery slope argument, since there’s a plausible and compelling reason why A will lead to Z: the deliciousness of chips.) Even kindergarteners, who are the most absolutist of beings, understand that just because they can yell and run around outside, that doesn’t mean they can do the same thing inside; and just because the teacher won’t let them eat snacks whenever they want, that doesn’t mean that they’ll never have snacks. As adults, we must navigate an even more complex landscape of rights and restrictions, and for the most part, we do it pretty well.
Politicians, activists, and political commentators insult our intelligence when they invoke fallacious slippery slope arguments. We know from experience that seatbelt laws have not led to totalitarianism and longstanding restrictions on owning machine guns have not led to the ban of all firearms. None of us are wondering what to wear to a turtle-human wedding. We want to discuss the issues at hand like reasonable, rational adults. The only way we are going to have a constructive conversation about gun control is if we cut out the rhetoric and false reasoning. To that end, I am calling for an immediate nationwide ban on slippery slope arguments.