Slippery Slopes

From the venerable Wikipedia (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lacks an entry):

In debate or rhetoric, the slippery slope is an argument for the likelihood of one event or trend given another. It suggests that an action will initiate a chain of events culminating in an undesirable event later. The argument is sometimes referred to as the thin end of the wedge or the camel’s nose.

It should come as no surprise that the slippery slope is the fallacy most commonly employed when it comes to sex, just as metonymy is sexuality’s rhetorical figure. Examples are legion, linking both slippery slope and metonymy. We might think, for example, of the language of anatomy (still used today). Penis and vagina size (and structure) were often understood as measures of sexual appetite and political ability. Edward Gibbon’s shadow continues to haunt contemporary politics, especially his claim that decadence and depravity are both evidence of and directly related to the decline of the Roman empire. (Edward Gibbon: required reading for those who want to run empires and control sexuality. Not because he’s right, but because it can justify repression.)

Of course, it does not help that “slippery slope,” or when in plural form, “slippery slopes,” sounds, looks, and feels pornographic—the sexy sibilants, smooth liquids, climactic plosives. We legislate sound.

In more familiar accounts, slippery slope arguments form the core to what we might term sex panic accounts. If we introduce sex education in schools then children will experiment with sex. If you masturbate you will eventually become a homosexual. If you are homosexual you will eventually become a pedophile. If you masturbate (for women) you will become infertile. If you masturbate, your genitals will fall off. (Let’s pay attention to the foundational role of masturbation. See Thomas Laqueur.)

In what came to be called the Sex Wars (ongoing), based on the relationship between feminism and pornography and feminism and lesbian s/m (or just s/m in general—here the names Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Gayle Rubin, Pat(rick) Califia, and the useful anthology Sex Wars by Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter), slopes were so slippery as to be liquid. One’s pleasure and participation in pornography and s/m was understood as support for patriarchy. At least one useful consequence of these debates (though not wholly attributable to them) has been that we now appreciate the complex relationship among politics and pleasure, morphology and ideology. But I deviate from my porn-logic. (I am nothing if not a deviator. Ugly word but deviant flows down slopes much too easily.)

I do have a point: why is it that sex and sexuality lend themselves so easily to this particular fallacy? Why is it so easy to imagine that one sex act can destroy a kingdom? Why don’t we attach the same meanings to, say, food and eating? Of course, Foucault provides a way to answer this question. One on which it is difficult to improve.

To my mind, the slippery slope logic attached to sex has become one of, if not the, dominant way in which certain political discussions function. If the Left has its way, all hell will break loose. If the Right has its way, we will all soon inhabit Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. There is, to many political discussions, a barely hidden hysterical edge, a slide toward unreason. The extent to which these overwrought performances might be attributed, in part, to their televised and broadcast settings is yet another matter.

Now, I am inclined to laugh at slippery slope utterances, even when they induce fear, terror, and panic. And they do. But what if we were to take them as seriously as their advocates?

What if, for example, we accept that civilization depends on the length of women’s skirts?

More interesting to me, how might we begin to understand the psychic effects of slippery slope logic on the ways we live and think? Because it seems to me that while we might dismiss “absurd” positions, we might dismiss Right and Left “extremism,” we might laugh because we “know better,” we still remain in thrall to the seduction of slippery slope logic. We chuckle at inane pronouncements even as we master the art of identifying “suspicious” looking people; we agree most anything goes, even as we shield our children from gays and lesbians (see public schools); we understand that masturbation is harmless, even as we pathologize those “caught in the act.”

Put another way, even when we recognize the problem of the slippery slope, we remain arrested by its suggestive “what if?”