Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Slippery Slope

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Continuing this week’s examination of faulty argument patterns, we turn to today’s Washington Post. Some readers offered some splendid examples of the slippery slope, which The Non-Sequitur site describes succinctly as “alleging that accepting the conclusion of an opponent’s argument will invariably lead to an increasing series of dastardly consequences.”

Eugene Robinson’s column today was 'Values' Choice for The GOP, focusing on issues of GOP moral hypocrisy raised by the Mark Foley scandal. Among the other points he makes, Robinson observes that:

The culture war is supposed to be about morality, but really it's a crusade to compel Americans to follow certain norms of private behavior that some social and religious conservatives believe are mandated by sociology, nature or God. Republican officeholders have paid lip service to this crusade, all the while knowing that the human family is diverse and fallible. They know that the gravest threat to marriage is the heterosexual divorce rate. They know that Republicans drink, swear, carouse and have affairs, just like Democrats. They know that homosexuals aren't devils.

He ends with:

But Republicans positioned themselves as our national Church Lady and were rewarded with the support of the staunchest religious conservatives, who now feel betrayed. Faced with the spreading Foley scandal, the party has a choice.

The party can look America in the face and say, "Folks, we're all just human, and while we should strive to adhere to the highest moral standards, this whole idea of writing a specific, narrow, fundamentalist Christian view of morality into law is really not a good idea. Even those of us who thought that way when we came to Washington realize we were wrong. Condemning others just because they are different doesn't make us stronger or better, it makes us weaker and poorer. As Barry Goldwater would have said, live and let live."

Or the party can purge its gay staffers, maybe symbolically burn a few at the stake, and continue to pretend that you can legislate what is permitted to reside in American hearts and minds. Unfortunately, that's where it looks like we're headed.

As usual, Robinson’s discussion today drew some pointed comments, and as usual he picked plenty of comments from people who disagreed with him (emphasis mine):

Gainesville, Va.: I think it's important to be fair in presenting the position of conservative Christians. One key word is "conservative," in its original sense. So much of what we believe in is conserving the values and behaviors we grew up with. By and large the liberal agenda is change (increase tolerance). Thus we are asked to accept homosexual marriage (a new definition after four millennia of accepted usage of marriage as between a man and a woman), a culture that encourages unbridled sexuality of all types, and abortion, the killing of a fetus or baby depending on your beliefs. We never needed laws against homosexual marriage because prior to the decision of the Mass. Supreme Court, marriage was understood to be heterosexual. It is not conservative Christians who are out to legislate morality, it is liberal secularists who are trying to change the laws to support their views.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that the liberal agenda is one of tolerance. But it is not true that the specific moral standards advocated by conservative Christians have been in place for thousands of years. Nor is it true that all the values and behaviors we grew up with are worth preserving. When I grew up, for example, many people considered racial segregation a "value" worth defending. Our standards do change, and often for the better.

“Gainesville” receives many a response later from other readers. But the next question veers into classic faulty argument pattern:

Vienna, Va.: Mr. Robinson,

In your column today, you wrote: "Condemning others just because they are different doesn't make us stronger or better, it makes us weaker and poorer."

I see your point, but there is a strong counter argument. Shouldn't society instill strong moral standards about sexual behavior? At one time society frowned on people who committed adultery and engaged in sex before marriage. Now neither one is considered taboo. Is modern society better for this?

Today liberals are pushing to consider homosexuality as normal.

What is next? Should bigamy be deemed OK? How about polygamy? In your view, is there anything that society should deem inappropriate? Or should we just allow everyone to live and let live?

Eugene Robinson: That's the slippery-slope argument, and I don't buy it. Of course society has to draw a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. But society's view of where that line should be drawn has changed many times in the past and will continue to change. The was a time when we considered women second-class citizens unworthy of the vote. There was a time when we thought smoking was cool. Things change.

Later on, another reader runs with the banner yet again:

Maryland: So you don't buy the slippery-slope argument? I recall over 20 years ago when the ERA amendment was being debated, and one argument against it, which its proponents denied, is that it would lead to same-sex marriages! I say it's just a matter of time before the NAMBLA crowd starts lobbying against child-protection laws as being discriminatory to their own particular lifestyle - but that's progress to the progressives, isn't it?

Eugene Robinson: But by your logic, women would never have been given full rights in our society, or blacks, or anybody except white men. Just because you decide to take one specific step in the direction of inclusion and tolerance does not mean you then have to take every imaginable subsequent step.

One more conservative reader takes a stab at it:

Washington, D.C.: Whenever a conservative says that we should keep something traditional like the definition of marriage, liberals trot out the same tired argument that without change women and blacks would never have gotten their due rights.

What does one have to do with the other? The definition of marriage is a completely separate issue than women's voting rights or blacks' civil rights. Why confuse the issue? Or can't you argue the case on its own merits?

Eugene Robinson: Interracial marriage was once illegal in Southern states. So, no, these are not completely separate issues.

The argument on the merits is simple, in my view. Two individuals are gay and want to make a commitment to each other through marriage. What is bad about that? How does that threaten me, or you, or anyone else? My marriage will not dissolve if gay people are allowed to marry. The world will not cease its orbit around the sun. We'll all be fine, believe me.

I was sorely tempted to quote the entire discussion, which is a quick read and very good, as always. Several moderate and liberal readers make excellent points and rebuttals to the conservatives, and the discussion is one of the better I’ve seen recently in having people of truly different viewpoints debate what it means to be liberal or progressive versus conservative when it comes to social issues. Eugene Robinson deserves credit for consistently selecting opposing points of view and delivering this level of discussion in an impromptu chat. However, in this week of conservatives conjuring dire, ludicrous pictures of legalized pedophilia and polygamy, Robinson deserves special thanks this week for highlighting the slippery slope.

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