Slippery Slopes, Slippery Language, Slippery Logic

frog in water Shock! The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has floated the idea that the rise of so-called ‘Eurosceptic’ political parties in Europe could lead to WAR. He argued this week that the centenary of the First World War should serve as a reminder of the dangers of a lack of European co-operation: “these dangers have to be forever banned”.

Welcome to Slippery Slopes, Quagmires, Thinly-ended Wedges and Boiling Frogs.

We all use metaphors to make a point. Speechwriters adore a good metaphor: get the right one and the speaker sounds wise, folksy, sassy and astute all in one go.

The trouble with such metaphors is that they capture your imagination but deaden your brain. Take the idea of the ‘slippery slope’. It conveys the idea that once you have gone beyond a certain point and started to slide downwards, there’s no way to stop until you crash at the bottom. There’s no safe and maybe better perch along the slide, or any way to stop your slide. You lose control.

This metaphor gives a phony sense of immediate inexorable dangerous momentum which in fact may not be there. Pick another popular metaphor. If you enter a swamp (or the more fashionable ‘quagmire’) and start to get stuck, you are not doomed to stagger on into the middle and sink without trace. You may well make it back to the side safely, albeit malodorously and unhappily.

Likewise the ‘thin end of the wedge’ metaphor. Does it mean that by accepting A you logically have to accept B and C and so on? Or rather that if you accept A it is very likely (or quite likely, or more likely than not) that in practice you’ll end up getting B and C and so on, even if these results in logic and in policy terms can be distinguished?

And the not dissimilar Boiling Frog metaphor. Put a frog in water and slowly increase the heat: it will (it is said) get so used to the heat increments that it boils alive. In real life issues are more like this, not so much a slippery slope as a continuum, one point shading into another and another and so on. It is impossible to say definitively along a colour spectrum when white turns into black. Yet white and black are quite different. As are agreeably warm and deadly boiling.

Politicians and activists of all sides exaggerate and distort these metaphors to try to frame issues on their terms. Take the furious gun control debate in the USA. There are long-established controls on some guns (eg automatic weapons). Those who want to reduce gun ownership or even ban all guns argue that the principle of banning dangerous weapons has been established, so why not roll it out more widely?  This is less a Slippery Slope than a Virtuous Staircase. Opponents of gun control see each teensy limitation on gun ownership as descent down a steep slippery slope that erodes personal freedom and leads towards an outright ban and (perhaps) dictatorship, so they cling tenaciously to the status quo.

Or take the Israel/Palestine problem. Much Arab/Islamist opinion (articulated most explicitly by the Iran regime) says that Israel (and Israelis) should not exist as the basis for a distinct state as currently constituted. After what happened in Europe in the mid-C20, the Israel side feels that it has little room for manoevre in making concessions that might in a ‘slippery slope’ way call Israel’s very existence into question, de facto or de jure. An emerging Arab/Islamist mainstream is content for Israel’s resistance to erode over time, creating unpleasant if not violent existential uncertainty. The Israeli leadership duly digs in hard: it sees no prospect of parking on a safe different place that guarantees Israel’s very existence. Palestinians become collateral damage.

Herr Steinmeier too was playing on these ideas when he warned against Eurosceptics. What exactly was his argument here? That any step back from further European cooperation makes a new war more likely or even certain? That reducing European cooperation may involve a small risk of a terrible thing, and that is a risk not worth taking? That Germany has deep in its soul a horrendous warlike impulse and that only the European Union as it is can tie Germany down safely (“unleash us at your peril!)?

Who knows? I suspect that he did not care. He was just throwing out a remote but horrible possibility (war in Europe once again) and slyly suggesting (a) that people like him who believe in the European Union as it is are the only credible defence against that happening, and (b) that anyone who disagrees with him must be ipso facto ‘dangerous’.

This dishonest way of making a case has echoes of another much-abused metaphor: crying Fire! in a crowded theatre. Those who want to qualify free speech (eg to stop supposedly ‘insulting’ language) use this argument in a sly, insidious way:

  • We of course champion free speech as a core value
  • But, of course, it has limits – as does everything. No-one accepts that someone who recklessly cries Fire! in a crowded theatre should escape official sanction
  • By extension, anyone whose words cause or might cause harm or distress to someone else has to be curbed, especially when those words are hateful or likely to be taken as hurtful by vulnerable people and communities
  • Many categories of hateful language need to be regulated for these very sound reasons
  • And those who lay down the rules must be those with the best insights into the hurt caused by hate speech, as anything else would or could be hurtful. Namely us
  • So, you over there arguing that marriage ought to be defined to refer only to a man and woman. Shut up. Now
  • And you, arguing that men and women are different – you’re insulting transgender people and showing blatant transphobia. Shut up. Now
  • And you, criticising Obama for trying to put right all the fascist wrongs of Bushitler. That’s privileged racist hate speech
  • And you. Arguing that your country should leave the European Union risks bringing about WAR. You’re insane. Your arguments have to be banned, forever
  • By the way, if some communities or individuals are provoked beyond endurance by hate speech and start beheading people, those who provoked them are to blame
  • Got all that? Good. Now keep quiet.

Silence, broken only by loudspeakers on street corners blaring out every 30 minutes that Free Speech is a vital Western Human Right. punditwire

Charles Crawford Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website or @CharlesCrawford

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  • Christopher Witt

    In the US “war” is the dominant metaphor. War on poverty, crime, drugs, terrorism, the middle class, cancer, women, Christmas, etc. And then there’s the cultural war and class warfare.

    War implies the threat of violence and destruction, the need to take up arms, the existence and evil intent of an enemy, divided camps, surrender or perseverance, defeat or victory.

    War stirs up feelings of fear and patriotism (or of partisanship disguised as patriotism) and the resolve to do something.

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