Slippery Slopes and Bright Lines

So the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, straight-up wants to censor purely political speech on the internet.  And, honestly, I don’t really feel like I have to enumerate the ways in which this is a terrible idea.

I’ve noticed in recent years people talking about the “slippery slope fallacy,” with the idea being that if person A says, “If we do this, it could lead to that,” then person B says, “Slippery slope fallacy, this is irrelevant.”  Note that an appeal to slippery slopes is not among the classical logical fallacies.

That’s because it’s not a fallacy.

Don’t get me wrong, not every slope is slippery.  Just because X can be in some way construed to be a more extreme version of Y does not mean that Y leads to X.  But neither is it true that no slopes are slippery.  It’s lazy argumentation to simply assert a slippery slope, but it is equally lazy argumentation to deny an argument purely because it talks about slippery slopes.

The question, then, is “how do you determine the difference between a slippery and non-slippery slope”?  I think that the answer lies in bright lines.  For example, with speech, we might say, “Political speech is sacrosanct, non-political speech is not.”  If we are all agreed on that, then it should be relatively possible to restrict non-political speech without significantly increasing the chance that these capabilities will be used to restrict political speech.

On the other hand, the UK is turning from filtering pornography (non-political) to extremist (political) speech.  So what gives?

One answer is that the UK never did draw that bright line, and it’s biting them.  European countries have, I think, really suffered from their usual lack of Constitutions, which do a great job of drawing bright lines, establishing principles, and even if they end up being massively complexified in practice, they serve to cohere opinion on big issues.

The other answer is that bright lines tend not to be all that bright when you examine them closely.  The precise reason that the US has such an expansive view of free speech is because the courts have recognized that it’s very hard to tell when speech becomes political versus some other, less class, and have erred on the side of protecting more rather than allowing sneaking censorship on the sides.  And this is a powerful and good thing, and we can see in many other examples how non-expansive views of freedom of speech do in fact pave the way for censorship.

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One thought on “Slippery Slopes and Bright Lines

  1. Pingback: Censorship Tools Used for Censorship | Sandor at the Zoo

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