Slippery slope

I found myself thinking a lot recently about slippery slope arguments. Maybe it is the political climate of each day bringing developments in politics that would have seemed unlikely just days  ago (No link here, anything linked would surely seem normal tomorrow…..). Maybe it is just the quiet and green atmosphere of my new home lets thoughts flow more freely. Or maybe, they just seem to be everywhere these days. I have found, however, what people say about them often misses a crucial point – slippery slopes are inherently political.

By Robert F. W. Whitlock from Olympia, Washington (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Robert F. W. Whitlock from Olympia, Washington (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

How is that? Well, in philosophy the “slippery slope argument” is part of the thinking on logics and reasoning. The term refers to an argument, which reasons that A follows from B, and C follows from B, and D follows from C and that, therefore, if D is not desirable, one should not let A happen. This is often cited as an instance of a logical fallacy. And that makes sense, if the causal connections between the different elements are not sound. If, for example, B follows from A only sometimes and E could also result, then it is by now means certain, that D would happen if A happened. The slippery slope ios not so slippery after all. Euthanasia is often mentioned as a case in point – if we allow people to end their lives, what is to stop us from terminating lives that have been deemed unfit by society. Recent debates have, however, pointed out how slippery slope arguments might be relevant and sound after all. Eugene Volokh, for example, examined how one decision taken can alter the environment of the next decision in a way that makes a certain outcome much more likely than it would otherwise have been.

Indeed, slippery slope seems inherently plausible, and while not all arguments may hold up to scrutiny, there is decisions, that lead down slippery slopes. It is, in part a psychological effect, known as the Franklin effect: When we have acted along a certain trajectory – in the case of the Franklin effect ‘kindness’ – we are more likely to continue along this path, such as to avoid calling into question our earlier decision. Partly, slippery slopes are created by changes in the decision environment, caused by the earlier decision, material changes, if you want.

Arguing about the reality and plausibility of slippery slope arguments misses one crucial point of the argument: At each new stage, a decision has to be made. That decision may be more probably or not, it may be a causal effect of the previous decision, but no-one argues in earnest, that there is no decision involved. Otherwise, D would just follow from A, no steps necessary. The cautious will focus on the difficulty of making other decisions then the expected ones down a slippery slope and emphasize the difficulty of changing course. The confident will insist, that all decisions taken are independent and free, and that we should only ever look at the one decision before us. Both are wrong, of course. For the cautious: If there is a decision, it could always be different, or there would be nothing to decide. And for the confident: of course, no decision is independent entirely from the decisions that were taken before and it is worth considering, how the world will have changed once the next decision down the line has to be taken.

I find it interesting, that many issues that are considered typical of this kind of argument, like, euthanasia, abortion, freedom of speech, are inherently value laden. That is not an accident, but maybe discussing these problems obscures more than it clarifies. As a parent, I know quite a few less laden slippery slopes. Like bedtime. If I let my kids go to bed late today, won’t I be obligated to let them go late tomorrow? if I don’t, will I not be inconsistent in my parenting, eroding rules altogether? It has happened to parents before and – wooosh – all rules went out the window and you are screwed. However, there is a parenting device called the “exception” that allows you to let go of the rules and return to them later. The “exception” works only, if you can define the circumstances which makes this exceptional – “It is New Year’s Eve.” (Tomorrow is not New Year’s Eve), “There is now school tomorrow.” (Schoolnights are still the rule!) etc.

The example is not value laden so much and therefore lacks many of the things that make slippery slope arguments so difficult. But, I believe, it shows two things. Firstly, even when you created a general rule, you must still be aware of the conditions of its applicability. In the case of assisted suicide, for example, the rule cannot be so general as to say anyone should be helped to kill themselves OR anyone with that disease should kill themselves. The conditions of assisted suicide are an essential part of the rule. Therefore, in each instance, the applicability of the rules must remain debatable. [e.g. Is this an instance where the bedtime rule applies?]. Secondly, application or not application of the rule is a decision to be made that does not call the rule itself into question. This allows you to debate the applicability of the rule, but not the rule itself. Essentially, this means, that in slippery slope situations, the existence of a rule does not unburden you from the need to make a decision. the rule simply gives guidance on how to do that (or not to do that). Always calling the rule into question leads down some slippery slope (potentially). Debating the rules of applicability in a particular instance may, however, be the only way we can make any reasonable progress at all. In other words, if we are ready to accept, that we will have to discuss repeatedly if an instance is covered by decision A, we can make decision B a choice (not entirely free, but a choice nonetheless).

It is equally dangerous to consider slippery slope arguments a logical fallacy as it is to avoid decisions because – somewhere down a slope – a decision may have adverse effects. This is why, in my view, “slippery slope” comes up, when stakes are high and values are questioned. This is when we are most acutely and often emotionally aware of the political nature of the decision. How we act, will matter down the road and we can already see that. It doesn’t help to confidently deny the dangers or cautiously avoid the decision. What this kinds of arguments need is an awareness of the dangers and a willingness to commit to changing course if things go wrong.

Is this news or….?

Nigel Farage - By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nigel Farage – By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This morning I got a link to an article claiming that Nigel Farage (of all people) had applied for German citizenship following this summers Brexit vote. That he would do such a thing sounds somewhat absurd, seeing he has been fighting for Brexit for more than 20 years, and it has since been denied. But, my first reaction was not to think of it as absurd, it was “Is that news or satire?”. I genuinely could not tell, even after reading the article. This is happening to me more and more often lately, something utterly strange turns out to be true.Political developments have become unpredictable and I would not dream of saying something is impossible just because it sounds unbelievable, stupid or outright mad anymore. Brexit and the Columbians vote on their peace treaty are really just prominent examples. I have taken to watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, because somehow he manages to still clarify fact from fiction…. Seriously, watching satire to get the news?

Something called “fact-free politics” or “post-truth politics” has achieved a notoriety that has earned it its very own wikipedia article. Essentially the phenomenon means a kind of politics that appeals first and foremost to the emotions of people. Post-truth politics is said to be derived from communication habits developed through social media interaction and features prominently in the US Presidential Campaign. The trouble, of course, is, that just because it is factually wrong, it does not mean a political statement won’t be taken serious, I always have to consider every statement as true until…. Well, until when?

Discourse theory has taught us, that it matters what is said. And that things can become true by being said. Not because they are facts but because if everyone acts like they were true, the world will be like they were true. Discourse theory, however, never sufficiently explored how and why statements that are wrong in that they do not follow discursive rules (like appealing to certain speaker positions or relating to established discursive patterns) can gain traction. They shouldn’t be believed so easily.

I fear there is some deeper development at play here. The dawn of modernity came, when people realized that the world was not as is but made through the actions of people. It began with a select few but this sense has since extended to everyone, culminating in the belief, that everybody is the maker of their own fortune and one’s achievements are purely the result of effort and ability. Through these efforts we have created a world full of stuff that people just thirty years ago might have considered pure magic. My kids don’t flinch at the sight of a 3D-printer, they just shrug. Anything is possible. In a world, created through our own words and actions, down to its material substance, in which ever new developments make impossible things possible, how is one to distinguish the plausible from the implausible? Anything could be true. If we make it so.

That, however, is not the solution to the aforementioned morning problem, but the beginning. The trouble lies in the “If we make it so.” We used to be constrained by lack of technology, communication, knowledge. Like small children who simply lack the skills to light a candle or reach the knifes. They can do little permanent harm. It is when we learn to do more that we must learn to decide, what to do and when to do it. It seems to me, that the world has arrived at the stage, where we must learn to transition from trying everything and be amazed at our ability to just do it to deciding what it is we want to do. And this may even be less about reasserting ethics. I think about it like coming of age: the purpose of the teenage years is not (just) to learn to do the right thing, but to learn to decide who you want to be.  Like teenagers we drift, we don’t want to be tied down by choices. That is why we keep believing anything is possible and avoid the tough questions. fact free politics suggests to us that there is no limits, not even facts. We want it to be so, it is so.

We have the means to make a world to our liking. We have the means to destroy it. The whole spectrum of opportunity is infront of us. But not forever. It seems like we can ignore the facts of climate change, world poverty, war, technological change and no consequence results. Sometimes the facts come back to haunt us, sometimes they don’t. There is one fact, however, that we all must learn personally at some point and that the world will feel, too: Not making a choice does not leave all options open. It just makes the fading of opportunities follow a path you have not chosen. Of course, we could keep drifting and just see where it takes us. But I had much rather, we make decisions. We ask ourselves, who we want to be and then try to be that. Sure, we can fail. But it beats the feeling of realizing that we could have a built a great world but somehow missed the opportunity….And let’s be honest -  in an age of fact-free, why not dream?

The thing about doors

Actor-Network-Theory starts from the assumption that all the ways in which we have hithereto understood actors – as natural, social or constructed – are inadequate in an age in which technology plays such an important role (Latour 1996). Instead, Latour and others have suggested to think of humans and things as networks – or associations – which form an integrated whole. The argument is not, that they are the same. But the argument goes so far, I believe, to argue that there is no reasonable way to differentiate between the ways things and technologies shape the world an the way in which we humans do. In fact, they are so intermingled, that we can never attribute an action purely to one or the other. My personal favourite is the example of the door:

By robertsharp (originally posted to Flickr as Downing Street) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By robertsharp (originally posted to Flickr as Downing Street) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Walls are a nice invention, but if there were no holes in them, there would be no way to get in or out; they would be mausoleums or tombs. The problem is that, if you make holes in the walls, anything and anyone can get in and out (bears, visitors, dust, rats, noise). So architects invented this hybrid: a hole-wall, often called a door, which, although common enough has always struck me as a miracle of technology. The cleverness of the invention hinges upon the hinge-pin: instead of driving a hole through walls with a sledge hammer gently push the door (I am supposing here that the lock has not been invented; this would over-complicate the already highly complex story of this door). Furthermore, and here is the real trick, once you have passed through the door, you do not have to find trowel and cement to rebuild the wall you have just destroyed; you simply push the door gently back (I ignore for now the added complication of the “pull” and “push” signs).” (Johnson 1988: 298)

The door, in other words, ‘acts’ in the sense that it is replacing and thereby transforming the action of biological and social actors. This effect may well be used to create certain behaviours – for example when hotel keys are given out with large heavy metal objects hanging from them to make people remember not to take them home…

So far, so simple. In a way, this kind of thinking is just one variation of the ways in which human-technology interaction has been described in Science and Technology Studies, the strand of sociology focusing on just such interactions. It comprises a broad spectrum of ideas, from more deterministic perspectives to the favouring of social construction. However, ANT has its own distinct perspective. We must rethink any social actors ability to act and consider the ways in which we encounter technology that – in fact – acts upon us. To a reader pof Foucault, of course, this is no entirely alien idea. The panopticon may well be viewed as a a technological representation of the surveillance society. However, with Foucault that is as far as this goes. Latour (with Callon and others) goes further and asks us to consider society not as constituted by social actors but think instead of associations.

In a way this asks us to abandon the idea of a natural self. The individual is inseparable not just from the next individual or its social relations (as in constructivism), but also inseparable from the material objects that surround us. It is not so much that we are cyborgs but that we must acknowledge that our being cannot be understood unless we think of ourselves as part of associations of things and humans/animals. Our mobile phones are mediating and shaping our social interactions – and we would be different if they did not exists.

Of course, thinking of my phone as doing something rather than a tool is challenging and slightly disturbing. It has its charms, though. And the anthropomorhisms we use with regard to many technological objects are an indicator that the whole idea is not as counter-intuitive as one might suspect: Computers can have bad days, traffic lights have it in for you and the printer usually tries to screw you over just when that paper is due – like they knew. Surely, this does not mean that the theory is useful with regard to scientific analysis of social and political phenomena.

Latour’s analyses, interestingly, do not focus on current network technologies – he works with much simpler and seemingly antiquated examples. However, in one paper he addresses the issue of globalization and clarifies some things with regard to the ways in which ANT relates to the problems we look at in political science. He raises one question, that I find most interesting:

“Is space this inside which reside objects and subjects? Or is space one of the many connections made by objects and subjects?” (Latour 2009: 142)

What if we, as well as the world around us, were constituted by the connections we make? These connections would be spatial, social, material and temporal. They would make each one unique and at the same time make them only possible as part of a wider network of things and beings. I believe this networked understanding of the self opens many possibilities. Instead wrapping our head around a mutual constitution theme, we can then imagine how a complex process of self-construction would work – it is about making connections. However, this is a spatial metaphor and it remains to be seen, if different kinds of ties, e.g. temporal and emotional, between networked individuals are indeed better imaginable in the network metaphor.

The cyborg as imaginative resource

I have to admit, Donna Haraway‘s “Cyborg Manifesto” – despite its shortcomings – wows me every time I read it. I am not sure if it is the fact that this text – so eloquently describing changes that seem so very real today – was actually written in the 1980ies, when none of the things that seem to make us cyborgs today were part of everyone’s everyday life. Or it might be the sheer amount of different ideas brought together and interwoven, from science fiction to Marxism to feminist theory. Could be this text wows me because its style is so radically different from the usual academic writing, because it dares to speculate, antagonize and call for action. Or maybe, because it does all of those things at the same time. If I look closely, I find that the argument is not all that clear and some twists seem out of place to me. I am not always sure, there is even such a strong conclusion in there. However, this texts achieves what good political theory – in my humble opinion – is supposed to do: it provokes thought and triggers the imagination. In fact, it sends me down a spiral of exciting new thoughts whenever I return to it.

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway introduces the cyborg as what she calls “an imaginative resource” (292). The cyborg is an image that stands for embracing what Haraway identifies as three “crucial boundary breakdowns” of the contemporary world — between human and animal, between animal-human (organism) and machine, and between the physical and the non-physical (293/4). She suggests this image in order to launch a criticism of feminist discourse that questions its very basis – the idea that there is something about being a woman that naturally binds women. according to her there “is not even such a state as ‘being’ female” (295). The contemporary self, she argues, is fundamentally fractured. She asks then, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective – and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (297).  This is usually where I associate the Zapatistas and the peculiar way the Zapatista discourse manages to connect different struggles without levelling out the differences. Of course, their inspiring example also teaches us about the possible limitations.

Having tackled the concept of identity, Haraway goes on to question the postmodern conception of “biopolitics” and argues instead to think of the contemporary self as being constructed within the “informatics of domination”. This kind of domination works not through division and the imposition of categories but through permanently dissolving them, by blurring all distinctions and thereby disabling the crude (post-)modern tool of resistance – identification. Coding and information processing (rather than categorizing and subjectivation) are the ways in which this domination manifests itself. In its most advanced form it can eliminate the natural unity altogether – when in microlectronics there is copies without originals (303) or, as we would say, the digital copy is indistinguishable from the original. This is evident not just in purely digital environments but also, for example, in genetically ‘identical’ beings such as clons or identical twins where there is indeed differences inscribed in the genes themselves (Casselmann 2008). Even the genetic code of a living breathing person may change over the course of their life. In other words, coding always means recoding and there is never a wholly identical copy. The process of communication transforms all information and negates the possibility of complete identity.

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

The cyborg as a resource for political imagination – how does that work in the informatics of domination? Haraway draws on literature in order to give her answer. I have a “literary” cyborg of my own in mind. In the Start Trek universe there is a race called the Borg (clearly, not the most original of names). These Borg procreate by “assimilating” other species, making their “technological and biological distinctiveness” part of their collective consciousness. The Borg absorb difference and create a unified whole in which individual distinctions are denied in favour of a collective unity. They are awfully efficient and – needless to say – the ultimate villains of the liberal consciousness. In one installation of the franchise, a young female, designated Seven of Nine, (incidentally dressed in a very revealing costume for the rest of the series…) is “freed” from the collective. It turns out, however, that she cannot be fully re-transformed into a human – some cybernetic implants remain as well as – more importantly – many character traits. Throughout the series the character remains trapped between being Borg and being human, never fully emerging as one or the other. She struggles with defining and re-defing herself and there is no choice for her than to remain in between. Interestingly, the franchise offers many more of these characters – the robot “Data“, who looks so much like a human and interacts with humans like a human but lacks emotion like a radicalized version of a vulcan. The half-klingon B’Elanna. The holographic doctor with the complex personality subroutines. Outside the Startrek Universe we could consider the Terminator or Marvin, the paranoid android. If we think of their struggles not as ones that seek to cross the border between human and machine but rather as continuous struggles for acceptance of the lack of any clear boundary, we may find the inspiration Haraway sees in the image of the cyborg. Just like Seven of Nine can never be fully human nor return to be Borg, we may never be woman or man, German or European, white or black but only ever the something that struggles to cope with lack of clear distinction between these categories.

What sounds like a grim outlook may be the one strategies that alleviates the effects of the informatics of domination. As nothing is fixed, the domination is constantly challenged by the very mechanisms that maintain it. Resistance is not about overthrowing domination but about continuing to struggles along the lack of clear boundaries. It is about turning the struggle into the purpose. Maybe that is why Haraway ends on the optimistic note:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (316)