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A Better Metaphor Than "A Slippery Slope"

Humans like to talk in metaphors and images.  This is why being a writer is fun.  But sometimes, we come up with really crappy metaphors that make human interaction worse.

Case in point: "a slippery slope."  I hate this term.  It's imprecise, imperfect, and does terrible things to public discourse.  It is a logical fallacy, but people use it because it creates such a clear visual.

The problem is that it doesn't really mean what people want it to mean.

What the term is supposed to mean:  "A greater potential for huge problems that is created by a much smaller change to a certain policy or attitude."  As in, "Because you just legalized marijuana, you've now created a slippery slope to legalizing baby murder."


What the term actually means:  "A long slide-y thing that only goes in one direction."  As in, "Giving tax breaks to the rich is a slippery slope to a plutocracy, because there is literally no other possible outcome."

It's a bad metaphor and it leads to bad thinking, because then people freak out about minor changes.  Suddenly you can leap to really drastic conclusions from simple premises, even though it's not even remotely fair.

The core fear of change is not totally without merit, but I think I've got a better way to express it.  Give me a minute to paint a picture for you.

First, let's change the metaphorical world of "a slippery slope."  In Slope World, the situation where we would be if we enact a minor change is represented by the top of a hill, and the situation we want to avoid is represented by the bottom of a hill.

We're doing this a little bit backward, though.  Both situations should be above ground level, because both situations reflect a change to where we are now, right?  Both situations would require effort to attain.


So let's scrap Slope World and create Tower World.

In Tower World, there's a bunch of different situations we could be in, and each one is represented by towers of varying heights.  Each floor represents an opinion or a viewpoint related to that situation.  The height represents the real-world difficulty of getting to that point.  Some of them are closer to the ground because there's not that much effort involved - like "Legalization of marijuana" would probably be a ten-story tower.  On the other hand, something like "Forcing all people everywhere to smoke ten joints every day for the rest of their lives" is pretty outlandish, so let's say that's like the seven hundredth floor.



Now let's suppose that not all of these towers have been built up the whole way yet.  "Euthanizing people over the age of 40" isn't a real floor on any Tower in our world yet, but if it was built, it would be like a thousand stories high.

With me so far?  So instead of saying, "I don't support that because it's a slippery slope," you would say something like, "I don't want to build another floor on that tower."  You're acknowledging that it requires effort to get to the situation you fear, but you're correctly recognizing that groundwork is being laid that could be misused.

Now, here's where you can really start to have some fun with the metaphor.  If you want to build a new floor onto a tower, then you don't just need to lay the groundwork - you also need some scaffolding, right?  But you can use scaffolding for different projects.

The same scaffolding that you use to build the "Let's Bring Back the Nazis" tower is the same scaffolding that you'd use to build the "Let's Give More Military Power to the President" tower.   So even though the plans for Nazi Tower require eight hundred stories, you can build the first two hundred or so with Military Power President Tower's scaffold.  Thus, things you don't like are not the only thing that can be achieved when you take action.  You also contribute to things that you do like.


The point is:  although it's true that some efforts can be misdirected toward Towers that would be really shitty (like Shit Tower, which you don't want), most of the Towers that you would want to build are a lot more reasonable.

So another metaphor we could start using is, "Misusing the scaffolding."

As in, "If we legalize marijuana, then we could start misusing the scaffolding and end up legalizing public masturbation." This is a much better mindset because it acknowledges that conclusions aren't inevitable - just possibilities.

Being conservative about new policies is a fine counterpoint to over-enthusiastic change, and it's an important balance to what could easily become recklessness.  But if you let your language trick you into viewing the world as just a slippery slope, then you'll forget how much effort actually goes into change.  Nothing is as easy as sliding down a slope.  Not even skiing.