Michael Brown and the Slippery See-Saw Fallacy

The Slippery Slope is an argument most are familiar with in principle, and it is used to caution against many things.  When a government seeks to limit free speech, for example, it can be asked how far those limits will spread once they begin.  This is why the Bill of Rights is explicit and plain in its decrees: “Congress shall make no law…”

Utilized correctly, the Slippery Slope warns against government power and abuse because it is in the nature of such an institution to accumulate for itself authority, to exercise that authority in secret, and to abuse that authority.  The slope is inherent to the disposition of the State, and it is “slippery” for this reason.

Often, however, in the name of defending the slope of governance, and urging its tilt, you find criticisms aimed at the alleged slippery slope of other institutions and other individuals whose nature and whose abilities do not outweigh those of the State.  In the see-saw that is these two slopes — one, a government; the other, a people, a journalist, protesters, a newspaper, a whistleblower, and so on, depending — the side of the government is always stronger and, thus, always heavier.  The slope, therefore, always points down on the side of those privileged to behave in certain ways.

With this in mind, the Slippery See-Saw Fallacy is any argument which seeks to excuse, whether directly or indirectly, the sliding down of civilization towards the privileged side of the slope by warning that civilization is actually sliding, or could slide, the other way.

In a short example: if one argues for marijuana decriminalization, one can be met with the fear of, “What’s next?” or, “Why not just make all drugs legal!?” and so on, even though it is absurd to think that the struggle for decriminalization of one particular controlled substance is a slope that leads anywhere easily.  It is, rather, a struggle up the mountain of the State.  The side with the slippery slope is the side which claims for itself, and utilizes a monopoly of force as its premise, the right to control substances to begin with — and once they begin controlling one, they reach out towards others, and not only do not stop but, often, cannot be stopped.

Because the Slippery See-Saw Fallacy almost always relates government power to non-government power, the surest way to spot it is to listen for the word “anarchy.”  What are the odds that America will become an anarchy tomorrow?  Or even in the next 20 years?  And what are the odds that government power will grow tomorrow?  And extend itself further throughout the next 20 years?  If you hear someone caution against anarchy in regards to some new freedom or liberation, you are in the midst of the Fallacy even if the advocates of the new freedom are, themselves, anarchists.

Likewise, one can look to the atheist to receive the fallacious argument from the faithful when criticizing their institutions, principles, or claims.  Statements such as, “Without god, civilization will crumble” or “Without god, there cannot be morality”  are not just hypothetical, and can even be valuable critiques at certain stages of history, but for now they serve to distract from the fallibility of men who are, after-all, human.  The parties of god on this Earth maintain fantastic privilege and strength, and exercise authority based on enormous claims for themselves.  They claim to know the mind of God, to have the keys to paradise, and so on.  They therefore ought to expect and deserve constant criticism; just like the State assumes for itself a great deal in its very existence and Jefferson pleaded for the “ever-vigilance” of society in controlling it.  Yet the claims of the powerful often go on unquestioned and are, regardless, often not affected by questioning.  When a particularly irreconcilable question does manage to draw some blood, the powerful are quick to point away from themselves, down the valley, and ask where such questioning leads.  This is the Slippery See-Saw Fallacy.

For a more concrete case offering plenty of examples, let’s sum up the most recent episode of the ongoing crisis that America is, perhaps, just now, realizing exists:

In Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed, 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was shot six times by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, and left to bleed in the street for four hours (on August 9th), another man was shot and killed by police 10 days later (though apparently with less controversy) and over 150 people were arrested in the surrounding protests, including a number of journalists, by a police force armed like an occupying army and aided by a curfew on the citizens of Ferguson.  All of this bookending a violent 30-day period in which at least four unarmed black men were killed by police in America.

The St. Louis County Police Department’s budget is $99 million, and their haul in the Pentagon’s ongoing militarization of your every-day police officer includes “12 assault rifles, 6 pistols, 3 helicopters, and 2 night vision pieces”, as accounted for by this useful map from the New York Times.  According to USA Today’s timeline of events, only 8 cops have been “injured” during the protests in Ferguson.

Thus, we have:

  • 8 injuries on the side of a well-armed, $99 million organization privileged to commit violence and protected from the repercussions of doing so; who can, when feeling the least bit threatened, call in the National Guard for back-up, as was done in Ferguson.
  • And 2 deaths and 150 arrests on the side of the “general” public, including journalists, in one small city in the Midwest, while the Ferguson people were forced to obey night-time curfews as if they had, en masse, been guilty of a crime.

Imagine, first, if a police officer were to be killed during any future Ferguson protests.  Imagine the kind of hell the killer would be in, and rightfully so.  His name and face would be well known across the United States and he would be looking at a possible death sentence from a Missouri government still utilizing lethal injections.  At the very least, his life as he once knew it would be over.

Meanwhile, it took a few weeks for the Ferguson police to merely release the name of Michael Brown’s killer for fear of the officer’s safety.  But what exactly does any policeman in Ferguson have to be afraid of when your average citizen is marching through the streets chanting, “Hands up!  Don’t shoot!” and your average peace officer is carrying an AR-15 behind an armoured war vehicle and a mounted sniper, barrel positioned and ready just in case.

There is no sense of proportion here.  Your normal protester — unarmed, peaceful, concerned, expressing his/herself through the democratic system — is held at gunpoint by camouflaged soldiers while their comrade is taken pity on and protected pre-emptively from a people grouped and dehumanized as one who have not committed any crimes.

The Slippery See-Saw Fallacy states the powerful are protected from criticism by a logic that does not extend to the powerless.  Here we have the obvious divide: if you were to criticize “cops” as some homogeneous force,  you would receive the quickest of retorts: “Not all cops are bad.”   Of course, this is true; but it is also a tautology and, anyway, irrelevant — an assessment of individual officers has no bearing on what they are, as a class, institutionalized to do: commit violence (and get away with it).

Yet, without much complaint at all, you can hear how one “bad” protester “spoils the bunch”, and how the forced house arrest of an entire city’s population in the evenings is justified because of what might or could or, perhaps due to a small minority, has happened.  The following day, this same population is allowed their protests, sure, but not without proximity to a careful eye and a couple hundred trigger-ready fingers.  A government that acts in darkness always demands its people march in daylight.

The most recent development of the story expands this ridge, or rather further tilts the See-Saw: the shooting officer, Darren Wilson, has received more donations as a sign of support than the young man he killed despite the fact that Officer Wilson still has his job and still has his human existence.  Slate’s David Weigel highlights some of the more “race-y” elements of one particular group which has been set up to raise funds for Wilson’s legal fees, even though he has yet to incur any legal fees because he has not been arrested or charged with anything.

Wilson’s uncalled for pre-emptive funding mirrors the pre-emptive crackdown of the people of Ferguson, which is a product of the pre-emptive mindset: cops can kill who they want because they are here to protect and serve; but your peaceful protester in Ferguson needs to be lorded over with machine guns and kept inside at night by threat of imprisonment, lest he do something insane — such as shoot an unarmed 18-year-old six times and leave him face-down, melting in the pavement for a couple hours; or get together with 5 or 6 of his buddies, jump a lone man from behind, and choke him to death for selling untaxed cigarettes; or murder a mentally handicapped man in the street by bashing his brains in while several more hold him down as he screams, “Daddy!  No!  Please!”  

The common thread here is a paranoia of the “common-folk”.  Along with its blatant undemocratic urge, it carries a built-in excuse for police violence.  As the Economist put it while hypothesizing why American police “kill roughly one person a day”:

“This is not because they are trigger-happy but because they are nervous. The citizens they encounter have perhaps 300m guns between them, so a cop never knows whether the hand in a suspect’s pocket is gripping a Glock.”

This is the Slippery See-Saw Fallacy in full “swing”: it’s not the growing militarization of a class already privileged and professionally trained and equipped for violence that one needs to worry about — no, it’s the mass of citizens with handguns and no legal immunity to use them.  Think of what they might do next!

The slope extends downwards in the wrong direction, and those invoking it seek, for some hypothetical future safety, what little power the under-privileged possess, while the powerful are gifted further range of conduct through the rhetoric of “balance.”

In American culture, where “even-handedness” and “fairness” are conflated with objectivity, institutions assume the logical underpinnings and excuses of singular, human life.  Corporations have rights like individuals do; political money as donated is an issue of free speech; “trial by media” is a metaphor used to criticize a force which cannot subpoena or make arrests; the private sins of public figures are “none of our business” while the private pleasures of unimportant nobodies are a public threat.  The myths of equality and individuality, largely assumed by Americans as reality, lend the second hand in convincing the public that what matters most in institutions are not incentives or structure, but how “good” or “bad” the individuals within them are.  This is akin to criticizing the CEO of GM for seeking profits and hoping a “better” CEO will produce a less capitalist institution.  The American Dream itself relies on this same myth, that what drives success and failure is individual effort, rather than birth-right, a Bible, or a badge — or, maybe, even still, in 21st century America, skin colour.

While constant measures are taken to guard the meaningless votes of average citizens from becoming a “tyranny of the majority”, corporate money, in the name of equality and individual freedom, must be allowed its equal expression in a democracy already owned by the rich.  The See-Saw at work.  Consider what a debate on establishing a national referendum in the United States would produce, and take note that arguments against referendum or direct democracy are arguments against democracy herself.  Such fears reveal precisely how false the democratic revolution is, and how necessary it will be.

The debate on information, too, as in the case of Edward Snowden, succumbs to this fallacy.  During the revelations, it was men like Snowden, and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who had to answer tough questions about, “When will the leaks end?” and “Just how far are you going to take this?  How much are you going to expose?”  Greenwald appeared on mainstream programs to respond to vague, philosophical inquiries about where he thought “the line should be drawn” in regards to information made public as if we were all just seconds away from every government secret being exposed.  In reality, we were 10-years-and-more immersed in a secret surveillance state monitoring a couple hundred million people.  The men who exposed this were cautioned against for their ambition.

One can imagine Martin Luther King, too, bombarded with accusations about black violence, black militancy, black unruliness, black hatred at a time when whites were state-supported to engage in all of  the above.  King’s supposed alter-ego of that community, Malcolm X, was, and still is, an unassimilable figure in American history in part because he openly preached mere self-defence.  What would happen if some public figure tomorrow said, in the name of self-defence, and with a reasonable, even humble, tone, “If cops keep shooting people, people will start shooting back.”

Such a figure would be a radical.  An extremist.  Insane.  It is a slippery slope no one wants to go down.  A slope we all keep in mind.  A slope we caution daily against, urging our brothers and sisters in Ferguson and New York City and elsewhere to not threaten, not get violent, not fight back with force, but with words and with peace and through the proper channels.  Our backbone and our institutions are strong.  They are ones of pluralism, secularism, democracy; of protest, petition, and song.

We police ourselves quite well, in this way — but who polices the police?  We fear, even from ourselves, a slope which can only end in violence and the destruction of civil society, of perhaps our entire democratic experiment.  But, ask yourself, and ask the police, where does the current slope end?

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One thought on “Michael Brown and the Slippery See-Saw Fallacy

  1. Pingback: Making Excuses for Cops | the EMPIRICIST has no CLOTHES

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