In the game of fallacies, the slippery slope is considered a noob tier move. However, I think there’s some hidden nuance and wisdom in the manoeuvre, worth exploring.
First though, a little parable.
ACME Widgets fancied itself a modern, forward looking company. The gizmo sector had seen significant growth the last few years, and they faced increasing pressure to expand their operation. After scoring a significant new investment, they decided to move from their old dumpy digs in the industrial district to a new office in the heart of the city, ringing in the new year with style.
Like most modern workspaces, the architecture was entirely open. It looked great in pictures, with light pouring into an impeccable interior. Not like their old cramped office, where the widget engineers and staff were packed together into tiny rooms with old carpet smelling faintly of mildew. It was going to be great, everyone was excited.
Within a month though, problems started to appear, and the pleasant collegial atmosphere slowly evaporated. The general consensus was that the new office was just too noisy. A phone bleeping non-stop notifications had driven at least one employee into rage, and crackling lunch wrappers would now consistently draw deadly glares. It wasn’t until the first quarterly report trickled up to the top however that this was taken seriously. Productivity was down across the board, including some of the most senior engineers, and a few deadlines had been missed.
Management tackled the problem in earnest, by soliciting opinions from everyone, and laid out a comprehensive new anti-noise policy. There were rules, obviously. Phones and computers would now have to be muted. Lunches and snacks were to be eaten in the kitchen area only. Special sound-proof phone booths were to be installed, and all loud conversations would have to be held behind closed doors. To mitigate further distraction, everyone was issued complementary noise canceling headphones.
There was some grumbling, partially about a lack of social contact, but mostly from the annoyed sales staff who spent the bulk of their days on the phone. Still, most employees were positive. They could clearly see how this would reduce the noise and restore both happiness and productivity in turn. So it came as a surprise that when the second quarterly report came in, things were looking worse. Not only was productivity still lagging, but the number of complaints had only gone up. This was a serious problem, and something had to be done.
Workplace experts were brought in and a dedicated budget for noise issues was established to pay for them. On their advice, additional soundproofing was installed across the entire office. Though this severely compromised the transparent modern aesthetic, it was deemed a necessary sacrifice. Employees were required to attend mandatory sound sensitivity training. Not only would they learn the best habits for reducing noise, but they would hear personal testimony from others with sensory issues, to ensure they would understand the significance. They would even be shown studies demonstrating the clear link between quiet workplaces and productivity.
As quarter three wrapped up, management found itself staring at a report and a list of demands from the newly formed Anti-Noise Committee, consisting of some of the most noise sensitive employees. Despite the training and clearly posted notices everywhere, some employees were still not managing to be noise-free. Detailed record keeping showed an average of 42 unmuted notification pings per week. Pictures of trash cans were included, showing the remains of lunches eaten at desks, with a list of suspects. It also lamented the employees’ reluctance in calling out the guilty parties, despite an explicit slide from one of the training seminars clearly explaining the importance of holding each other accountable. An expanded set of rules was proposed, explaining how a muted phone vibrating loudly on a table was nevertheless a class 1 offense. Clearly, there was still much more work to be done.
It didn’t take long for the press to take an interest either. In a short news segment about the new trend, ACME was featured as a prime example of the pervasive noise issues in the widget industry. Word spread, as multiple articles hit the wire to jump on this new punching bag. Worried about their significant investment and the persistently stagnant performance, investors called up the company founder in anger and demanded an explanation.
“We’ve tried everything, honestly. But no matter what we do, the anti-noise committee just keeps making noise!”
In that very moment, he became enlightened.
Substitute “tech” for “widgets” and “sexism” for “noise”, and you get a very good idea of the dynamic that lead to James Damore writing his Google Memo, as well as the reason the response was so vitriolic and pervasive. The Google CEO however, did not see the light.
Am I saying that sexism is just noise, to be ignored? Not at all. I chose that example exactly because noise sensitivity is something many people in tech can strongly relate to. Pinning down the mistakes is much more subtle than that, because it’s a meta level problem consistently being framed as an object level one. The fault lies with the process used to identify and tackle issues in the first place.
By examining it in the abstract, it’s easier to see the build up. It also lets us check if the problems being focused on are actually endemic to the domain in question, technology, rather than assuming that coverage equals incidence.
First off, ACME management failed to see the existing benefits of their old workspace, mildew and all. It naturally segregated people into small groups with informal rules. They sought the glamour of modern fashion without understanding its effects.
Second, management changed the workspace into a uniformly different one. The wishes of the most vocal minority became the new standard for everyone, even those who clearly didn’t care.
Third, through escalation, the practical problem of productivity became a moral one. Busybodies were empowered to chase after others while contributing nothing to the issue at hand. The conflict became a war for its own sake.
Fourth, stakeholders entered the picture whose livelihood and status depends on not solving the problems they talk about, to the point of wildly exaggerating existing issues and inventing new ones.
I see the same mistakes reflected in the attitude from activists towards existing tech culture. The contract of the old internet—we don’t care who you are, as long as you deliver good data—is reinterpreted as a callous disregard for your fellow human. The rules that are implemented are well meaning, but are fundamentally open to abuse and delivered as a mandatory, all-encompassing solution, even if they perpetually fail to deliver. The moral dimension is also clearly present: if you do not support diversity efforts in all their current forms, you are anti-diversity and need to be made an example of.
Now, if you still think this comparison is horribly unfair, consider that there’s a dedicated mailing list at Google to collect micro-aggressions and send them around the company in a weekly report. Consider that a diversity consultant can get paid $250 / hour despite having zero formal credentials to warrant it. The Venn diagram of stakeholders extends far beyond that too. As we saw in the resulting media coverage, the beneficiaries include broadcasters who get to alternate between blind righteous scorn and careful measured analysis, depending on whether it’s an offensive or defensive exercise. This pleases their audience: readers so fixated on their preconceived notions, that when actual scientific findings and terminology are thrown in, it’s dismissed as insulting pseudo-science. Misrepresenting the arguments is the norm rather than the exception.
None of this solves the root problem, which is that a bunch of people with vastly different needs, preferences and tasks are all being forced to work and communicate in the same manner in the same place. That this is done under the banner of empathy and inclusion is a stunning demonstration of a failure of imagination.
The open plan office is metaphorical too: at a time when public conversation has shifted almost entirely to a handful of privately owned social platforms, the question should be raised whether it’s feasible to even establish a universal set of moral rules to operate them under, or what the effect is of insisting upon it.
Most importantly though, I think it’s crucial to understand why this happens in general, and how to spot it. Which brings me back to the slippery slope, sliding from A to Z.
The reason people generally consider the form to be fallacious is because the reasons for enacting A are assumed to be patently different from those seeking Z. For instance, the reasoning behind gay marriage is not perversion or deliberate sacrilege, it’s to give a gay couple all the legal benefits afforded to a loving spouse, such as immigration rights, end-of-life care, parental authority, and so on. The idea that gay marriage necessarily leads to legalizing bestiality is a fallacious argument, because none of these things apply to animals.
In the story above though, “the office is noisy” makes for a bad A, because noise is itself defined relative to the environment. Once you lower the noise level (read: sexism), goal posts can be effortlessly moved to find something new to gripe about, without changing the justification. Only now any perceived transgression will stand out even more, and you’ll have created both mechanisms and moral justification to make that feedback loop sustainable. Once that happens, making noise to fight noise slips under the radar with astonishing ease. Being sexist against techbros, whatever that word means, is effortlessly accepted in the quest for more respect.
See, it’s natural to assume people wanted peace and quiet because they don’t like being interrupted and not getting any work done. In that case, the solution is less noise and more sensitivity. But what if it’s because interruptions make them feel they are powerless over their environment? In that case, the solution is to acquire more power. Every time the opportunity presents itself to use that power, they will have to exercise it, otherwise they feel powerless again. Vague phrases like “feeling safe” can be used to mask this, by equating words with violence, a move best classified as topping from the bottom. The ultimate end goal, if extrapolated, would be a place where nobody makes a peep, or alternatively perhaps, with nobody else in it.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try to change things? No. It just means you should take care around slopes. Checking if they’re slippery is insufficient, you should be actively applying sanity-checking grip tape. If the reasoning you use to justify a new process doesn’t go away once that process is in place, then it’s not a real justification. You’re not aiming for a concrete, achievable goal, you’re just sliding in a particular direction away from the current norm, for different reasons entirely. Only when you get closer to the presumed target does the difference become apparent. Waiting until that’s clear to everyone can be a losing strategy for dissenters, when taking a step the other way is perceived as an unacceptable moral wrong. It locks you into a one-way ratchet that only has two settings, slow and fast.
This dynamic has an even uglier side. Just because gay marriage could be very reasonably justified, doesn’t mean there weren’t people pushing for it exactly because they wanted a victory and, afterwards, to rub it in that they won. Such a victory can taste sweet and lead to a desire for more. In the case of sexism in tech, the casual hating on techbros and their a priori assumed-to-be harmful manifestos gives the distinct impression this vindictive angle is in fact a prime motivator.
It’s even more worrisome when you consider the latest twist in the saga of oppression in tech, as some of the biggest tech companies have shifted their focus from bros to nazis. Under the guise of stopping hate, we’re collectively throwing out time-tested principles as if this would surely accomplish something good. It’s disturbing to see them sacrificed on the altar of progress. In today’s world, that means turning every incident into useful ammo for a tribe, and actively discouraging and banning viewpoints associated with an enemy. Even if the presumed nazis turn out not to be nazis at all and are actually jewish.
There are very, very few people actually aiming for Z, and you rarely need to worry about them. There are however many aiming for B mainly because everyone else already agrees that A is reasonable. They support B because it gives them power. You should not take them at face value, because if you acquiesce, they will effortlessly jump to C. But more so, you should be wary of actors who find those people eminently useful because of how predictable they are.
Widespread repression and castigation is not just a slippery slope, it’s covered in ice. Check yourself and your assumptions, or we all fall down.