The slippery slope of learning
By David Weinberger
A couple of days before writing this, the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ruled that barriers to gay marriages violate the state constitution. Now, I don't care what you think about this issue—actually, I care a lot but I'm not going to argue it here—but it illustrates something important about how we change our minds.
Consider Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist in The Boston Globe. No, he didn't change his mind. His response (Nov. 20) to the ruling was to warn that we've started down a slippery slope toward permitting polygamy and incest. After all, he said, The Boston Globe in 1976 had dismissed the claim that "the [equal rights] amendment would ... legitimize marriage between people of the same sex." And 27 years later, that's exactly what's happened. In fact, the Court cited the state's equal rights amendment in making its decision. Likewise, in 1989, The Globe editorialized that our gay rights law would not "put Massachusetts on a 'slippery slope' toward" a right to gay marriage, yet now the right to marry is being extended to homosexuals.
Forget that arguments by reference to a slippery slope are fallacious because they discredit an idea not because it's wrong but because there is a (false) inevitability to some other consequence that is wrong. The more important issue concerns how we, individually and collectively, change our minds. In fact, it bears on how we change at all.
It is certainly true that when the Equal Rights Amendment was first being discussed in the '70s (it actually has been introduced into the House every year since 1923), the prospect of gay marriage wasn't just distant, it was overwhelmingly abhorred. Yet now, depending on which polls you believe, we seem fairly evenly split on the issue as a nation. We have changed.
How did it happen? I don't know. I'm sure I have the same ideas about it as you do, although we may express them in different tones of voice. But what's interesting to me is what we learn from seeing that what once disgusted now seems a matter of rights. That's quite a switch.
There's a very old joke. (Warning: It's old and not very funny.) A kid says, "I'm glad I don't like spinach." "Why not?" asks his mother/father/otherly-gendered guardian. "Because if I liked it, I'd eat it ... and I hate spinach!"
There's the argument against change. The person at the top of the slippery slope thinks that the person at the bottom is wrong, immoral and maybe ridiculous. The person at the bottom of the slope looks up and sees someone who is unenlightened, unevolved and maybe arrogant. The remarkable fact is that it's the same person at the top and bottom of the slope, separated by time.
But is it just time that separates them? That would give equal credence to both selves. No, it's not just time. It's not just change. If we have any hope of escaping from terminal cynicism, we have to say that what the slope really describes is learning.
In just about every such case, we start out like the kid eating spinach. "I hope I don't become more conservative when I get old," I distinctly remember thinking when I was in college in the late '60s. I knew that was the general course life takes, but I was going to fight it. I failed to realize that fighting change means willing oneself to be stupid. I have become more conservative in my dotage, but for what I (of course) consider to be good reasons: I'm more realistic, my values now let me believe that some degree of selfishness can make the aggregate of humanity better (i.e., I believe markets sometimes work), etc. I'm more mature, more experienced ... and more conservative.
My younger self is standing at the top of the slope telling me that I've gone wrong, I've sold out. But the me at the bottom of the slope chuckles and says, "Ah, youth. So in love with its beliefs that it thinks all change is degradation."
The slippery slope isn't slippery and it isn't headed downhill. It's a hill we climb by learning.
David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization", e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org