Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword. - R. Buckminster Fuller
Though the concept of the “slippery slope” can (and often is) used in a fallacious manner, it is wrong to insist (as government apologists often do) that it is always so. In the common law tradition, laws are defended from those who would challenge them by arguing precedent: demonstrating that a new law or practice strongly resembles others already in existence which have never been challenged (or better yet, withstood such challenges) constitutes evidence that the new act is also permissible. But there’s another factor, a psychological and moral one: once people get used to an idea, they’re much more likely to support laws that reflect that attitude. Sometimes this is a good thing; for example, now that the majority of Americans have either smoked marijuana themselves or know someone who does, support for its criminalization is waning. But it can also be a very bad thing: someone with a very negative opinion of a particular social group (such as homosexuals or sex workers) is unlikely to object very strenuously to laws criminalizing that group.
Yesterday, I discussed the way the state establishes precedents with demonized groups, then extends those precedents to everyone. Today we’ll look at the other side of the coin: the way people become comfortable with doing nasty things themselves, so that when the state simply turns custom into law and replaces social penalties with criminal ones, most people don’t even flinch. My first example is the public reaction to Julie Burchill’s awful hate-screed of a few weeks ago; for those who missed it, the neofeminist writer who said “prostitutes should be shot…for their terrible betrayal of all women” published an ugly, hateful rant against transgender people in the Observer, and the resulting firestorm was so intense the newspaper “unpublished” it the next day. Obviously, I have no love for Burchill and I was quite happy to see her reaping the whirlwind, but I found the deletion of her article very troubling, and people’s evident satisfaction over that deletion even more so. As I wrote in my Cliterati article “Speech and More Speech”,
…nearly everyone is closed-minded about something, and that’s why it is so vital that we not allow anyone’s speech to be censored: nobody is (individually or collectively) qualified to judge what ideas “deserve” to be heard. The test of our commitment to the free exchange of ideas, and therefore to social progress, lies not in our support for free speech for those who say things we like, or even for those who politely say things we don’t like; rather, it lies in our dedication to defending the right of people we don’t like to say horrible, offensive things with which we vehemently disagree…
Those who rejoice when a private corporation deletes a writer’s article, and would gloat if she were fired, are already receptive to the idea of censorship; enacting the practice into law and establishing censors to act “on behalf of the public” is only one step further.
Then there was the case of the priest who called 911 for help getting out of a bondage situation in which he had accidentally trapped himself; tabloid websites had a field day with it, as you can imagine. But Greta Christina explains the huge problem with this that nobody seems to have noticed:
…People in sexual situations that are both dangerous and potentially embarrassing need to be able to call for help, without fearing that they’re going to be publicly humiliated and that their call for help is going to be spread all over the Internet. How many kinky people…are going to read this story and be reluctant to call 911 when they’re stuck in handcuffs, when they have something stuck in their ass, when they can’t get a cock ring off, when they stumble in their bondage boots and break their nose? I don’t know anything about this priest, other than the fact that he got stuck in bondage gear and made a 911 call to help get him out…I don’t know if he preached sexual shame to his followers while secretly doing kinky stuff, or if he openly opposed the Church’s teachings on sexuality, or if in his public life he just stayed away from the whole topic…But I don’t think it matters…when he was stuck in handcuffs, he should have been able to call 911 without fearing that it would result in his massive public humiliation. His public shaming sends a really crappy message to anyone involved in unconventional sex: “If you’re responsible and take care of your safety by asking for help when you need it, from the people whose job it is to help you, you could easily wind up with your sexual practices becoming the laughing stock of the Internet”…
The “public records” excuse is increasingly used by the media to publicize things that aren’t anyone else’s business; it was bad enough when people who were accused of violent crimes were convicted in the media without benefit of a trial, then it spread to humiliating those accused of victimless crimes, and now it’s been extended to violating the privacy of those who, like the priest or the New York gun owners, aren’t accused of any kind of crime at all. People have grown so used to this that nobody thought much about it when cities started erecting billboards with the names and pictures of men accused of soliciting prostitutes, and the majority quietly accepts the most egregious violations of privacy; how much longer will it be before government agencies just save a step and start making all the information gleaned from their omnipresent surveillance available for anyone to see? Do you really want to live in a world where a complete police dossier on every friend, every neighbor, every co-worker, is only a few mouse-clicks away…and yours is equally accessible to everyone else?
Violating the rights of others is only acceptable in self-defense; it is not a toy for amusement or self-gratification. As such toys are successively adopted by groups, then formal associations and finally governments, they change from mere playthings into dangerous weapons; unfortunately, the transformation is so gradual that most never even notice until it’s far too late to return them to the box from which they should never have been taken in the first place.