Avoiding ‘slippery slope’ objections to your campaign

By Drew Lindon

‘Slippery slope’ arguments, which we’ll be discussing at our next event, are commonplace when you’re campaigning. These arguments make the case that a small first step will likely lead to much bigger (bad) change. It’s the proverbial rock rolling down the mountain out of control.

Slippery slope arguments are often effective in influencing debate because they can (though not always) appear rational and measured: e.g. “We’ve gone so far already, so why risk more?”, or “We want to preserve the values that we’ve held for years, this change will undermine all of this work”. These arguments can also be effective in suggesting a future threat, even if that threat is not directly related to the change.

These arguments can also be deployed to undermine the credibility of campaigners: “They say they just want A, but what they don’t tell you is that it will lead to B”. And these arguments also come with a toolkit of ready-made buzzwords and phrases: “open the floodgates”, “straw that breaks the camel’s back”, “ticking timebomb”, “tipping point”, “gateway drug”, etc. All of these are instantly understandable on an emotional level and are uniformly negative.

So what can charity campaigners do to respond to slippery slope arguments? How can they engage with, and answer those oppositions effectively? Come along to our December event to share your experiences and solutions.

But for now, there’s a couple of points I’d suggest.

Firstly, preparation is key. If you run a public campaign and you haven’t thought ahead to what kind of opposition you’ll face, you’re far less likely to respond to objectives quickly or successfully. Do your research, and prepare your arguments carefully.

Secondly, be prepared to play the plausibility card. Part of the key in combating slippery slope arguments is showing that change A does not actually lead to outcome B. Most social change is incremental, and rapid change prompted by the law is unusual. There are usually many steps between the change proposed and the terrible impact suggested, and safeguards along the way.

Thirdly, make sure you and your supporters keep on message and be truthful. If you’re just pushing for exactly what your campaign calls for, then having everyone singing the same tune will help show your claims are genuine.

But if you want a bigger change than you’re proposing, be honest about it. It’s ok, and better, to say that you’re looking to make more change later on, as your credibility will evaporate if you’re exposed as holding cards behind your back. And be careful of exaggerating the benefit of the change you want – the opposite of the slippery slope argument (the ‘escalator’ argument perhaps?).

Finally, I’m not saying that people who employ slippery slope arguments are wrong! There are plenty of times when a potential change should be opposed, for lots of good reasons. It is simply that slippery slope claims often make poor arguments, which can be undermined.

We’ll be looking at a number of campaigns which have employed or attracted slippery slope objections in our future blogs.