Friday, February 03, 2006

On Slippery Slopes and Straw Men

Over on "Superfluities" (see blogroll), George Hunka responds to my post below entitled "On the Connection Between Sentiment and Idea" with his own, entitled "Taking a Breather." In it, he makes two points. I'd like to start with the second:

"Second, when you put together the theater ideas that "theatre is not harmless" and "the values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people," you're at the top of a very slippery slope indeed. Nobody is suggesting censorship (and let me repeat that so there's no misreading: nobody is suggesting censorship), but those same thoughts in that combination have been used to rationalize that censorship, and so I'm deeply wary of them from whatever quarter they emerge. The Puritans thought the same thing when they saw the sensual, rich, violent, sexual theater of the Jacobean dramatists, and when they came to power in England in 1640, their first move was to close it down."

The slippery slope argument is slippery indeed. Here is an extended discussion (thanks to of this argument, which has reared its fallacious head more than once when the topic of artists' responsibility has been broached:

The slippery slope argument may or may not involve a fallacy... However, the slippery slope claim requires independent justification to connect the inevitability of B to an occurrence of A [emphasis mine]. Otherwise the slippery slope scheme merely serves as a device of sophistry.

Often proponents of a "slippery slope" contention propose a long series of intermediate events as the mechanism of connection leading from A to B. The "camel's nose" provides one example of this: once a camel has managed to place its nose within a tent, the rest of the camel will inevitably follow. In this sense the slippery slope resembles the
genetic fallacy, but in reverse.

As an example of how an appealing slippery slope argument can be unsound, suppose that whenever a tree falls down, it has a 95% chance of knocking over another tree. We might conclude that soon a great many trees would fall, but this is not the case. There is a 5% chance that no more trees will fall, a 4.75% chance that one more tree will fall, and so on. There is a 92.3% chance that 50 or less additional trees will fall. On average, another 14 trees will fall. In the absence of some momentum factor that makes later trees more likely to fall than earlier ones, this "domino effect" always terminates.

Arguers also often link the slippery slope fallacy to the
straw man fallacy in order to attack the initial position:

A has occurred (or will or might occur); therefore
B will inevitably happen. (slippery slope)
B is wrong; therefore
A is wrong. (straw man)

This form of argument often provides evaluative judgments on
social change: once an exception is made to some rule, nothing will hold back further, more egregious exceptions to that rule.
Note that these arguments may indeed have
validity, but they require some independent justification of the connection between their terms: otherwise the argument (as a logical tool) remains fallacious.

Now, George is very definite that he knows that I am not suggesting censorship. He's right, I'm not. However, what he does say is that arguments like mine -- that "theatre is not harmless" and "the values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people" -- have been used in the past to censor or even shut down theatres, and therefore are likely to be used for that purpose again. We dare not risk it. Thus the slippery slope.

1. The consideration of moral effects can be used for censorship and the shutting down of theatres, therefore
2. Any acknowledgement of the moral effects of plays will inevitably lead to the shutting down of theatres. (slippery slope)
3. Censorship and shutting down theatres are wrong.
4. So, the consideration of moral effects is wrong.

The "independent justification" he offers is the example of the Puritans. Fair enough. The Puritans have oft been used as the monster under the bed for theatre people, because they combined both religious power and political power (the Freddy Kreuger and Chucky of the morality play we are writing) in squashing the theatre. First, a little historical correction. While it is true that the Puritans were no fans of theatre, an examination of the records that led to the closing of the theatres reveals that their reasons had less to do with the morality of the theatre per se, and more to do with the circumstances of their coming to power. The Puritans had deposed a hereditary king at a time when the divine right of kings, "a theory which argued that certain kings ruled because they were chosen by God to do so" (, was a widely and deeply-held belief. Being deeply religious people themselves, the Puritans were extremely nervous about the ramifications of their having deposed and beheaded Charles -- would God smite them for killing his chosen leader? They decided that it would look better to God if they didn't seem to be celebrating too much. So, among other things, they closed the theatres and prohibited other party-like activities as well, and, one would assume, attempted to look as serious and downcast as possible. Of course, my argument isn't that the Puritans were closet theatre lovers, since the fact that for the 18 years they were in power they never quite got around to opening the theatres again. However, they did license William Devenant to produce a series of plays with music which he turned into quite a lucrative undertaking. After the restoration of the crown in 1660, Devanant was given by the newly-restored king one of two only patents that were awarded for theatre production. So during the Puritan Era, there was only one theatre: William Devenant's. During the wild and decadent era of Charles II, when clearly morality was of no concern to anyone, there were a grand total of two theatres, one of which was run by -- you guessed it -- William Devenant. Thus, the consideration of morality, or the lack of consideration of it, didn't seem to have much effect on how much theatre was being done in England from 1642 until the 1700s.

All of which is to say that to be "deeply wary" of the discussion of the effects of art on humanity because the Puritans found theatre immoral and they censored the theatre is to over-react.

Furthermore, I am suggesting that artists themselves, not some outside agency, think about these things. Despite what libertarians say, with freedom comes responsibility -- it is part of being a member of a democratic society. If artists wish to have the benefit of freedom of speech (and, of course, we do), we should also demonstrate awareness of the responsibilities that go along with that freedom. One of those responsibilities is to respect the fact that theatre affects people and to behave accordingly.

George also writes: "I can't agree with the contention, "It is sentiment that leads to an idea, and those ideas and sentiments shape reality. The stories we tell about life shapes that life and the way we see and respond to it. The values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people." For the playwrights we're discussing, the opposite is the case. To say otherwise would be to blame Guernica for the Spanish Civil War." This is a straw man argument: to "present a misrepresentation of the opponent's position, refute it, and pretend that the opponent's actual position has been refuted." ( again: Again, let's break down what he is saying my argument is:

1. There was a Spanish Civil War.
2. Picasso painted a picture attacking the Spanish Civil War.
3. Therefore, Picasso is responsible for the Spanish Civil War.

Of course, this is not what I have said at all. Here is my argument:

1. Picasso painted an anti-war picture about the Spanish Civil War.
2. When some people looked at it, they experienced anti-war feelings.
3. Therefore, the picture affected their feelings.

I'm not certain how this can be refuted. People experience emotions at plays -- isn't that true? Emotional experiences affect people -- isn't that true? Opinions can be affected by experiences -- isn't that true? Why should an artistic experience be any different than any other experience? I'm certain I could easily find examples of people who have said they were changed forever through contact with the arts -- are they lying?

Matthew Freeman (see blogroll), apparently concerned that George and I might bust a vein arguing, urges us to lighten up. Referring back to his admirable post about the artist as friend and doctor, he writes: "I tell the dirtiest jokes to my friends, not my professional colleagues and I certainly couldn't if I were talking to a group of students." Fair enough. But does he grab his friend "by the scruff of the neck and shake [him] until [he] gets the message"? Does he want to "shock and disturb" his friend, "force" his friend to see something ugly, and make sure that his friend's "personal space [is] invaded"? I doubt that Matt treats even his closest friend like that, and if he did, I doubt his friend would remain his friend for very long, because friendship is based on trust and that would have violated it.

Like George, Matt implies that I am suggesting that I, or someone else equally heinous, wants "to play Arbiter of Good Taste." This is certainly not the case -- again, this is to say that someone outside the process should enforce a set moral code. I am suggesting, however, that the artist seriously consider those issues part of his responsibility as an artist. Furthermore, I would suggest that accusing anyone who might even raise the possibility that the arts might affect the observer of being the John the Baptist of censorship is, itself, practicing censorship. Apparently to discuss this possibility places one at the top of a slippery slope that endangers the artistic community and threatens the installation of an Arbiter of Good Taste. Now that sounds to me like censorship.

But Matt (who for some reason sees this discussion being about dirty jokes ;-)) wants us to lighten up a bit. And I'll admit, seeing the dinosaurs fight can be a bit unnerving. But to say nothing in the face of things you find dangerous is to be complicit in the results. George and I are both fighting about something that stands at the center of our value systems, and we see the values we each espouse as being dangerous to what we care about most. I doubt if either of us thinks we're going to persuade the other to switch sides. But in the process of making our arguments, perhaps others might be prompted to consider their own ideas in this regard.

They might be affected by our conversation!


Freeman said...

This goes back to earlier discussions. Short version: You want all artists to take responsiblity for how they affect the audience. I would suggest that they absolutely have no concern or shame in shaking their audience up, and some audience members LIKE to be shaken up.

Ever heard of taking a beating and liking it?

Alison Croggon said...

Scott, I will be frank and say that I really don't know what you're talking about. It's all a bit vague. This discussion began with your misrepresenting (and being very angry about) a rather interesting website about British contemporary theatre.

If you are objecting to violence and unpleasantness in theatre, it depends, as Joshua says, on what you do with it (at least, that's how I read what he said: I thought he was talking of process and not of ends). I don't think anyone here is supporting the kind of violence and crudity you find in the average internet porn page. There is indeed (to my mind) poor art that is motivated by an adolescent desire to shock: but you don't seem to be talking about this. Playwrights like Sarah Kane or Howard Barker, who have been accused of just this kind of thing (by august journals like the Daily Mail, for instance), are doing something rather different. But I'm very unclear, because you don't talk about anything specific, what art you are objecting to. Art is material, and consequently about as specific as you get.

As for art being harmless: you remember, I was quoting an IRA provo, who would know, first hand, what harm actually is. I wasn't claiming, thereby, that art is affectless: of course it moves us. It moves us, in part because it is not real, although it is most certainly part of our reality.

Representing a rape or a murder on stage is NOT THE SAME as committing the crime. It seems to me rather important to distinguish between these two acts. And indeed, it is in the imaginative contemplation of things that we fear or desire that human beings work out what they think, work out, in fact, what their morality is. Gillian Rose argues this beautifully in Love's Work: in order to be moral, we need to know the difference between fantasy and reality, and we work out those differences through play. She is speaking of children, but I think that is equally true, in a more sophisticated sense, of adults. So in our plays, we enter the unreal, so we can be prickled alive to what is real and situate ourselves dynamically as truly moral beings: not entities who just swallow society's received wisdoms. Unless, that is, we simply desire to be anaesthetised by "entertainment". Yes, of course people who write provocatively - I mean writers like Kane - understand that theatre moves people, and of course that is in part what they hope to do. But the movement is towards thought and consciousness, not towards being numbed (which is, I would argue, a primary affect of pornography of all kinds).

And btw Scott, I have never heard of anyone, except schoolchildren or old age pensioners, being forced to go to the theatre. Usually people pay, which suggests some voluntary gesture.