A guy I was chatting with in the men’s lounge of the spa at Harrah’s in Atlantic City was telling me about “slide words.” I can’t find anything about them (and I’ve tried “slider words” and a few other variants) anywhere. I don’t think he made the term up, and he certainly didn’t think he had.

Anyway, even though I can’t find any background information or previous discussion, I am going to talk about “slide words” (or whatever they’re called).

A slide word, I gather, is a word or phrase that has come to serve as shorthand for an entire argument—except that the argument isn’t really there. We’re all just supposed to think it is. The slide word acts as a black hole, drawing further discussion and thoughtful debate into itself and killing it.

Slide words are bad because they take the place of actual analysis of situations and events. Every slide word has a kind of implicit, “Sigh. Here we go again” attached to it, even though the “again” part is asserted through the use of the slide word itself and not actually demonstrated.

I have something to say here about three slide words: conspiracy theory, Chinese menu, and bikeshed.

“Conspiracy theory”

“Conspiracy theory” is perhaps the best example of a slide word. Consider the following exchange, which is made up but is actually very similar to several I have had:

Me: Apparently there might have been an eighth Challenger victim. A Brazilian fisherman said that his son was struck and killed by falling debris, while they were out on a boat.

Other Person: Why haven’t we heard about it?

Me: It was in the news briefly. I guess it was considered more prudent to downplay it.

Other Person: That sounds like a conspiracy theory.

With the invocation of the term “conspiracy theory,” all further discussion of what might have actually happened is discredited. The events surrounding the death of John Kipalani’s son need not be examined in any detail; nor need the press coverage (or lack thereof). “Conspiracy theory” plays the role of a rebuttal of the statements about the Challenger disaster, even though it has no actual connection to them.

Here’s another example:

Me: The only people who profited from 9/11 in any way, financially or politically, were George W. Bush and his family and friends. I therefore assume, as a matter of the simplest logic, that Bush had something to do with it.

Other Person: What are you, a conspiracy theorist?

Again, the slide word (or slide phrase) gets played as if it were a trump card, when in fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of Bush’s culpability in the 9/11 attacks, and neither refutes the logic that’s on offer nor adds information that might bring about a reconsideration of that logic.

“Chinese menu”

Another slide word I’ve come across, in a somewhat narrower setting, is “Chinese menu.”

When I was teaching at a university, I was involved in lots of discussions, formal and otherwise, about core curricula: what they should include, how they should be administered, and so on. I remember that in one series of such discussions, any time anyone suggested anything along the lines of having students choose one or more courses from each of several course groupings, someone else would say, “That’s like a Chinese menu.” Eventually it became just “Chinese menu.”

I have no memory of any discussion of why it was considered a bad idea to adminster a core curriculum this way. All that was required to rebut the idea was “Chinese menu.” Actual argumentation did not enter into it.

“Bikeshed”

Another slide word, a rather obnoxious one that seems to be enjoying considerable popularity these days, is “bikeshed.” If someone says “bikeshed,” they’ve said all they need to say (or at least all they think they need to say, and certainly all they’re planning to say) to establish that what you have been talking about is trivial and not worth discussing.

Saying “bikeshed” to someone, instead of telling that person outright that you find his or her statements trivial and worthless, is not only needlessly indirect but, in most cases I’ve seen, wrong.

The original bikeshed concept, as I understand it (which is from second-hand accounts, so I could be wrong), had to do with the phenomenon of committees spending more time arguing over what color to paint the company bikeshed, than over the allocation of funds to build a nuclear power plant.

The problem with the typical usage of “bikeshed” today is that there’s no nuclear power plant in the picture. It’s more likely to be a bunch of people on an email list discussing the best name for a proposed new method in Ruby, or something like that. Then someone who feels superior to the discussion (which would exclude the creator of Ruby, as well as many of his colleagues, associates, and friends) comes along and says “Bikeshed.”

But if we weren’t talking about method names, we’d be talking about literal constructors for runtime objects. And if not that, then perhaps the question of whether parentheses around parameter lists in method definitions should be mandatory. All of these things are important to people interested in the Ruby programming language; but, with respect, I will state unequivocally that none of them is as important an issue as nuclear power.

Furthermore, saying “bikeshed” implies that you think the group you’re addressing not only is wasting its time on the current topic, but has a history of spending too little time on important things. Even scaling it down so that the important things aren’t really important things in the nuclear power sense, no one ever says what those things are. That’s probably because “bikeshed” is just a snide way to say, “What you’re saying is stupid,” and not a unit of cogent or well-sustained argumentation of any kind.

Thus slide words. I’m glad there’s a name for them, even though it’s puzzling that the only person who seems to have heard the name is that guy at Harrah’s.

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