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Overton window

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The Overton Window is a concept in political science that describes the range of "acceptable" ideas in public discourse.

On any public policy, many people will advocate for the current public policy, some will favor some small adjustment to the policy, a few more may favor more radical changes, and beyond this, there may be some extreme view that would get someone ostracized as a lunatic for espousing such nonsense. The range of "acceptable" is subjective, obviously, and can vary within sub-groups in the same society, but it's interesting to look at what the general attitudes are. Of course, political opinions are rarely on a straight line from "Left" to "Right", but it's often convenient to think of them in this manner, so the Overton Window is often viewed as ranging from "less government intervention" to "more government intervention" on any particular policy. That's Poly-Sci for you.

From the individual point of view, the Overton Window also represents what the individual would be willing to say in public, even if their own personal beliefs may be much different, and this might change depending on the public venue. For instance, you might believe that goats are just the worst animal, but you probably wouldn't say that in the middle of a convention full of goat farmers, your stated opinion will never be any less than "goats are a pretty good animal, though I like sheep", even if you might say something worse about goats at a different venue.

What makes the Overton Window especially interesting is that the range of "acceptable" views can and do shift over both time and place; policies such as race-based slavery are currently anathema in most societies, but, obviously, slavery was legal in the past (and is still practiced in some parts of the world). What is currently considered an extreme, outright unthinkable idea may one day become the default position for a future generation. More interestingly, special interest groups can "shift" the public discourse to make their own desired views more palatable by advocating for more extreme views even if they don't actually want those extreme positions.

Overview[edit]

On the "line", the stances on a topic are usually depicted as ranging from Unthinkable -> Radical -> Acceptable -> Sensible -> Popular -> Policy -> Popular -> Sensible -> Acceptable -> Radical -> Unthinkable. Regardless of the issue, there's virtually always "harsher"/"stricter"/"more taboo" and "softer"/"laxer"/"more open" stances. The further away you are from the "center", the less acceptable your opinion on an issue is. The Window is a measure of how far these "acceptable" ranges of stances extend.

It's not a perfect fit of course; due to the constantly shifting nature of public discussion and the process involved in changing the laws, the dead center of discussion/opinion tends to be a bit away from where the actual policy lies, as evidenced by, well, looking at any respectable opinion poll on any topic. After all, literally more than 2/3 of the US public supports legalizing marijuana[1], making "it should be legal, if strictly regulated" the dead center and "criminalized entirely" towards the fringes of acceptable discussion, yet it's still a Federal crime. Sometimes changes happen long before they become popular, for example, interracial marriage was fully legalized in the US in 1967, but it wasn't until the mid-90's that even half of the US public supported it, a whopping 3 decades later.[2]

Again, this presupposes all stances will fit on a straight line, but in reality, most issues aren't completely linear. Using the Reefer example, with a possible range from "in the produce aisle, next to the carrots" to "complete ban", an age limit similar to alcohol and cigarettes could fit on that line, but where would you fit a bizarre stance of "decriminalization based on race and wealth"? It's not a farcical example, as US (and the rest of the world) has a nasty history of applying drug laws unevenly based on race and social status.

To get a bit Meta, just how wide the Overton Window on a topic should be is also a topic with different stances and thus subject to an Overton Window itself. To paraphrase a phrase incorrectly associated with Voltaire, "I don't agree with what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it" is in essence the idea that the Window should be opened entirely to all stances, short of openly discussing injuring others. People whose stances tend to fall outside of the Overton Window may hide behind Free Speech in an effort to open the window further, even if they don't actually care about Free Speech when it comes to others.

Examples of Overton Window[edit]

Note that since just about every topic has its own Overton Window, this list is going to be anything but exhaustive. Also note that we probably won't be listing out 11 positions for each topic, only enough to give a general sense of how the window works. Also also note that these examples may be a tad Western-centric, and your own society may have a different window.

Gun control[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Gun control

Here's an example for the US as a whole. The larger the group of people, the larger the window will be; what is acceptable opinion in New York may be unacceptable in Mississippi, and vice versa.

  • Unthinkable: Mandatory gun ownership
  • Radical: Legal for every citizen with extremely rare exception, many military-grade weapons available
  • Popular: Legal for most citizens with few exceptions, wider selection of weapons allowed
  • Policy: Legal with basic background check, long guns (rifles, shotguns) allowed but restrictions on more concealable handguns, mandatory waiting periods, no outstanding domestic violence issues, etc
  • Popular: More extensive background checks, mandatory trainings, assault weapons ban[3]
  • Radical: Restricted to those who can prove a legitimate need, onerous licensing required, concealable handguns banned entirely
  • Unthinkable: Banned for everyone

For individual states, the window will narrow. Nevada's opinions on guns will range from "legal for everyone with rare exceptions" to "more extensive background checks", whereas New Jersey already has knives restricted based on proving legitimate need and much more stringent checks as policy.

Different countries have different needs and policies, and what's acceptable discourse in one place may not be in another. In some locations such as Svaldbard,Wikipedia it's actually mandatory to own guns due to all the polar bears, and Switzerland requires all able-bodied males to own a military rifle (but, not bullets). In some countries, it's the opposite; in Britain, most of the police are unarmed, and guns are a rarity in the public. To suggest that most British citizens should be allowed to own guns, let alone open carry, would be utterly unthinkable in British society and would get you thrown out of the discussion. In the US, this may or may not be the actual policy in all regions, but regardless, is part of the mainstream debate.

But what if you happen to represent a gun manufacturer? You could form (or take over) a gun rights lobbying group, and demand the most extreme changes possible. As people see things like "legal for all non-criminals" as being part of the public discourse, eventually the public may view "legal for most citizens with rare exceptions" as more the norm, and the actual law may shift to reflect this. Thus, the existence of the NRA.

Healthcare[edit]

Most industrialized countries have some form of universal health care. The US is not one such country, there are interesting reasons for that mostly relating to WWII. Long story short, the various factories were short workers, and the federal government stepped in to keep wages (and thus prices of tanks and planes) artificially low. A dick move to be sure, but there was a war going on. To get around this, the industries offered benefits on top of wages, such as pensions, dental, health, and so forth. Once the war was over these benefits were given favorable tax incentives and boom, the US has coverage for nearly everyone without too much work on the government's part. Compare that to Europe, where the factories were all rubble, and the governments had to start from scratch. Fast forward a few years, the factory jobs are gone, and now you have people working full time jobs without getting employer insurance, and, well, there's a problem.

The acceptable ranges for a European country will be from "slightly more coverage" to "slightly less coverage". The idea of the elimination of universal health care entirely and adopting a US-style system would be utterly unthinkable. Likewise, in the US, enacting universal coverage would've been a radical position to hold, although with the lackluster results from Obamacare and ever-increasing medical costs, a "Medicare for all" system is becoming much more popular[4].

Abortion[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Abortion

Again, this is generally the case in the US, and is a good example where there's actually a very wide window of acceptable discussion. Your country/state will vary of course. For instance, Germany actually bans abortions after the first trimester,[5]; so much for Europe being far more left-wing on all issues when compared to the US.

  • Unthinkable: Legal after birth
  • Radical: Legal any time before birth
  • Popular: Legal in almost all cases
  • Policy: Abortions mostly legal in first two trimesters, legal if medically necessary in final trimester, may require waiting period
  • Popular: Abortions only legal in first trimester under extreme situations such as rape or incest, or if medically necessary later, mandatory waiting periods, counseling, etc
  • Radical: No abortions, except perhaps some incredibly extreme scenario
  • Unthinkable: Forced pregnancy

Abortions were sporadically available prior to Roe v. Wade in the US, so obviously public opinion has shifted. Interestingly, the "unthinkable" post-birth abortions, a.k.a. "infanticide", was actually public policy at various points in history. Possibly even the default policy. In most primitive cultures, extra infants are a burden upon a society that simply did not have enough food to go around. The TapirapeWikipedia people of the Amazon, for instance, only allowed three children per mother, and no more than 2 of any gender. Any extra were killed. Europeans weren't better; Romans and Greeks regularly abandoned unhealthy infants, and sometimes healthy infants. In the case of the Greeks, during leaner years it was the norm for peasants to abandon all the girls born (which may explain why homosexuality became popular). Even after the spread of Christianity, "post-partum birth control" was not unheard of. Keep this in mind when discussing sex education and birth control; this is what the world without condoms looks like.

Abortion is also an example of where looking at a policy on a line between "fully legal" and "fully illegal" doesn't work that well. Abortion was legalized in 1973 thanks to some Dick, yes, of the seven justices who voted in favor of Roe v. Wade he appointed four and was VP for two more. Why would Nixon, a Republican of all things, be in favor of legalizing abortion? In part because he felt women should be able to abort mixed race babies.[6] Good luck figuring out how the hell to place that viewpoint on a straight line. More pertinently, remember that this was not some unique quirk of Nixon; many people in the 60's and 70's also held a similar point of view, and over time Racism's Overton Window has shifted enough that "mixed-race people shouldn't exist" is pretty much unthinkable by anyone other than your racist Grandpa.

Technology[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Technology

High-tech companies tend to push the Overton window in the same direction, with rare push-back from consumers. Eric Schmidt then-CEO of Google gave away the game in an interview at the Newseum in 2010:[7]

There is what I call the creepy line. The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.

A notable push-back against Google, was it's failed test launch for general use of Google Glass, which is still clearly too creepy for most people,[8] but now has some actual real-world specialized applications.[9] The creep-factor wasn't helped any when Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in 2010, "We want Google to be the third half of your brain."[10]

Interaction with the media[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Media

In the modern era, popular culture is very close to universal. Major media sources are frequently common among an entire populace, or at least a specific subculture. Choices about what ideals to represent in stories, what's shown as good or bad, is often chosen (or at least editorially limited) for the sake of not offending people by representing extreme and unpopular ideas. The Comics Code Authority and National Association of BroadcastersWikipedia both played well-documented historic roles in limiting what was presented to the public, with the NAB notoriously prohibiting all content with interracial couples for fear of offending people in the Jim Crow South, and more broadly racists everywhere. By limiting what they show to what they deem normal, the media organizations help reinforce among all viewers those same norms.

In this way, the Overton Window develops a cultural inertia that can require internal and external forces to overcome.

That media is often international, and also causes some issues. In the Western World, Gandhi is an interesting foreign figure, perhaps worthy of praise but mostly someone that bored high school students pretend to learn about while flirting with each other. We might even be able to criticize the man for some of his kookier ideas even if we think he's a net positive for the world. For many in India, he's practically a divine religious figure, and you do not say anything bad about him (unless you're in the BJP[11]). Viacom (owner of MTV, Comedy Central, VH1, etc) created the show "Clone High", a cult show where clones of famous historical figures have to deal with regular high school drama, because funny. Gandhi was one such character, whose clone was fed up with the pressure of "being the literal Gandhi", and instead was dedicated to partying. Even though this was a show not available in India at all, the very existence of this show was considered too offensive for India, and India threatened to ban Viacom from the Indian market unless the show was cancelled. And it was.[12] As such, all international media corporations avoid too much criticism of Gandhi, and so what is acceptable media discourse about a man who sexually abused his nieces[13] is perfect is kept much, much narrower.

Just imagine if Viacom had depicted Gandhi much more in line with with the actual Gandhi during his youth, advocating for and expanding Apartheid in South Africa[14] occasionally not being on a hunger strike.

This is hardly the only example, and now that China is a major market force, critical discussion is similarly curtailed on mainstream media much too harsh on glorious innocent China, like flea on gentle panda. Welcome to globalization.

References[edit]