The Overton Window

Publish Date
Principles Series
Last Edit
Apr 3, 2022 01:48 PM
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While on the subject of culture and cultural relativism, we need to cover a concept known as Overton’s Window. The concept is remarkably modern, even if it’s broad concept was conveyed earlier. In the mid-nineties, Joseph Overton coined the concept that there exists a relatively narrow window of beliefs on any given topic that are acceptable at a given time. This window can shift, narrow, or widen over time, but it will generally be exclusive rather than inclusive.
Sadly, the window only received its name, the Overton Window, posthumously when Joseph Overton died in 2003 at the age of 43 while piloting an ultralight aircraft. Since that time, the concept has spread tremendously, and is now a standard term in political discourse. That Overton himself would be just 59 years-old today provides an interesting hypothetical universe where he didn’t crash his plane.
In any case, we need to cover it here because it has tremendous influence on how culture evolves. Any alternative idea has to squeeze its way into the Overton Window first if it wants to have any chance of influencing public policy.
In the U.S., this is especially relevant since our political parties are inordinately influenced by extremes. These extremes operate either just outside or just inside the Overton Window, but have agendas to shift the window in their favor.
As with this window, the space is typically small compared to the available space.
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Let’s take an example: reparations payments to black families on the basis of slavery. This is a radical idea outside of any reasonable Overton Window. Yet it is being pushed by people on the left, so much so that Elizabeth WarrenKamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders have all paid it lip service. While such a radical policy has little chance of getting implemented, having three “serious” presidential candidates even mention a concept brings it into the Overton Window, even if it’s still an awful idea.
Examples certainly exist on the right as well, with anti-immigrant sentiment being a notable example. In both this case and with reparations, the attempts are actually being made to widen the window. In parallel, both sides also seek to close the window on ideas they don’t like. Labeling ideas as fascist, racist, something-phobic, and even socialist are attempts being made to close parts of the window. These are, of course, also quite common in today’s discourse.
Hopefully, the above examples are enough to show just how useful this concept is. We’ll be relying on it in the future and discussing a bit more through this framework, so stay tuned!