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.: April 2007 --> The Overton Window

The Overton Window

» I had never heard of the Overton Window, but I'm glad Rafe pointed me to this:

For a lot of reasons, not all of them bad, most people don’t like feeling like they’re disconnecting themselves from the majority of their fellow human beings... [F]or most people, being perceived as an eccentric outlier is something to be feared. This isn’t fundamentally because most people are corrupt, it’s fundamentally because most people are social animals, and feeling connected with the pack is critical to our sense of well-being. This is why “moving the goalposts” works, even when those doing so barely bother to conceal it.

This particular discussion focuses on politics (and that's important) but this is one of those ideas that will resonate in every aspect of your life: at work, when dealing with your kids, affecting social change, and so on. Read the whole thing. (via rc3)

Update: It dawned on me a few minutes ago when reading the Wikipedia entry that the Overton Window is related to my usual argument in favor of certain radical groups: they open up an avenue for discussion and consideration. People may reject PETA's premise, for example, that animals should never be used in testing of any kind. But in doing so, those same people may decide that—while medical testing on animals is acceptable—certain forms of testing on animals in the manufacture of cosmetics should be eliminated.

Come to think of it, I suppose this is the purpose Ann Coulter serves for the far right. She's so very extreme that almost anyone else appears to be reasonable by comparison. See? I told you this was an idea that kept on giving.

Update: Jason Kottke links to a good introduction to the Overton Window by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy:

A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them. [...] Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the "window" of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful.
[...] So, if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window.

 [ 04.05.07 ]


I have long had the exact thought about PETA that you mention. They are radicals but they make people think and shift the terms of the debate.

Ditto Rafe, Rebecca. I have pretty much the exact position that Rebecca describes: I think PETA is too extremist, particularly at upper levels, and that some degree of medical animal testing, while horrible and regrettable, is probably ultimately helpful. But that degree should be the bare minimum and do as little damage to the animals as possible.

However, there's a difference between "a life saved" and "selling a lipstick," and I don't think we should be blinding rabbits just so some girl can have longer, thicker lashes. Then there's the thorny issue of animal testing that "benefits" animals - whenever a pet food bag says that some new formula increases muscle mass, often animals were injured (unnecessary surgery, etc) to establish the claim. Does that benefit animals with better health for the animals who consume the product, or does it just benefit Iams' (etc) bottom line in allowing them to make health claims? I don't know. I just make a point of trying not to buy animal-tested cosmetics. It's easy with the more expensive lines (no brand owned by Lauder does animal testing, for one thing, and they own many brands), but not all that much so if you are buying drugstore products, where the best choices are probably Revlon, Almay, and Target's Sonia Kashuk line.

I recognize that I developed these positions partly because of exposure to PETA materials and to people who were card-carrying members, even if I am not and do not think I ever would be, due to certain views reportedly held in PETA's upper levels.

Another example is that, I think, the failing cachet of the Bush administration in middle America, along with some very prominent environmental commentary, is making it so that many people who would have considered any "greening" both extremist and sissy (or maybe too much effort) five years ago are now much more willing to embrace these ideas without automatically thinking they're only for hippies. Another reason this is happening, I think, is the wider availability and lower prices (compared to before) of environmentally-friendly products, as well as the promise of saving money, as with the electricity savings that come with the use of compact fluorescent bulbs. Another way of putting it is that it's easy to use environmentally friendly products when I no longer have to pay $5 for a bottle of Seventh Generation dish soap from Wild Oats; the same soap is now available more widely for not much more money than Dawn or Palmolive.

As usual, the comments on the Making Light post are priceless.

This concept is something that a few in the gay and lesbian community figured out and have been working (with varying degrees of effectiveness) for a while now. Ever seen a Gay Pride parade? If it was being covered in the media you probaly saw half-naked leathermen or women that looked and acted like prizefighters...while this has the upsetting (for some) effect of creating the impression that g/l folks are way outside the fringe, functionally what it can also do is make those nice boys who live next door and do a lot of decorating, or Heather's two mommies, seem more mainstream by contrast. This is a view I've argued with some of my G/L/B/T cohorts; nice to see it explained clearly, succinctly and in relation to other issues.

Fabulous post. I'd never heard it called this - but you've summarized an argument I first read - 15 or so years ago in Whole Earth Review - a transcribed conversation between someone from the Sierra Club and someone named Earth First. You've put it more concisely - and now provided me with a name ("Overton Window").

And glad to now have discovered your blog. J.

yes, and it's time for the left to start working this phenomenon. there's a tendency among Democratic and other liberal politicians to tend to "play it safe" by only always taking the "reasonable" line, rather than being willing to sometimes make an argument that's to the left of what most people already believe. but we need some folks out there resetting the left-hand boundary toward the actual left, rather than letting the middle shift so far right that there's no "reasonable" left anymore. heck, even a few noisy thinktanks or talking heads might achieve a lot in that direction, giving the politicians cover...



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