What else can we accept in our world through technology? Because it works reliably. The Overton window (OW) is named after the American sociologist Joseph Overton, who introduced the concept in the mid-1990s. In the original version, the concept’s essence was as follows: all public policy options in a given sector can be lined up on a scale from completely open (no government regulation) to the least open (complete control of the state). But only some of them, fitting into a small segment of this scale, are acceptable for the public at a certain moment. Politicians and statesmen must enter this “window” by their words and actions; otherwise, they will have no chance in elections.
Joseph P. Overton described a method that has been in effect for a long time and is still effective today. With the help of modern technologies, this concept acquired a concrete form and mathematical justification and, consequently, influenced people’s masses more quickly. We can see examples of the effects of this method in everyday life. In today’s world, the development of technology is accelerating. The flow of information that we constantly perceive is so immense that it is hard to analyze it. OW concept works based on these criteria of modern society.
Technology makes it possible to legalize absolutely any idea. Here I am presenting a description of a method. That is such a sequence of actions, the implementation of which leads to the desired goal. Attention! This technology can be an effective thermonuclear weapon to destroy human communities.
In a simplified form, different positions dealing with the same problematic topic can be decomposed into a spectrum, with the extreme points being far-right and far-left views. Between them, it is possible to identify a segment with the most acceptable opinions to society at a given moment. Still, this segment may move horizontally over time for a variety of reasons. This is where OW tries to describe these acceptable limits.
To understand the examples, let’s take a walk through world history. If we analyze public perception over the past 200 years, we will find significant changes. And these changes are no accident. Everything described by Overton moves most efficiently in a tolerant society. In a society with no ideals and, consequently, no clear division between good and evil. OW method is based on the fundamental weaknesses of almost any individual. The “beauty” of this technology is that it works even when one is aware of it. Usually, manipulation stops working as soon as its true meaning is revealed. In this case, however, the effect on the subconscious arises through a person’s basic needs.
When discussing the concept we are interested in, there is a favorite topic, cannibalism, which has become a standard definition in this story. I want to suggest that we look at how each window works on a more relevant topic of our time: child euthanasia. This issue has long been in the process of development and has advanced to its final phase. Let’s look at the whole structure of the construction of this system: from beginning to end so that you can understand how the window’s shifting works.
Initially, the idea or talk that a person could officially kill their born, unhealthy child seems horrible and unacceptable. And it is impossible to begin promoting children’s euthanasia immediately. But suppose no one forbids a scientific study concerning the medicine’s perspective on the minor’s hopeless condition. That is an opportunity to hold a scientific conference where it is possible to discuss introducing a particular drug to end a minor’s life as one option for solving the problem. It is implied that this information will leak out to the masses, however negative. Then, it is simply necessary to support and develop the question that has arisen, and society will begin to adapt. Consequently, an active discussion of the topic will begin. Thus, positions are already being revised. What was Unthinkable has become Radical, meaning OW has moved out of the Unthinkable phase.
Discussion of the issue is no longer taboo, but the idea of killing a child is still unacceptable. In addition to the occasional scientific talks, the topic is becoming more frequent in the media. At this point, some association of radical supporters of killing incurable children will emerge, and may it be a small community on the Internet. It will surely be noticed and quoted in all necessary media. This transitional phase as Radical is the most important one. Now, instead of the concept of killing sick, suffering children, a softer term, child euthanasia, will be used. The meaning is the same, but it doesn’t hurt people’s ears. Society is indoctrinated with the idea, saying, “People with disabilities did not choose this life, why should children suffer from their unbearable pain?”. No one is saying that we should urgently get rid of all minors with disabilities. But the public is beginning to think about drafting a law permitting child euthanasia in rare cases.
People have already gotten used to this topic’s presence in their lives as an Acceptable and no longer flinch when discussing child euthanasia. More and more TV programs and reports about how difficult it is for poor children and how they cannot live like that appear. Rallies are being held in defense of the supporters of this treatment. Scientists are increasingly stating that there are cases where it makes more sense not to torture children anymore but to alleviate their suffering. Eventually, the cyclical nature of history is recalled. During periods of human existence, child euthanasia was practiced and considered the norm, for example, by the Spartans. All those continuing to think rationally and unwilling to accept what is happening are exposed as these poor children’s enemies. Gradually the window moves to the Sensible phase.
The Sensible stage is crucial because it completely changes the human attitude toward killing people, in this case, children. If we do not overload the human brain with information but present it in a processed and calculated way without focusing on essential details, the effect will be immediate. Various television shows are launched discussing this topic. If there is a problem with finding real characters, both the parents of sick children and the children themselves, actors are hired. A story unfolds with a broad scenario. We also see children who do not want to live with such a condition. Society reacts to this as to a heavy theatrical performance, but the attitude has irrevocably changed to neutral. The Popular phase is coming on.
Later, movies begin to appear, which indirectly show such children’s sad fate, touching people’s feelings and making them think: “it’s true, they are suffering, aren’t they?”. Discussions about the introduction of laws on child euthanasia are more frequent. Now, in addition to adults’ subconscious, children’s perception of the issue is also involved. Terminally ill children feel that they are the focus of attention. And they think, “Really, I didn’t choose this life, why is it like this?” Overton’s theory is close to completing its task. Society no longer has questions about the loyalties and scientific conclusions of the problem. Gradually, the analytics with the ready results of surveys of people in different countries and different categories on this topic are included.
Suddenly, some famous actor or philanthropist appears, having a sick child who does not want to live and cannot solve this problem because of the law. By reforming the accepted standard window, the idea is introduced into the public mind that it is time to change something. We passed the point of no return. In the final Policy phase of this case, laws are being issued whereby every parent or every sick child who reaches a certain age will be able to make the decision to euthanize himself. And anyone opposing it will be treated as an offender of the right of choice and freedom of speech. At this point, we are at the beginning of the sixth stage. The first official case of child euthanasia in Europe was recorded in Belgium in 2016.
Overton proposed his theory as a guideline for political discussion. He suggested dividing discussion topics according to their degree of acceptability in society, meaning the degree to which people are willing to accept this or that information. Let’s look at this concept from a broader perspective. It is a method of managing public opinion by changing people’s attitudes toward a particular phenomenon. Theoretically, any concept can be moved from the Unthinkable to the “effective norm” Policy category.
The first step in moving the Overton Window can also be humor. By ridiculing a phenomenon unacceptable to society, it can be moved from the Unthinkable to the Radical category and then gradually to the Acceptable category. By constantly broadcasting jokes about something inappropriate in society, it is possible to accustom people that this phenomenon is present in our lives. As a result, the degree of its rejection will gradually become less and less acute. The humor method also works in reverse: by making fun of a current social norm, it is possible to question whether it is normal. For example, making fun of the lack of sexual experience before marriage can make people doubt that it is normal. After this stage of ridiculing, society is ready to move on to more serious arguments. For example, look at the controversial time of the 1960s. Same-sex love, abortion, adultery, and open cohabitation before marriage were all forbidden. But soon, the ice broke.
This is an example of the “civilized and prejudice-free” world contrasting with the traditional views on immorality that existed at the time. The first step was humor: people began to joke about sexual promiscuity. Soon, society stopped taking the problem seriously; then, more severe discussions started. In the media, there was an active discussion that sexual promiscuity was, of course, a “controversial” issue, but that there were people who thought it was the norm. Films are beginning to allow sexual scenes, which very quickly became the norm of the script. People who were used to thinking differently were subconsciously beginning to accept such a trend in society. There was nothing to be done about it. In 1968, student protests swept many countries.
In Paris, for example, students at Nanterre University protested against the rules established in the dormitories, demanding the right to sleep together. Cohabitation outside marriage became the norm for the French. Thus the phenomenon went from Radical to Acceptable. Once the phenomenon has become Acceptable, the process moves more rapidly and encounters fewer difficulties along the way. Discussions begin about the rights of people who follow a “free” way of life, about the fact that everyone can have his own opinion, about the fact that other people’s positions must be respected, and so on. So far, this phenomenon has not been accepted by the majority as the norm. Still, the idea that such people exist and must be tolerated has already taken hold. At this stage, the phenomenon moves into the category of Sensible.
Gradually the phenomenon moves from the Sensible to the Popular category. More and more people accept the new relationship standard. In society, the condemnation of a lifestyle that had not long ago been unthinkable gradually fades. At this stage, those who have recently been condemned by society gradually become “normal,” while their opponents become a minority. The phenomenon moves from the Popular to the “effective norm” Policy category at the final stage. This new mainstream worldview is now considered the accepted norm in society. Anyone who opposes it is declared strange at best. And in this example of sexual promiscuity, morality, purity, and responsibility for one’s actions are objects of mockery.
Thus Joseph Overton, the official concept creator, succeeded in showing humanity how to extract completely alien ideas for society from the trash can of public contempt, dust them off, and eventually legislate them. It is not just brainwashing as such: the method is much more delicate. Its gradual application is effective because it is facilitated by the inconspicuousness of its effect on the society that becomes its victim.
When discussing any socially important phenomenon, the question that usually arises is: what to do? The problem for most of us is that we invoke the world’s imperfection and expect the change to happen without our involvement and thinking everything will work out by itself. But it doesn’t work that way! We can change the world around us only by consciously changing ourselves. Every time we are confronted with information, we should reflect and analyze these questions. Is this thought similar to my beliefs and rational reasoning in general? Is this information accurate, and what will follow? What will society gain from this innovation? Who is interested in it, and for what purpose? Do you think that you are not able to change anything yourself? You are right, man alone can do absolutely nothing. However, you are personally obliged to remain human — the one who can find a solution to any problem. What one cannot do, people who are united by a common idea will manage to do. Look around you.
Few other examples of Overton windows
During regular times, out of all the possible ways to organize society, only a limited range of ideas is considered acceptable for mainstream political discussion—known as the Overton window. Covid-19 has blown the Overton window wide open. In just a few months, we’ve seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. But remember—this is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months. A crisis such as a coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating already underway changes: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably. What might the new shape of society look like? What will be center stage in the Overton window by the time it begins narrowing again?
There’s a good chance they will call this the Neoliberal Era. Until the 1970s, the post-war world was characterized in the West by an uneasy balance between government and private enterprises. Then, a new ideology of free-market neoliberalism took center stage in the Overton window. The value system of neoliberalism, which has since become entrenched in global mainstream discourse, holds that humans are individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists. Because of this, unrestrained free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their government, finance, business, and media control, neoliberal adherents have succeeded in transforming the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labor.
The triumph of neoliberalism has led to the greatest inequality in history, where (based on the most recent statistics) the world’s twenty-six wealthiest people own as much wealth as half the entire world’s population. Moreover, it has allowed the largest transnational corporations to establish a stranglehold over other forms of organization, resulting in the world’s hundred largest economies, from which sixty-nine are corporations. The relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most apparent danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.
But even if the climate crisis was somehow brought under control, a continuation of untrammeled economic growth in future decades will bring us face-to-face with a slew of further existential threats. Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the Earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, freshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops.
There’s a serious risk that, rather than shifting course from our failing trajectory, the post-Covid-19 world will be one where the same forces currently driving our race to the precipice further entrench their power and floor the accelerator directly toward global catastrophe. On a greater scale, power-hungry leaders worldwide are taking immediate advantage of the crisis to clamp down on individual liberties and move their countries swiftly toward authoritarianism. Even in those countries that avoid an authoritarian takeover, the increase in high-tech surveillance taking place around the world is rapidly undermining previously sacrosanct privacy rights. A prime example of this is using smartphone location readings to track the contacts of individuals who test positive for coronavirus. European mobile operators share user data (so far anonymized) with government agencies.
But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. Back in the early days of World War II, things looked even darker, but underlying dynamics emerged that fundamentally altered the trajectory of history. Frequently, it was the very bleakness of the disasters that catalyzed positive forces to emerge in reaction and predominate. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the day “which will live in infamy”—was the moment when the power balance of World War II shifted. The collective anguish in response to the global war’s devastation led to the founding of the United Nations. The grotesque atrocity of Hitler’s holocaust led to the international recognition of the crime of genocide and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Could it be that the crucible of coronavirus will lead to a meltdown of neoliberal norms that ultimately reshapes the dominant structures of our global civilization? Could a mass collective reaction to the excesses of authoritarian overreach lead to a renaissance of humanitarian values? We already see signs of this. While the Overton window allows surveillance and authoritarian practices to enter from one side, it’s also opening up to new political realities and possibilities on the other side. Coronavirus has already been more effective in slowing down climate breakdown and ecological collapse than all the world’s policy initiatives combined. Over the next year, we’re likely to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions greater than even the most optimistic modelers’ forecasts due to the decline in economic activity.