Real liberals should smash the Overton window (rather than just moving it left)

Real social change comes through brave, open discourse

Throughout history, new ideas, new perspectives and rational debate have served to change society for the better. In addition, new perspectives introduced by the voices of those previously suppressed, such as the working poor, ethnic and religious minorities, women, and the LGBT community, have been particularly important in ridding society of severe injustices and inadequacies it previously could not even see. The process of exploring new ideas, encouraging new voices and perspectives, and continuous engagement with this constant flow of new information is therefore one we should encourage, as liberals.

However, throughout history, the process of bringing these new ideas and perspectives into play hasn’t been an easy one. The long and uphill battle of women’s rights, LGBT rights and minority civil rights over the past century is perhaps the best illustration of this. Establishment forces in society often shove any new information that is too challenging for the status quo out of the way of mainstream consumption. As such, most people in society cannot even come into contact with ideas and perspectives outside the establishment’s approval.

Which brings me onto the concept of the Overton Window.

The Overton Window refers to the “window” which contains the ideas a particular society believes to be relevant and fit for mainstream consumption and discussion. Outside the Overton Window are ideas that are considered fringe or even dangerous, and should be excluded from mainstream discussion. Policing of the Overton Window is done collectively, and often unconsciously. Also, over time, the area covered by the Overton Window can change: for example, marriage equality was firmly outside the mainstream West’s Overton Window just thirty years ago, yet it is firmly within the Overton Window nowadays.

Throughout history, liberal forces have struggled against establishment forces to move the Overton Window leftwards, with some success.

It has been through this process that women’s equality, racial equality and LGBT equality have become included in our current Overton Window, while ideas like slavery have become excluded.

The expansion of the Overton Window has allowed those who only pay attention to mainstream news and opinion to become aware of the diversity of humanity’s concerns, lived experiences, and the ideas that they have inspired. This, in and of itself, is something that should be celebrated. However, this new awareness has come quite late, and while justice delivered late is still better than justice never delivered, it really isn’t ideal. If not for the limitations of the Overton Window, these voices would have been part of our collective discussion and awareness right from the very beginning.

Moreover, a progressive view of the human condition dictates that, whatever perspective about the world we have now, and however much it is an improvement over previous perspectives, there is still plenty of imperfection and room for improvement. Thus, the current Overton Window is a limitation on our possible consciousness, just like the Overton Window of one hundred years ago, even if the current Overton Window is somewhat wider and sits to the left of the old one, and thus allows more voices and perspectives to be heard.

If we had no Overton Window at all, all voices and perspectives would be able to be heard simultaneously, right now. If the Overton Window could be smashed today, awareness that would have otherwise waited for another century to come could arrive this year.

Furthermore, the existence of ANY Overton Window at all means that there is a mechanism for establishment elites to control debate in society. As Chomsky said, “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

For all the aforementioned reasons, dedicated liberals must help challenge, and even attempt to smash, the Overton Window.

But how can the Overton Window be challenged, and eventually smashed?

Let’s look at this from another angle. In a society without an Overton Window, all voices and views would be deemed equally valid and acceptable, as long as they come from a sincere position. Therefore, if we want to bring about such a society, we have to first move to adopt that perspective ourselves. We need to stop labeling views as moderate or extreme, mainstream or fringe, or even Left or Right. Each person’s lived experience gives them a way of seeing things, and as long as their concerns and ideas are sincere and not bigoted, there shouldn’t be anything preventing their voice being part of our collective conscience. Also, political correctness, being a tool to maintain the Overton Window, should be rejected.

Some liberals are justifiably scared of smashing the Overton Window, which they see as having a role in excluding bigotry from our society. But then, the reason why bigoted ideas are now generally outside our Overton Window is because they have been defeated in public debate, through rational reasoning. A culture of liberal, rational debate will mean that already defeated bigotry won’t have a chance to rise up again, and also that any future bigotry can be defeated in a similar way. On the other hand, using the Overton Window to keep unacceptable ideas out of the way makes people feel oppressed left, right and center, and will paradoxically empower the rise of bigotry through a shared belief that the public debate is conducted unfairly.

Smashing the Overton Window will bring society more liberty, by definition.

It will lead to an increased diversity of voices in the mainstream conversation. Minorities speaking out about their unfair treatment eventually push society to give them equal civil rights. Similarly, the voices and stories of those struggling economically due to structural unfairness can inspire society to think about how to change things in that area. As history has shown, all this will lead to more equality and justice, both in a civil rights sense, and in an economic sense. Therefore, smashing the Overton Window is something all liberals should support.