January 2nd, 2010


When I'm cleaning windows

1. Vanity makes me wise, and narcissism makes me listen. A Google Alert tells me that someone on a blog called Litwack is talking about me (specifically my idea of 1:1 input-output shops), and I find they're also talking about something called Overton Windows, which I know nothing about, but find terribly interesting.

2. The Litwack blog says: "Aaron Schwartz wrote recently on the shifting of the Overton window re: slavery and murder, both of which were perfectly acceptable in American history as long as you were targeting the right ethnic groups." This chimes closely with something I wrote on Thursday: "Did Beatnik Grifter Play On Loathsome Hipster Negro Fetish? begins with an article about the grifter on the Jezebel blog entitled Did "Hipster Grifter" Play On Loathsome Hipster Asian Fetish? then does a thought-experment on it by substituting "Negro" for "Asian", revealing how weirdly acceptable racial prejudice still is the US in 2009 (as long as it's Asians, not blacks)."

3. I turn to the Aaron Schwartz article and read: "Imagine you were an early settler of what is now the United States. It seems likely you would have killed native Americans. After all, your parents killed them, your siblings killed them, your friends killed them, the leaders of the community killed them, the President killed them. Chances are, you would have killed them too, and you probably wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with this." Schwartz doesn't mention the Overton Window in this text, which seems to be covered by the idea of moral relativism; ethics change over time, and from place to place.

4. So what is the Overton Window? Wikipedia says: "The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after its originator, Joe Overton, former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. It describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. The Overton Window is a means of visualizing which ideas define that range of acceptance by where they fall in it, and adding new ideas that can push the old ideas towards acceptance merely by making the limits more extreme."

5. Wikipedia continues: "Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison."

6. This makes sense; it's basically what we've seen centre-right politicians in the UK and France do with the National Front over the past fifteen years or so. Wikipedia draws a rough Overton Window with the list: Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, Policy. The idea seems to be that you can shift the window by re-mapping your own radical ideas by relating them to even-more-radical ones, therefore making your own seem relatively innocuous. So far, so Machiavellian.

7. There's a rather more nuanced description of the idea from an employee of the Mackinac Center here. He says you can't really shift the window without there being a significant groundswell of popular opinion behind you. He also says that "Overton Window" recently shot to the number 2 most-searched term on Google when someone mentioned it on primetime TV in the US.

8. The Wikipedia entry on the Overton Window relates it to the framing effect in Psychology, which states that you can influence answers (in polls, for example) by framing the issue in a particular way.

9. This relates to a theme I think about a lot; it even came up in my Unreliable Tour last week at NOW IDeA. I pointed to the window and said that artists are the only ones who really know the power of frames, who really see them. Because artists are frame-makers, professional attention-drawers and subject-delimiters, expert experience-editors. As I sang in my song The Minus 5, "history remembers the names of those who creep out of the shadows and reposition the frames".

10. It's a subject that's been touched on in several Click Opera entries; The arrow and the frame says that it's not opinion that counts, but rather the way you frame the issue. How long has this been going on? makes fun of experts who tell us things like "the contemporary cult of celebrity begins in the 18th century with Sir Joshua Reynolds". And Ideology is alive and well and living in syntax looks at how cunning journalists and politicians pack their dogma into innocuous-seeming framing words like "whereas", "despite" and "still".

11. A nice example of an Overton Window (and hidden ideology) at work is provided by Misleading breeding stats are the new skull-measurement, a debate in which an American YouTube video called Muslim demographics is fact-checked by a BBC radio show, who post their findings in another YouTube video called Disproving Muslim demographics. An astute Click Opera Anon commenter shows how the really toxic assumption is one they're both implying: "And yet surely the BBC vid is premised on the same fear. Only it's saying: "relax, it's not going to happen." Personally, I couldn't care less if Europe becomes predominantly Muslim. It might be a very good thing for both Europe and Islam."

12. Now, "I couldn't care less if Europe becomes predominantly Muslim" is a position outside the acceptable parts of the Overton Window. It's a radical view you wouldn't normally hear on determinedly-centrist BBC Radio 4. Referring to it would be useful for anyone wishing to reveal -- and perhaps shift -- the invisible framing of the issue implied in both those "opposing" YouTube vids; that it would be terrible if Europe actually did become Muslim.

13. Making formerly-invisible things visible is useful if you want to renegotiate basic terms. If the boss calls you into his office and says: "You've worked for us for two years, and we've never had any problems, have we?" you know that something's probably wrong. Something is probably about to change. Making the context visible is making the context problematical, malleable, renegotiable, even when you're being explicitly reassured that nothing's wrong.

14. A successful context is one we tend to take for granted, and leave in the background, just as (McLuhan would say) a successful medium is one we believe is a window on the world, not one we start to see as a window on the world. The medium desperately tries to prevent us seeing that it, itself, is the message, because its power lies in us pushing that knowledge to the back of our minds and believing that it represents something. Like a politician.

15. It's worth adding that radical views aren't always aired to give people the option that it's legitimate to hold radical views. Rather, they're aired surrounded by a context which labels them clearly unacceptable, and become a spectre designed to scare people back to centrist positions which have, nevertheless, in the meantime, shifted a tiny bit closer to the radical than they were before. When Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time in the UK recently, it probably played into the hands of the Conservatives, allowing them to shift the acceptable part of the Overton Window a notch or two rightwards, yet still make a clear policy distinction between themselves and the British National Party. Even when he's deploring BNP policies, David Cameron is deploying them.