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Overton Window

The Overton Window is a memetic engineering concept in use among political wonks, but with broader applicability. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

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. 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. Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

The resulting spectrum is, then:

Unthinkable • Radical • Acceptable • Sensible • Popular • Policy

This is a familiar notion, but with a formal name. In the US, movement conservatives have used this technique to great effect, but it's now starting to show up in discussions among progressives/liberals.

I think that the Overton Window model could prove to be a decisive tool for shifting perspectives in the US about environmental risks, and in fact provides a counter-argument to the "Village Green" types who claim that extreme eco-rhetoric is damaging to the environmental movement.


I have the traditional resent of being manipulated.

I can appreciate the Overton window as a tool for shaping public opinion, but it needs a brake as well or it could run amok (as with conservatives). It seems to me that such a brake may be found from considering what it is that makes an idea more or less acceptable.

So that's what the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are up to. Moving the Overton Window so far right that the Republican policies that people thought were crazy 10 years ago become acceptable.

Look at the "torture debate". If you'd have told someone 10 years ago that state sponsored torture would be seriously debated in the US, they'd have lock you up in a room with padded walls.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

The risks are already fairly obvious for those who have the eyes to see (New Orleans, eleven feet of snow in the Sierras, unprecedented ice melt in the Arctic...). That greenhouse disaster movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," is beginning to look like a documentary and Kim Stanley Robinson's climate trilogy seems like a day watching the Weather Channel.

The reality today and the considered prognosis for tomorrow are already a wide open Overton Window, if not a set of French doors.

Those who ain't on board already are only going to get on this train kicking and screaming or under arrest. I think the addiction model is the most useful for our present situation.

Rather than spinning more dire tales of Apocalypse and Armageddon, what we really need are positive visions of a future that people can see their way towards today. That's why I gave solar LED lights that also charge AA batteries (http://www.bogolight.com) for Christmas and took my Solar IS Civil Defense tour to Harvard Square on Tuesday using WWII posters advising people to join "car clubs" and asking,"Should brave men die so you can drive...?"

Besides, you can't depend upon the Apocalypse.

If you want to open the Overton Window, don't use it on the risks, use it on the solutions.


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