Monday, December 12, 2016

Won Over by the Overton Window

I've resisted using the term "Overton window." I'm not sure why; maybe because Glenn Beck named one of his novels after it.

The concept is obvious to anyone who's studied mass media over the past half century. It's also called the "window of discourse": the range of ideas the public (or the media) is willing to accept as normal, and which are therefore the only points of view that are allowed to be voiced in the mainstream. Noam Chomsky and others see it as part of hegemony, the manufacture of consent. One of my friends from 30 years ago called it "moving the center." So maybe I'm partly irked that this Overton guy put his name on it and claimed it as his idea.

It's often diagrammed like this:

(Graphic from the Wikipedia.)

I don't think the more freedom/less freedom dichotomy is the only set of end points we can use — you can replace those with the extreme ends on any topic — but the steps listed, from unthinkable to policy and back again, make sense to me.

Some folks I follow on Twitter have been talking about it lately because of our Orange Cheeto insurgency. Erin Kissane, for instance, said today:

Editors who don't grasp the Overton Window problem here are a good chunk of how we get from shitty politicians to actual internment camps.
She was responding to some letters in the Los Angeles Times that attempted to justify the Japanese internment camps of World War II. Can you imagine letters supporting those camps being published five years ago? No? That's because the Overton window has moved as a result of Donald and his white supremacist supporters.

Gene Demby, of NPR's Code Switch podcast, had this to say about it yesterday. He was responding to Tomi Lahren's controversial interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, in which she argued that Black Lives Matter is the same as the KKK:
[Trevor] Noah isn't wrong [in his New York Times op-ed defending the interview] that compromise and good-faith are necessary for functional politics. But.

There's this idea in media studies called the Overton window. Basically, the mainstream media defines the universe of legitimacy in public discourse. The news that media covers/gives voice to lies inside the realm of legitimacy; the stuff it downplays/ignores is on the fringes/unacceptable.

People of all ideological stripes try to expand and move the Overton window; the Civil Rights Movement did this exceptionally well.

Illegitimate ideas -- and noxious/dangerous ones -- creep into the universe of legitimacy via the language of controversy and debate. This is how a lot of the mainstreaming of the so-called "alt-right" is already happening: "Let's put these noxious ideas up for discussion!" "Let's debate them and smack down those janky ideas with superior facts and logic!"

And those ideas up for debate tend to be things like whether Muslims are inherently violent or black people possess lower native intelligence. And slowly, the Overton Window shifts.

Suddenly, the humanity of entire groups is a subject of legitimate, mainstream debate. And so do the policy ideas that correct the "problems" presented by those groups.

It doesn't happen all at once. It starts small, like having people on your show to debate whether Islam = terrorism or Black Lives Matter = The KKK. This is the problem presented by treating Tomi Lahren as a person whose views are worth fighting about/engaging. And more broadly, it's the danger presented by supposed "alt-right" thinking given official legitimacy by the White House. These notions will become just another set of seemingly partisan positions to be argued about, pro/con style on CNN.
I dunno what the answer to this is, but having Lahren on The Daily Show is not "bridging a divide." It's helping to open the gates. This is, explicitly, what the "alt-right" wants.

How to say this delicately? The dudes who are arguing about whether opting to not legitimize certain views constitutes censorship tend not to be from social locations where their full humanity has been an ongoing subject of litigation.
My personal Overton window does not match the mainstream version. It didn't match it before Donald and it matches it even less now. I think media should exclude points of view that are based on overt lies (like anti-vaxxers, mentioned in one of my past posts, and climate-change deniers), and people who deny the humanity of other people (like Tomi Lahren).

But isn't excluding those voices a form of censorship? No. Censorship involves government action. No one is owed an audience, or, especially, a positive response.


Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

A point worth remembering: censorship involves the government. I had never heard of the Overton window but it's a handy way to consider the shifting parameters of public discourse and opinion. Meanwhile, I just read your post about Phil Castile's memorial, etc. We must live near one another. Have you been involved with We Can Do Better? I attended two events and get the mailings but that's all so far.

Daughter Number Three said...

I live in St. Paul, rather than Falcon Heights, so haven't been involved with We Can do Better. Good to see citizens standing up for what's right!