We all look through it, but like glass, we don’t see it. We don’t even see the width of the frame or how it is centred, but it constrains what we see and how we see it just as surely as any ordinary window does. I’m talking about the Overton window.
What is the Overton window?
The late think tank policy formulator, Joseph P. Overton, made the observation that in a given public policy area, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable, in the current climate of public opinion. The “window” of politically acceptable options is not defined by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they think they can support (or get away with) and still retain power. The window changes when ideas change in the constituency that keeps them in power. Sometimes, that’s the electorate, but increasingly it’s corporate donors and lobbyists.
Actually, Noam Chomsky talked about controlling the bounds of acceptable debate years ago, long before Overton, but let’s skip that technicality. In the diagram above, the two arrows are typically pointing toward more or less freedom. On the one side, we have benign anarchy, and on the other, authoritarian totalitarianism.
Who moves the window and what their motives are for moving it matters crucially. What’s their agenda? Is it transparent? Does it benefit us all, or is it predatory, rooted in a barely-concealed death machine project?
The greatest source of power of the elite is to convince others that what suits them is just common sense. For this reason alone, they spend literally billions on supporting the mainstream media and fake grass roots activism, buying up politicians to obtain legislative endorsement and taking ownership of media companies of every imaginable stripe. They propagate their point of view via entertainment, such as popular music, Hollywood movies and computer games and via advertorial content presented as objective, unbiased reporting. Their (usually unstated) aim is to keep public opinion firmly centred and aligned with their selfish corporate interests.
They carefully select their on-air, public spokespeople so that they seem plausible, trustworthy and independent, but who, in reality, have already accepted and internalised the elite agenda as common sense. We are saturated in exposures to a world view that suits these billionaires, until we convince ourselves, irrationally, that it also suits us…somehow. It’s not accidental and it’s quite purposeful. We think what we think because billionaires spend lavishly on making us think what they want us to think. Pure propaganda.
Austerity is an example. It is a con. Bankers and investors, who own us and everything else, want to extract exponentially more value from the workforce, through interest charged on money they create, from thin air, on behalf of governments. Granting a monopoly to create money to a cartel of private interests is such a corrupt sweetheart agreement, riddled with conflicts of interest, it is a wonder it persists. It persists, of course, only because reasonable, fairer, more equitable alternatives are kept well outside the Overton window by those who benefit most from the crooked deal. In effect, this cartel holds governments and the citizenry of entire nations to ransom by the simple expedient of refusing to issue any new money, unless public, common wealth is transferred upward, from those who produce it to the privileged, elite classes, who do nothing to earn it, other than creating the debt as a book keeping entry, using their monopoly position to do so, as enshrined in crooked laws now over a century old. Meanwhile, the vulnerable die of want.
What an impoverished, sad, lonely, narrow mindset, lacking humanity, compassion and empathy, is that of the corporate political donor and lobbyist. They consistently misidentify what is in their own long-term best interest and remain rigidly fixated on what they perceive to be their short term goals (i.e. unsustainable growth). Their minds are totally blind to (and absolutely closed to) wider possibilities, which would permit everybody to thrive. To their way of thinking, based on conventional, conservative traditionalism, it’s not enough that they win. Everybody else must lose. They inflict pain on themselves and their own elite class, in order to ensure the rest of humanity is not “unjustly” rewarded, such is their self-centred world view. For privilege to have any worth, they have to keep it scarce and exclusive.
The problem with the wealthy elite, who spend the most to move the Overton window in their favour, is that they isolate themselves. They live in a sterile, hermetically-sealed bubble of their own making, which locks them out of experiencing the stimuli and challenges that are necessary for creativity and a healthy brain to survive and thrive. Their remoteness from the concerns of humanity results in a form of cognitive suicide, where their brains become increasingly prone to bad ideas, which they adhere to doggedly. They lose the adaptability and neural plasticity required to respond to the rapid changes characteristic of an increasingly interconnected, co-dependent ecosystem, remarkable for its massive complexity. Those that move the Overton window most become progressively maladaptive and dysfunctional, as their locus of possibilities narrows.
To add to the perfect storm, public opinion is equally susceptible to bad ideas when communities become isolated and detached from wider humanity. When people have no direct contact or experience with others different to themselves, where diversity and multiculturalism are scarce, it becomes easier to propagate racist, phobic, wrong-headed positions, based on little more than pure prejudice and ignorance. A homogeneous society tends toward brain-deadness, quite literally losing the cognitive capacity to entertain and originate progressive ideas.
What’s the result? Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are the new normal. Barbarism is acceptable and assumed. Violence is blithely tolerated. The concerns and interests of labour have been all but forgotten. Blatant, outrageous usury, property speculation, financial hocus-pocus, wealth hiding, tax avoidance and unearned rentier incomes, based on being the exclusive gatekeepers of contrived scarcities, are celebrated. Actual value-creating activities are considered quaint and antiquated. The validity of proven, established, evidence-supported, scientific facts is flatly denied. We’ve become anti-intellectual, culturally impoverished and hostile to new ideas. We still think other people and the so-called authorities have a sovereign right to interfere with and constrain how we live our lives.
We live in fear of unknown, unseen enemies and accept the draconian excision of our most fundamental civil rights, so that those in power will keep us safe (which, ironically, they singularly fail to do, because that isn’t in their corporate interests). Sure, they sell expensive, elaborate weapons of mass destruction and consumer-grade small arms to everyone that will buy them, and then lobby hard to use them, so that they can be replaced, once destroyed, with something newer and more expensive, but none of this has anything to do with keeping you safe. It has everything to do with unsustainable growth.
As a counterforce to the billions spent by the elite, on behalf of their corporations, to arrange everything to their liking, artists have the capacity to shift the acceptable boundaries of public debate. They have the skills necessary to move the Overton window toward greater sustainability and freedom. Thought constraint takes place when human communication is controlled. This is why control of communication, by the elite, needs to be resisted.
Though oligarchs control the mainstream media, we live in the Information Age. We can choose to turn off the TV and tune into a radical’s Twitter feed instead. We can abandon our worthless New York Times and Daily Telegraph/Daily Mail subscriptions and scour Medium for objectivity. You can find independent media all over YouTube. We can tell our parents and friends that “The Truth Is Out There,” but they won’t find it on Fox News, the BBC, CNN or in the Washington Post and Guardian. We can give our time to ideas that matter and our attention to voices that articulate them.
More importantly, we can courageously create the world we want by talking about the world we want and acting as though it already exists. There is solid neuroscience that underpins the efficacy of this approach. It works.
We can abolish the bad ideas that lie within the Overton window’s current gaze and make them risibly obsolete. Laugh openly and derisively at every corporate-sponsored hack who tries to promote the same old discredited, tired, dangerous ideas, taken as “common sense”, but which have their origins in corporatist agendas. You owe them no respect in return for the contempt in which they have, for so long, held you. They’re taking the piss out of you, so take the piss out of them.
Every piece that gets written, by every unheralded internet writer, blogger or independent media journalist, moves the window a tiny amount. When millions are involved, no amount of corporate money, funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians or complicit media conglomerates, can move it back, so be sure to express yourself. Use whatever artistic medium works best for you. We cannot rely on our failed institutions to change the conversation, but we can articulate it ourselves. We can harness the power and wisdom of the crowd.
Make subversive, defiant, deviant art. Small intellectual steps are better than giant cognitive leaps. Even the most open-minded resist huge leaps of understanding. Brains simply work this way. Make the old, benign, humanistic, valuable, once widely-accepted and socially-contracted ideas new again. Create and interact. Encounter and embrace diversity. Stretch the frame of the Overton window. Forget the false dichotomy between left and right. Think up and down, near and far, width, height and span. Be inclusive of as many innovative, useful, radical ideas as possible. We’re going to need to consider a vast solution space, to solve the world’s many intractable problems, most of which we’ve ignored because they have lain outside the Overton window.
Facts and logic are insufficient, but necessary, to move the window. Appeals to morality and emotions are also required (and are often cynically stage-managed, by those in power). Emotions, facts, logic and moral judgements are all open to manipulation, obfuscation, omission, misrepresentation and lies. The elite can and do twist all of these to suit their purposes. Keep your eyes open.
Events (natural disasters, terrorist attacks), mistakes (a bonfire of regulations, leading to highly flammable and toxic, high-rise death traps) and misrepresentation (for example, much of the UK Brexit/Leave campaign) can be used to stampede people toward new views and into accepting the previously unacceptable. The current controllers of the Overton window know this and have used these happenstances to their advantage. Beware of deliberately engineered false flag events. Call out the railroading and subversion of the aftermath of an event for nefarious purposes. Make people aware that this is how they’re being duped and played.
Because each public policy area typically has its own window, thinking holistically, as a window overseeing all other windows, could help us see the bigger picture and make clearer comparisons. For example, why is it acceptable to bribe a fringe political party with public money to cling to power, but unacceptable to consider pay rises for nurses, or to buy food for the working poor and their children? Provide an international, global perspective to parochial concerns and views. Consider the humanist point of view as bigger and worthier than capitalist concerns.
The weakness of the Overton window is that it treats the population as an undifferentiated, uniform, single, homogeneous average. No member of the included population is ever average. Everybody has their own concerns and perspectives. In trying to produce a one-size-fits-all policy, the centre of the Overton window frequently speaks to and satisfies nobody. It excludes the outliers.
The lingerie retailer, Victoria’s Secret, in promoting the “perfect” body, using stick-thin, genetically-fortunate models to do so, actually offended, alienated and enraged its customer base, because it tried to shoehorn them all into their ideal of the perfect average. Rounder, fuller figures were left out of the equation. The company paid a heavy price in lost customers, as a result. When moving the Overton window toward greater freedom and sustainability, you must include the excluded.
Activists already attempt to change policy and public opinion using petitions, social media swarms and mass emails to decision makers, but artists can organise crowdfunded creative campaigns, like TV ads or billboards, podcasts, animated explainer videos on YouTube, satirical parodies, TED-alike talks live-streamed on social media, a series of related blog posts, meme GIFs, web-hosted white papers, community events (e.g. creative stunts, performance art, flash mobs, silent vigils, peaceful walks for a cause), protest songs and so on. The list is almost endless. Most of us know the work of cassetteboy and banksy.
Artists who stand for a fair society, a thriving environment, social justice, human dignity and global peace can move the Overton window towards transparent, accountable politics. Mobilising for creative, collective action requires nobody’s permission (for the time being, in some fortunate countries). You can and should take action, to counterbalance the billions the oligarchs spend to move the window the other way.
Create your way to freedom and dignity.