image by Midjourney AI; my own prompt and photoshopping
At various times over my 20 years of blogging I’ve found myself taking a controversial position on some issue, usually political or economic, but occasionally social or ecological.
I was surprised that my articles “against” love, “against” hope, in support of polyamorous relationships, and asserting our lack of free will, turned out to be less controversial than I’d expected. I was equally surprised at the relatively hostile response of some readers to my position on healthy veganism (including a death threat), my opposition to western involvement in the war in Ukraine, my strong support for masks and vaccines, and my occasional ridiculing of religions and ‘spirituality’ (including CBT and ‘mindfulness’).
But generally, people have been pretty tolerant of what people write on their blogs. They are, after all, just opinions, and no matter what you believe, you can find a blog or a group somewhere that will reassure you that what you believe is right, and that anyone who believes to the contrary is misinformed or worse.
For most of those 20 years, I’ve hewed to a fairly consistent ‘progressive’ party line on most issues, to the point early blog listings categorized me as a ‘radical lefty’ blogger. I think in many ways I am even more so now than when I started blogging, though I’m a lot less doctrinaire and idealistic than I was. I rarely tell people what to do any more, or even proffer advice or “solutions”. I write more in the first person singular, and add “I think”, or “it seems to me” to qualify what I am saying, so I think my opinions are expressed less categorically than they once were, no longer implying that “this is obviously what any smart, informed person would believe”.
Some of the principles that govern my writing are:
- I try to remember, and state as often as possible, that I don’t know much on a lot of topics, and my “thinking out loud” is rarely more than “this is what I think, tentatively, for now, and why”. I keep track of when I change my opinion on things, and try to own up to how and why I believed what I did. I’m not a very humble person, but I try not to be arrogant. And I try to be honest when I say what I believe on the basis of the “preponderance of evidence”, and admit when I am not an expert. I’d rather be useful, or at least interesting, than popular.
- When it comes to a few issues, I see no virtue in “both-sidesing”. Sometimes you just have to take a stand. That doesn’t mean that adversaries are “evil” or “insane” or “wrong”, it just means that the danger they seem to me to present to people and the planet outweighs, IMO, their right to be taken seriously and given airtime. The recent mutterings of RFK Jr are an example.
- I try to appreciate the inherent complexity of all things, especially anything that is social or ecological, and try not to simplify things that are not simple, even though that means living with uncertainty and ambiguity and expressing that in my writing. In most cases I am suspicious of simple models, answers, diagnoses and “solutions”.
- I recognize the immense power of stories, and therefore deliberately do not tell stories (particularly the emotionally-charged ones that mainstream media increasingly rely on) when there’s anything much at stake in how they’re taken. Many awful atrocities have been facilitated by manipulative story-tellers. When I write stories, they are usually labeled up-front as fiction.
- I try to avoid writing “me too” articles. If I haven’t got something — new information, new perspectives, new insights, new possibilities — to add, I don’t see much point in writing about a subject.
Some of these principles are on occasion in contradiction to each other, and then it’s a balancing act. Chronicling collapse is an exercise fraught with challenges, especially when the future is unpredictable and when so much is unknown.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of the Overton Window, it is essentially the range, across the political spectrum, of ideas that are currently considered acceptable for airing in public. Especially in the blogosphere, that window has always been reasonably broad. In the mainstream media, it’s always been much less so, and is quickly getting much narrower.
So for those who are exposed to blogs, the political writings of Noam Chomsky, the disclosures of whistle-blowers like Julian Assange, the deep and knowledgeable historical background offered by people like John Mearsheimer, and revelations such as those of award-winning investigative reporters of the calibre of Sy Hersh, for example, are pretty readily available, and often appreciated. They serve as an antidote to the much narrower and more right-wing views that now dominate publications like the NYT, WAPO, Guardian, New Yorker, Atlantic etc, publications that pointedly refuse to publish or even acknowledge the existence (except as crackpots or criminals) of people like these four extraordinary men.
If you read any of the above publications, it’s pretty clear that the Overton Window for these corporate media is very narrow, right-wing, and driven by a specific ideological agenda — substantially US exceptionalism, US/NATO unipolar imperialism, and neoliberal economics. On non-political, non-economic, non-military issues like gender rights and identity issues, they open the window slightly wider because these issues don’t threaten their core political and corporate sponsors, so they can appear to be more open-minded.
But recently, the Overton Window everywhere seems to have narrowed. Perhaps this is the effect of the mainstream media, which have become more doctrinaire even while pretending to maintain their ‘progressive’ credentials, and which now regularly pass off editorials and blatantly slanted reporting as real ‘news’. Perhaps it’s the effect of social media, which have been eagerly demonetizing, banning, using down-ranking algorithms, and just outright censoring and deleting writing and videos from people outside their perceived Overton Window, their ineffectual and ham-fisted way of “combatting conspiracy theories”.
Or perhaps it’s just an indication of how what used to be known as ‘the left’ or ‘progressives’ has fractured over the past few years over issues that pit leftists against each other (and that’s not entirely due to the mainstream media, and academia, harping on these issues).
I first noticed this trend a decade ago when trans rights activists got into battles with radical feminists. I’m not going to get into the issue here, but the upshot was a lot of ‘canceling’ of (and even physical assaults on) important progressive speakers like Derek Jensen. It was basically impossible to support ‘both sides’, and the animosity was so strong that if you supported one you were cut off from the other.
Since then, that malaise has spread. On issues such as the homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction problems in San Francisco that led to the recall of Chesa Boudin, for example, leftists couldn’t win no matter what position they took. This splintering of the left over social and ‘identity’ issues has continued, and it seems to have torn the left apart in the UK and Europe as well, particularly on issues such as immigration. And during CoVid-19, progressives throughout the Euro-American Empire have further split on issues like vaccine and mask ‘mandates’ (and even on the ‘Lab Leak Hypothesis’), much to the delight of the more unified right.
Again, I am not going to get into these issues (or at least, not again), because it would take a long article to explain the split on each one. The point is, the “range of positions and opinions acceptable in public discourse” has become incredibly complex, depending on which section of the “public” you are talking about.
So what we have ended up with is essentially three Overton Windows, one for conservatives, which is moving steady right towards rabid populism and fascism, and two (or more), often mutually exclusive, for progressives. So, for example, if you oppose US/NATO involvement in the war in Ukraine, you will have to deal with a large majority of self-described progressives who support the war (as happened in previous wars like the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which, along with the mainstream media, most progressives also supported), and who find any opposition to the latest war intolerable.
As a result, as a blogger, I’ve found my positions on many issues attacked as often by those who would probably consider themselves progressives, as by conservatives (who generally don’t read my blog anyway).
So I know collapsniks whom I agree with on almost all issues, except on their belief that the government response to CoVid-19 was an excuse to increase power and surveillance over citizens. I know bloggers who are progressive on social and economic issues who fervently support supplying billions of dollars in gruesome weapons to the Ukraine army, and also support preparations for a war against China over Taiwan or Xinjiang or some other issue. My support of radical feminism has resulted in me being labeled a TERF. My belief that trying to prevent or mitigate economic, ecological, and political (and hence civilizational) collapse is now futile, and that it makes more sense to focus our attention on adapting ourselves to its realities, has been assailed by some progressives as defeatist and dangerous.
I have found myself adding blogs to my blogroll, newsletter or RSS feed lists, based on an excellent article on some issue, only to find myself deleting them when their author goes off on some (to me) bizarre and embarrassing tangent on another issue. And then I end up adding them back when someone points me to some new insightful writing of theirs. It’s exhausting! Oh, for the days when the people on my blogroll agreed with me on just about everything!
So perhaps the whole idea of the Overton Window has lost its meaningfulness as the complexity of public discourse increases. There are no simple left/right lines anymore (and some would say there is no ‘left’ anymore). And no part of the ‘window’ seems to be open to all major constituencies of the citizenry.
The concept of the Overton Window originally applied only to the acceptable range of government policies that the electorate would tolerate. Now government policies are largely, as Aurélien has explained so well, performative exercises in saying the right thing to the party faithful, rather than doing anything at all, while the policies that are actually enacted are substantially written by corporate donors, wealthy lobbyists, the defense establishment, and other powerful administrators not beholden to any party, or to the citizens.
So the original Overton Window has become relevant only for wording the carefully-crafted talking points, rallying calls and scripted op-eds in the mainstream media by the governing and opposition parties of the day.
As political collapse continues, this does not bode well. Coping with collapse of all types is going to require, as I wrote earlier, a focus on acceptance, adaptation, competence, experience, pragmatism, and collaboration. That will require a lot more tolerance than most people seem currently willing to show. Whether this will get better or worse as collapse deepens is anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, we bloggers are likely to be seen, more and more, as being outside the window of acceptable opinion and discourse, especially as the number of issues we feel compelled to be knowledgeable about (and have an opinion about) increases. Most people want things to be simple, in which case they’re going to find the blogosphere an uncomfortable place, perhaps best avoided entirely.
Me, I’ll just stick to my principles, write to try to make sense of the world and to chronicle civilization’s collapse, and invite others interested in my musings to follow along and respond as they will. That sense-making is likely to be complex, tentative, and counter-intuitive, and will probably often introduce new possibilities that may challenge, annoy or even outrage.
But perhaps, if we’re all finding ourselves increasingly on the outside of the window, looking in, we might look together, compare notes, and see if we can make more sense of it that way. We don’t have to agree. Two eyes give you perspective, and two heads are better than one, and all that.