Outside the Overton Window Looking In

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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16 Responses to Outside the Overton Window Looking In

  1. Bart says:

    Good one, Dave. Agree.

    I see it as three distinct groups, which have rigid boundaries. I would call them populist right (Fox-Trump), centrist-mainstream (NYT, MSNBC), and woke (campuses).
    I don’t spend time in any of them because they are predictable and uninformative.

    Much of their effort is spent reinforcing their worldview, humiliating and attacking enemies

    In contrast, there is the much wider world of public discourse. People often disagree but there isn’t a strong feeling of us-versus-them. Each person or publication decides whom they will listen to based on criteria other than group membership .

    I choose articles that are fresh and make me think, rather than whether I agree with them.

  2. Theresa says:

    I didn’t know you were against trans rights – though I once suspected from a link you posted in links of the month. I’ve been reading your blog since around about 2004 but only sporadically when I have time and when some topic interests me. I tend to skip the fiction generally, and have gone for some years at a time forgetting to check your blog. That being the case, some of the issues you write about in this post – and don’t wish to elaborate on – are surprising and maybe even alarming. I can relate to a few. I tried to go semi vegetarian one year and was surprised by the strangest hostility to me coming from the most unlikely sources. I suspect that the left right divide has always been a fiction. Before the internet, people needed to bond with their peers and other like minded individuals so were perhaps more likely not to disrupt the meetings, and to buy into the party line to gain acceptance. With more people connecting online they are more free to say what they really think, and the bonding, if it exists, is not particularly strong.

  3. Joe Clarkson says:

    If one believes that evidence-based discourse is possible (and desired), then the Overton Window should gradually narrow over time as evidence accumulates and speculations about what makes sense get separated from those that don’t. Assertions that are not supported by evidence are then abandoned in public discourse.

    On the other hand, if society itself becomes more and more complex, so will the number of conflicts and competing interests, there will be more things to accumulate evidence about, which results in a necessary widening of the Window for rational discourse. The Overton Window in a small village of agrarian peasants might well be much narrower than that of a large modern nation-state.

    And there are generational differences in windows too. The young may have a much wider window than the old who may be, as they say, “set in their ways”. An especially large generation of young people (Boomers for example) might widen the window just due to its outsize demographic influence.

    I’m 75 years old. Based on my observation of the Overton Window waxing and waning over that time, I believe its about as wide as ever, certainly wider than in the 1980s and 1990s but perhaps not quite as wide as in the 1960s and 1970s (Boomers again).

  4. FamousDrScanlon says:

    The Overton Slit. It always sounded a little too gimmicky to me.

    I find it helpful to consistently remind myself that the Limbic system is driving the bus & the neocortex just got onboard and is still just an observer most of the time.

    Death threat because you think a vegan diet is best – the Limbic system calling the shots as per usual. The humans are primarily an emotional creature who seems to seek out things to believe in. Things with a satisfying backstory.

    When it hits big time, I’ll play dumb. I’ve never really fit in. I share some beliefs with the political people on both {artificially blown up} sides. Further, I have more & more days where I simply don’t care anymore. Do I need another peer reviewed study to tell me what I already know about climate change & the ongoing biological holocaust {8th mass extinction}? The manufactured Putin hate & cult of rabid Ukrainian freedom supporters {$$$ to NGO’s shows the faith} are an impenetrable barrier to anything or one who deviates the slightest from the narrative. I’ve seen this US empire show before, so fuck it. It’ll end the same as always – I don’t need to read anymore John Mearsheimer or Moon of Alabama articles.

    Since we were incapable of controling our consumption and most everything else, we are going to pay a huge price it will soon make all of todays problems look stupid and minor. The only way we could avoid the big pain is if we had a full blown nuke war. End of all our problems and suffering.
    Experts Say Humanity Faces a Grim and “Ghastly Future” – State of Planet Is Much Worse Than Most People Understand

    ““Humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth’s ability to support complex life. But the mainstream is having difficulty grasping the magnitude of this loss, despite the steady erosion of the fabric of human civilization” Professor Bradshaw says.

    “In fact, the scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.

    “The problem is compounded by ignorance and short-term self-interest, with the pursuit of wealth and political interests stymying the action that is crucial for survival,” he says.”


    In one ear & out the other & back to bickering and consuming and infecting. This is a species following it’s programming and it’s not in control of itself or anything else.

  5. FamousDrScanlon says:

    ‘In one ear & out the other & back to bickering and consuming and infecting. This is a species following it’s programming and it’s not in control of itself or anything else.’


  6. foglight says:

    I must’ve read your comment 5 times, trying to figure out what you meant: “leftists couldn’t win no matter what position they took” on the recall of DA Chesa Boudin in SF. Chesa Boudin was a handy scapegoat for those who attribute our SF problems of homelessness & drug use to the progressive agenda. “Look, we have these problems; Chesa’s progressive aka not a ‘war on drugs’ DA; it’s his fault!” I think leftists were actually united in both acknowledging that SF’s streets got worse during covid as our downtown emptied out & in supporting Chesa & his overall approach.

    I must be missing something because I can’t figure out how this example supports your point about the “splintering of the left over social and ‘identity’ issues.” Maybe it’ll make sense if I take Chesa out of the equation & assume you mean “progressives” are fighting more over what approach to take in dealing the dysfunction on our streets.

  7. foglight says:

    *dealing with

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Foglight: Yes, it’s mostly about the fact that progressive idealists opposed to the harassment and incarceration of those caught up in the homelessness/ substance addiction/ mental illness spiral, have in a number of cities achieved power but essentially done nothing to address this (admittedly intractable) problem. In SF, Democrats overwhelmingly supported the recall of Chesa Boudin, and in fact it was Democrats who initiated the recall petition. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2022_San_Francisco_District_Attorney_recall_election)

    Yes, rich Republicans supported and financed much of the recall, but Democrats were strongly split on it, with many directly affected (mostly victims of petty theft, car break-ins and street harassment) saying that SOME action had to be taken, and the ideology of abandoning street people to solve their own problems just wasn’t working, and Chesa’s intransigence was making the situation worse

    The same issue arose in the last election here in Vancouver, where the brilliant, well-informed and well-intentioned incumbent mayor was trounced by a candidate who pledged to take SOME action to deal humanely but more proactively with this problem. He ran as a moderate, with a very compelling message, and defeated both the incumbent and some right-wing candidates, winning support across the political spectrum. Sadly, he has failed to come up with better answers, and has resorted to law-and-order, ineffective street sweeps and other negative approaches. Maybe there are no answers.

    But in the meantime, the progressive voices in Vancouver have largely been silenced as they (we) have focused their attacks internally on each other. One group continues to say we need to stay the course, replace policing with social services, and give these people time to deal with their problems on their own terms. The other says that this is just idealism, and that it has never worked in any city, and intervention is now the only answer (though of course they want more humane intervention).

    There are parts of Vancouver where I will no longer set foot. They are simply too dangerous to everyone, including residents. It’s absolutely horrific. This is a foretaste of social collapse. I can’t talk with other progressives about it, because I just get shouted at and told that idealistic solutions need to be given more of a chance. When we can’t even talk with other progressives without shouting, we’re in deep shit.

  9. foglight says:

    Thanks for the response. I guess my IRL sample is skewed, because I hadn’t realized so many Democrats were pro-recall! Vancouver does indeed sound very similar to SF.
    Whenever people try to put some future date on collapse I assume they’ve never spent time in certain areas of the globe, including in our local SF Tenderloin district. Thanks to my job – which unfortch I can’t quite retire from yet – I continue to set foot in the TL on a regular basis, so I don’t get my info from youtube vids or editorials or a passing glimpse. Regarding those caught up in the spiral you mention, I’m not in the law & order camp (it doesn’t work) but neither am I completely in the harm reduction camp. You have to create a liveable city for what’s left of the dwindling middle class; folks pooping & shooting up on the sidewalk isn’t it. You have to allocate $$ to build & staff locked long-term care facilities for the %age of folks on our streets who are so impaired that they’ll never survive on their own. You have to simultaneously address the problem of billionaireness. All of these “you have to’s” are pie in the sky, I realize!

  10. Vera says:

    “You have to allocate $$ to build & staff locked long-term care facilities for the %age of folks on our streets who are so impaired that they’ll never survive on their own.”

    Of course. And America is full of grand old buildings falling into dilapidation that once housed such people. But the utopians wanted to give them the gift of freedom (which turned into ghastly lives on the street) and community mental health care (which never materialized).

    And then there are the drugs. I am staunchly against the drug war, yet, I have to admit that the harm reduction paradigm is not what it was cracked up to be.

  11. Vera says:

    I reread this post, because it so well sums up the right/left confusion (or outdatedness). I have been following central European politics in Czechia for about 5 years now, and it has been a challenge to grok their political terms. For example, they term their current government as right-wing. To me, it’s woke up the kazoo. Top heavy with rather malevolent bureaucracy. Trying to silence critics. Except they give lip service to the free market, and tend toward kleptokratic privatization and looting. What kind of a right is that?! :-) On the left, there is much nostalgia for the communist past and how everything should be done top down. What kind of a left is that?! I thought stalinism was passe… So the Czech rebels mingle sides… conservatives hang out with the sane remainder of the progressives in opposition to the status quo and for free speech.

    Dave: Guardian is right-wing, in your view of reality? When I read it, I went… shaking my head. Still shaking. I used to read them… then they went woke and silenced their readership. Political correctness uber alles. Remember when “comment was free” in all their articles, no matter how controversial? Yeah. It’s been a long long time.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Guardian is right-wing politically and economically, and centre-left on social issues. That continues to track roughly the same position as the overall-centre-right UK Labour party. The Guardian refuses, for example, to acknowledge that Taiwan is a province of China and regularly writes of China’s “threats” to western interests, despite it being completely surrounded by US military bases. And it is ferociously anti-Russian and pro-war on Ukraine: eg https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/sep/09/putin-allies-west-russia-president-north-korea-iran-south-africa

  13. Vera says:

    Now I am confused again, Dave. How is somebody right-wing on politics and against free speech, and ferociously anti-Russian and pro war on Ukraine? I have been following a number of sources on the right since Ukraine went awry in 2014, and they are all anti-russophobia and anti-Ukiewar, with the exception of one source, which is run by neocons who ban anyone daring to not toe that line.

    Whereas, as you have experienced, the progressives are marching in goosestep on that. I was aghast that even Resilience has published politically correct warmongering baloney on Ukraine. It’s been a while though — their readership smacked it down in no uncertain terms.

  14. Vera says:

    So I went to wiki, to glean something on the Guardian. The Czech wiki describes them as “Among the eight mainstream, national, British newspapers, The Guardian is described by British readers as the most left-leaning. It is perceived as centre-left overall in Britain.”

    English wiki says they self describe as centre-left and vaguely progressive, and quotes someone who describes radical Just Stop Oil protesters as “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.” Can anyone give examples of them being on the right? As far as them being far left at times, I can point to their uncritical politically correct coverage of trans.

  15. Vera says:

    Don’t mean to dwell on this endlessly. I am perplexed by the huge divergence in how I see reality and how you (those who see the Guardian as right wing) see reality. It’s one tiny instance of how we have become divided. I am not saying “I am right.” I am saying “so I looked at it, and here is what I have seen. How is it with you? Where is the snag? Can we converge?”

    I went and looked at the political aspects of The Guardian yesterday (US version). Cringe-worthy adulation of Biden was a lead story. After perusing the various news and opinion items, I did not find a single one that could be termed “right-wing” — or even in the neighborhood. So… um?

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    I think we may have different definitions of right-wing. The Republicans are anti-Russia and pro-war, except when the Democrats go nuclear on their anti-Russia and pro-war agenda, when they waffle just so they can attack the Democrats. So the Democrats are now, IMO, centre-left on social issues (that cost nothing; it’s all just talk and posturing) and right-wing both economically and politically. They are opposed to taxing the rich, opposed to universal public health care, pro-big oil drilling and pipelines, have done absolutely nothing to protect the reproductive rights of women, and are virulently anti-Russia and anti-China. So I call them, on balance, right-wing, if not quite as right-wing as the Republicans. Given the enormous amount of space the Guardian gives the warmonger and xenophobe Simon Tisdall (such as the link I provided in my earlier comment), who basically rules the paper as both chief foreign correspondent and US news editor, I likewise consider the Guardian right-wing: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/simontisdall These are the ravings of an extreme right-winger, and he’s published over 2,100 of them in the Guardian.

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