Free Inquiry
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 37 issue 3

Is the Unthinkable the New Acceptable?

Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay

Should slavery have ended?

Questioning whether slavery should have ended surpasses being shocking. It goes so far beyond being impolitic to think it, much less ask it aloud—or, much worse, put in print—that one simply cannot avoid the sickening feeling of basking in tar that comes even with having just read it. Surely, the answer to this of all questions is so obvious it needn’t be asked. Surely slavery should have ended, just as surely thinking otherwise is abhorrent.


Political scientist Joe Overton (1960–2003), who served as vice president for the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy think tank, gave us insight into our feelings about moral questions such as this. He defined the normative “window of discourse” on an issue as the socially acceptable range of public opinions. Overton observed that the possible positions on an issue range from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to the sensible to the popular, with this gradation appearing on both sides of the political spectrum (see graphic on right). Those ideas ranging from unacceptable to acceptable fall within the conceptual window that now bears Overton’s name. For example, slavery falls so far to the right of today’s Overton Window that “unthinkable” barely seems to cover it. Just raising the question goes beyond the unthinkable into the reprehensible—a fact in which we could all take comfort until the recent rise of the “alt-right” and its flirtation with white nationalism. How did this happen?

The ‘Alt-Right’ and the Fracturing of the Overton Window

“Alt-right” is an abbreviation for “alternative right.” It grew out of the hard-line racial supremacist vision of Richard Spencer and carries a constituency that Hillary Clinton wasn’t entirely incorrect in calling a “basket of deplorables” (however ill-advised that statement proved to be). The views of the alt-right lie distinctly outside of what we have come to accept as the boundaries of the Overton Window. They have also gained a remarkable frisson of cool among largely well-meaning activists who have become reactionary against political correctness, especially as it emanates from college campuses. This far-larger group of rebels, projected significantly from Steve Bannon’s media platform Breitbart News Network, are easily conflated with the alt-right and confuse the meaning of the term. They also were enormously influential in Trump’s election.

For both the alt-right proper and their orbiting nebula of muckrakers, open flirtation with white nationalism and outright racism, on the one hand—and a certain Pyrrhic “conservatism,” on the other—situates much of what they have to say well outside of until-now acceptable political discourse. How could they have risen to such prominence that alt-right has become a buzzword, and their preferred candidate—who is manifestly unfit for the office of the presidency for reasons going well beyond his unwillingness to repudiate the alt-right’s extreme views—have won the presidency and then named Bannon his chief strategist?

Something happened to the Overton Window. It has, in fact, broken. The broader acceptance of the alt-right represents a kind of right-wing radicalism that could not have gained conservative-chic until fairly recently (owing strongly to the deleterious impact of heavily biased right-wing television media such as Fox News, web publications such as Breitbart News, and right-wing “talk-back” radio). The easiest explanation for their rise is that the Window slipped right, but this explanation is facile. More than half the country rejects the alt-right for views they find patently unacceptable (such as “culture is inseparable from race” and “some degree of separation between peoples is necessary”). Only a complete fracturing of the Overton Window’s glass could have enabled the rise and flourish of the alt-right. The last hammer-fall that broke the glass came from social media.

What caught the world and its pundits completely off guard about Donald J. Trump’s campaign success is his sheer number of utterly disqualifying pronouncements. In previous campaigns—and in Clinton’s countercampaign—such blunders would be sufficient to end a nominee’s presidential aspirations. Trump’s disqualifying offenses, however, deviate by an order of magnitude from ordinary gaffes (to name one, Trump suggested torturing the families of suspected terrorists), and his base loved him for them. Our sense of decency, which is also identical to our view through the Overton Window, turns out to have been missing something crucial about political reality. Trump’s indecency had become normative to a wide part of the population, and our view through the glass prevented us from seeing it.

The Overton Window, recall, represents the set of acceptable political positions and opinions, and Trump’s rhetoric and behavior was completely out of line with what we had come to take for granted. Less than a week after the election, writer Damien Owens tweeted a now almost-iconic image of Trump mocking a disabled reporter (apparently for his disability) with the phrase, “As long as I live, I will never understand how this alone wasn’t the end of it.” Owens was giving us a glimpse through the prevailing Overton Window, and, despite strong denials that Trump’s mockery specifically targeted the reporter for his disability, that particular view was sufficiently common to earn Owens more than a hundred thousand retweets in a span of a few days. The world hadn’t (and still hasn’t) fully realized that the Window had been shattered, and the Left, to speak broadly, is still standing there holding its piece and looking through it, dumbstruck and reeling.

The Frame

The Overton Window presents as a kind of quasi-consensus among a populace about what is and isn’t acceptable, radical, fringe, or unthinkable. It’s tempting to think of it as being formed by some kind of averaging of opinion, but it is, in fact, formed by access to delivering a message. It’s framed by the ways we socially police what is and isn’t acceptable to voice.

This feature of the Overton Window allows us to explain an apparent paradox. We have believed that our society was progressing inch by inch toward becoming post-racial, despite knowing fully that closeted racism festered throughout much of the nation. Society was so structured that if racism, “acceptable” only within a cloistered universe, dared creep out, people would denounce it swiftly and viciously. More than that, our institutions—media, employers, government establishment, and academia—would have backed the denunciation to the hilt. There was no way around those institutional voices, and that set of restrictions is the very substance of the Overton Window.

Social media is different. By enabling like-minded moral and ideological groups to find each other and fashion their own media microcosms, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and anonymous community forums such as 4chan shattered the glass. Like some kind of horrific sociological kaleidoscope, every balkanized group can now take up its own fragment of Overton’s glass and define for itself what makes an opinion acceptable. That means the Window is made not of opinions but of ways we communicate with one another. The opinions those channels of communication permit are the view through the glass.

Much of Trump’s pronouncements and actions fell well outside the acceptable, and a shocking quantity of them fell into the unthinkable. (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand e-mails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”) So has much of Trump’s speech independent of his campaign rhetoric. (“I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”) What few of us realized, however obvious it seems in hindsight, is that social media had shattered the Window and scattered the pieces. Social media democratized information sharing and consumption until the institutional voices became irrelevant—except as fodder for conspiracy theorists to circulate in their own bubbles. Worse, this is the new normal, and finding our reflection in this looking glass is among our most pressing challenges.

Social media, for the present and at least the near future, promises that we cannot rely upon a single overarching Overton Window that defines the boundaries of political discourse. One result is that we cannot rely upon making progress by incrementally inching along in one direction or the other. Different groups—as diverse as Black Lives Matter, creationists, or the Taiwan independence movement—have their own Windows to look through, and movement in any one of these implies little about the movements of the others. Our strategies going forward must appreciate this new aspect of our political reality.

The alt-right, which had hidden in the unthinkable closet for at least two generations, took a piece of Overton’s glass roughly in proportion to its size as a marginalized identity group (of which it may be among the largest) and its resentment (which is nearly without peer except, possibly, in its mirror image on the relentlessly anti-systemic-racist social justice Left). For a variety of reasons, with exasperation over political correctness among them, their contingent proved large enough to seriously threaten decades of leftward movement of the Overton Window by winning one of the most significant elections in modern history. The result is that we now face at least two competing and mutually incompatible definitions of what is considered acceptable political discourse. That is, the culture war has gone from cold to hot, and the opposing armies look through extraordinarily different lenses at the battlefield, America’s moral landscape.

Former President Barack Obama—along with many of those who voted for Clinton, who outnumber Trump’s despite the Electoral College results—has been quick to remind us that we’re still the same nation that we were before the election, and that nation is the one that has been dragging the Overton Window cautiously but steadily leftward for most of its history. That history tells us much about the nature of moral progress and allows us to unravel why it broke in the first place, not merely laying blame at the feet of a technological advancement that has become as essential as it is irrevocable.

Before the Glass Shattered

The Overton Window is a rather atypical political abstraction in that it carries with it some sense of wide-ranging consensus about its movements. Commentators on the left, such as Peter Beinart and Charles Blow, and critics on the right, such asDavid French and Rory Sutherland, have observed that the Overton Window has historically drifted to the left on many social, political, and economic issues. In many regards, the right has come left—and not always kicking and screaming. Even as many Americans maintain their love affair with contemporary fiscal conservatism and minimal government, they are showing a marked tendency to slide leftward socially (same-sex marriage and adoption rights, marijuana legalization, gender identity and bathrooms, women in combat, marital rape). This combination of attitudes has ushered in a new enthusiasm for American-style political libertarianism.

If we look at the previous century or two, most people would agree that these leftward shifts have been largely for the good; most of us wouldn’t go back even if we could. Economically, we rejected slavery, caveat emptor, and the crushing working conditions of the early Industrial Revolution and replaced them with emancipation, a forty-hour workweek, and litanies of workers’ rights. Socially, we’ve rejected bigotry and religious favoritism and replaced them with pluralism and secularism. Politically, we’ve effectively done away with monarchies, frowned upon dictators, and championed classically liberal constitutional democracies equipped with progressive social-insurance programs. So much of our contemporary society is appalled by recent attacks on the Voting Rights Act, purposeful attempts to disenfranchise minority voters, and the application of religious-liberty protections to rationalize bigotry that one can’t help but see how far we’ve come from Dred Scott and Jim Crow. The movement has been leftward, and it exemplifies what we mean by social and political progress.

Excitable progressives use this leftward movement of the Overton Window to rally their charges. The Window, in their view, only moves by people stepping outside of it and dragging it to the left. They cite abolitionists, suffragettes, and giants of the civil-rights, labor-rights, and gay-rights movements as examples. Some grumbling conservatives have put up opposition as the Window slid away from protecting their time-honored institutions such as slavery, men’s-only voting, company towns, segregation, and the big gay closet. In the words of David French, writing for the National Review in December 2015, “The leftward pressure on the Overton Window has been relentless, with conservatives reduced to applying herculean effort to simply maintain the cultural and political status quo.”

That French recognized the effort to stay the Overton Window as “herculean” should have been a clearer warning than it was. It immediately should have reminded us about the whispered voices that we all knew kept themselves just out of earshot of polite society. These are ones that test the waters with racist jokes that are played off as mere humor in front of unsympathetic audiences. They are people who still refer to the American Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” They are people who have felt an increasingly urgent pressure that society’s general leftward drift is leaving them behind. There have been people aching for a way to crack the glass to ease the strain.

The Moral Arc: The Liberals’ Fragment of Overton’s Glass

But back to our opening question: Isn’t it obvious that slavery should have ended? Of course it is, because slavery is a morally reprehensible practice that must be brutally enforced and robs the liberty, livelihood, and humanity of many to favor the economic gain of a few. No great cosmic truth had to change in order to realize the moral imperative of abolition. On the contrary, few moral questions have been easier to resolve. It required little more than our ever-improving recognition of the realities of human flourishing and, thus, the necessity of reducing unnecessary human suffering (propelled in part by technological progress that enhanced productivity and reduced exploitation of human capital). In other words, the Overton Window slid to the left of slavery as we encountered philosophical and technological conditions that allowed us to recognize greater moral depth. On the issue of slavery, a leftward movement of the Overton Window definitively amounts to moral progress.

Other considerable, if less blatant, moral improvements have also followed leftward movements of the Overton Windows. We are better off because feudalism is obsolete. Constitutional democracy is, to paraphrase Churchill, the best/worst form of government we’ve devised. The recognition and expansion of universal human rights raised the standard of living for a vast proportion of citizens in the West by enabling access to the once-revolutionary dream of unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Students of history will recognize that we derive our modern cultural and political connotations of “right” and “left” from these ideals. When they were taken up by the French Revolution, following the American example from a decade earlier, the revolutionaries stood to the left of the president of the National Assembly, while supporters of Louis XVI took to the right.) In the modern era, social safety nets attached to successful capitalist economies alleviated more poverty and unnecessary human suffering than any other effort in history. The cultural and political status quo could be maintained only by herculean effort because most people didn’t want it (though clearly, some people do, and perhaps there are more than our look through the glass lets us think).

Isn’t it obvious? The greatest political triumphs of human history—democracy, classical liberalism, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and social equality, social safety nets paid for by progressive tax structures, utilities, the emergence of the middle class protected by consumer protection and labor laws, global humanitarianism, and universal human rights—share two consistent themes: clear moral progress and a leftward movement of the Overton Window. What we rightfully call “progress” has been nearly synonymous throughout human history with a leftward migration of the Overton Window.

It’s worth noting how we’ve progressed—and how we haven’t. Many of these advances have followed technological improvements that are the fruits of yet another leftward shift—science. Science replaced the pontification of institutionalized authority with the egalitarian and meritocratic system of demonstration by evidence. Two recent books, The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer (2015) and The Better Angels of Our Nature by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (2011), carry the themes that history marks a clear arc toward the more moral and that much of this progress rode on the back of scientific development. The use of the word progress to describe the successes of science and technology should be completely uncontroversial, and the same can be said of the moral advances they enabled. Science, however, progresses by asking questions and teasing out the answers, not by making demands, and technology enables progress by providing greater freedom, not by restricting it. As the Left grew more comfortable and confident in its progress, it lost sight of these fundamental truths.

Moving Leftward Isn’t Identical to Progress

Progress has proved nearly synonymous with a leftward movement of the Overton Window, but let progressive cheers be tempered to sobriety by one word: nearly. Moving our views ever leftward is not a workable definition of progress, and not only because it is banal in its ideological charge. There is, for example, such a thing as being too far to the left, as the devastating excesses of twentieth-century political experimentation proved at the cost of unfathomable numbers of human lives. State socialism cannot be esteemed by any reasonable metric to be better than feudalism or the abuses of its Gilded-Age corporate clone, and Trotskyism may actually be worse. The Right, including the alt-right, has not forgotten these abuses, even though their own misconduct is similar.

The abuses of the Left in the twentieth century are not limited to policies but also extend to greed in ambition. Progressive leftists, as a rule, tend to want their progress yesterday, thank you very much, and see anything short of that as an abject moral failure. To wit, only progressives dare the anachronistic arrogance of judging the past—seeing Thomas Jefferson, for example, purely through the lens of his slave ownership—and they dare it incessantly. To return to that telling word, that French called the Right’s effort to maintain the status quo “herculean” suggests at least that the Window may be moving too quickly, even if it is headed in the proper direction.

The Right has also, apparently, had enough of an ever-harder tug to the left from emboldened Obama-era progressives. Three years ago, for instance, hardly any Americans seriously thought about transgendered people; now their rights define one of the most heated sociopolitical battlegrounds. One impact of this progressive voraciousness has been accelerating partisan polarization, which is currently rampant, and the nation’s loss of the benefits of governmental teamwork has already nearly been disastrous.

Rather than making the intellectually lazy mistake of equating progress with a steady leftward trend, we should recognize that there is some variety of optimal configurations that define our political landscape. (Such a view is little more than a corollary to the widely missed theme of cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris’s controversial 2010 book, The Moral Landscape.) Should the Overton Window go too far left, that would be roughly the same kind of error as letting it linger too far to the right, and most of our political squabbling—when not about details, favors, trivialities, and shows of tribal virtue—can be conceived of as an ongoing argument about the ideal form for Overton Windows through which we examine the contours of political topography.

The view that society must forever “progress” should be seen with as little ideological bias as we can muster. The only way that’s possible is to equip ourselves with a sensible appreciation of what it means to get somewhere worth going in our moral landscape. In a sermon at the Temple Israel of Hollywood on February 25, 1965, echoing a sentiment of the abolitionist Theodore Parker from 1853, Martin Luther King Jr. noted, as he often did, that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The justice King spoke of was certainly to the left of the society to which he preached, but justice makes for a better target than marching blindly ever leftward. Justice, to King, surely included liberties that both the Left and the Right hold dear, including the freedom for all people to act upon their talents, pursue their dreams, and engage with the economy unimpeded. Thus, determining what makes a just society is remarkably difficult. At a minimum, however, the kind of justice King called for must be based upon Enlightenment values such as impartial treatment by institutions and a fair distribution of the benefits of society, together with greater measures of freedom and opportunity. Achieving these standards often requires leftward movements of cultural and political attitudes, but it also means rejecting ambitions of the Left that reverse the roles of impartiality and fairness.

If progress is defined as a general leftward trend, we’ll be sure to overshoot the goal eventually, and on the way we’ll disable the critical conversations and compromises that define productive political discourse in a successful democracy. Indeed, the quip that “reality has a liberal bias,” which originally rolled off Stephen Colbert’s lips after dodging the tongue in his cheek, is more likely to initiate conflict than cooperation. In any just society, a cooperative political environment in which we address our societal needs through the profitable but messy give-and-take of mutually beneficial compromise must be a top priority. This state of affairs is only possible when one’s political opponents can be viewed as sharing the same range of acceptable opinions—that is, through the same Overton Window.

History has proved this analysis overly simplistic, however, by revealing that we do not have just one Overton Window through whose movements we can define progress or regress. The recent election of Trump to the presidency of the United States and the successful “Brexit” referendum in the United Kingdom force us to look more deeply at the realities of our new à la carte media environment. We have changed how we connect and communicate, and so we’ve entered a new era that demands new strategies.

Until very recently, there was little reason to question the underlying structure of the Overton Window, but in this new age of hyper-democratized information exchange, the Overton Window needs new consideration. Perhaps we need to repair it before we hope to rely upon its view for moral clarity and the future movements of our society. Perhaps it cannot be repaired, and our political discourse moving forward has to account for this new reality. A fundamental difficulty awaits, however, because people see others holding opinions fully outside of their own Overton Windows as morally reprehensible and beyond discussion. Social activism and political agendas must adjust accordingly, because it seems that old tactics for moving public attitudes one way or the other merely move divided groups further apart from one another, and further from conversation, cooperation, and compromise. The difficult question that remains is how we should deal with those who refuse to embrace these core civic virtues, whatever their political orientations. We certainly cannot continue to cheat the Right by branding them yesterday’s trash, too deplorable to sit down at the Adult Table.

Whatever we do, it must be done even under these new conditions that fractured it in the first place—social-media dominance as a means of disseminating information. But there is reason for hope. It has been done before, following other advances that democratized information: the printing press, newspaper, radio, and television among them. Each of these steps caused upheaval—such as the Protestant Reformation—and ultimately centered the Window a bit further along its zigzagging path toward justice. Our present zag from the course, fueled by right-wing cable, talk radio, and social media, may well prove to have the same effect over time.

The Last Appeal: Open Discourse

We do not yet have an inerrant means for determining what is moral. In that lack lies uncertainty, but we are not left in ignorance. The moral arc does bend toward justice, because human beings are—despite any amount of cynicism—good at learning from mistakes. Even raising the question of whether slavery should have ended is genuinely reprehensible, and we should all be glad to live in a more just, more egalitarian society thanks to that tectonic leftward shift.

The implication is that we can determine and agree upon some moral truths; we do have a functioning method for determining whose glass gives a clearer view and whose is distorted. Slavery was considered fully acceptable for centuries, when human moral understanding was distorted for reasons that we clearly understand now. The method for progress is open discourse, and as long as we maintain channels of civil dialogue that put a premium on honesty, listening, and compromise, we can continue to bend the moral arc toward justice. If we commit ourselves, we can maintain the moral trajectory even as we deal with our newly shattered Overton Window.

Peter Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. He is the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone, 2013). James A. Lindsay holds a PhD in mathematics and is the author of four books, including Life in Light of Death and Everybody Is Wrong About God (Pitchstone, 2016 and 2015).

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