Political and professional discourse, and the Overton window


Last night my friend and I were texting each other during the Democratic debate. He mentioned a concept I wasn’t familiar with, the Overton window, which Wikipedia defines as “the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse, also known as the window of discourse. The term is named after Joseph P. Overton, who stated that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within this range, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences.”

Basically, there is a range of ideas that the public is open to discussing that candidates can focus on in their campaigns to gain traction and support. Essentially, the viability of an idea (and therefore the viability of a candidate who believes in it) depends on how much it is part of the current discourse (and likely its future potential).

There are windows of discourse for all aspects of life that continuously evolve along with society. Previously taboo topics of discourse are out in the open and range in controversy. Some taboos remain strong. These windows and their topics differ from group to group, too. Classic examples in the U.S. include gay marriage, access to abortion, legalized marijuana, accessibility, women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, etc. These started out as “radical” ideas from grassroots labor and civil rights movements, eventually emerging from the underground to become a part of the zeitgeist.

But just because something becomes more commonly discussed or even legally approved, doesn’t mean that everyone accepts these concepts or wants to discuss them, or that they have fully become an accepted part of wider American culture, or that they aren’t still taboo (or even frowned upon) amongst some groups. And, some things take longer to get there due to entrenched religious or cultural beliefs and norms. Over time, they become accepted by many if not the majority of people, and laws are written that codify them into our societal rules. Outdated ideas and norms dissipate.

The Overton Window and Political Discourse in the U.S. 

When we talk about ideas, they spread, and eventually shape society in big ways.

Right now in the U.S., people are still talking about and trying to cement – or do away with – women’s access to full healthcare services, specifically the right to choose to have an abortion. It is a key political discussion point and something a lot of people care about along the political spectrum. Progressives see that this right is under attack in in Alabama, Missouri, Georgia and Ohio, states that have passed various laws banning abortion that are based on conservative religious beliefs.

In last night’s debate, presidential candidate Julian Castro talked about the importance of women’s access to health care and abortions, and out of left field advocated for the right for trans men to have this same access. “I believe in reproductive justice, and what that means is just because a woman — or, let’s not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female — is poor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise the right to choose.” (It’s been pointed out that Castro probably meant to refer to trans men in this case).

This was new – and brave – though not totally out of the ballpark democrats, because it’s not part of the window discourse throughout the nation. Truthfully, it’s not something I had thought about in particular before he mentioned it (to be clear, I agree with him). Perhaps it will become more prevalent, but the “political viability” is unclear to me. At this point, it’s against the law to be a trans person in the military. There is a while to go yet for the acceptance of non-cis people in society. Another moment I appreciated was when Elizabeth Warren said “Latinx”. Other progressive ideas are still making their way but aren’t quite ubiquitous), including intersectionality, student loan debt cancellation, universal healthcare, immigration rights and privacy.


The Overton Window and Professional Discourse – Humanizing the Workplace

Professional discourse is political. Just as in politics, there are windows of discourse about our professional lives and selves, amongst employees, HR departments, unions, corporations and other organizations. Workplace culture is a hot topic and something I think a lot about myself. Platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter provide a space for people to share ideas and expand the window of discourse of what is acceptable to talk about and build momentum for action and change, such as inclusivity and equal pay.

Beginning in the 1800s, numerous progressive labor and inclusivity movements became part of the discourse, eventually impacting policy and changing our society for the better, including equal pay, affirmative action, the minimum wage, women in the workforce and the eight-hour work day. Other work-related topics have been gaining traction amongst groups of within the workforce in recent years: design ethics, big tech, algorithmic bias, executive pay, neurodiversity, corporate accountability, emotions in the workplace, empathy, #MeToo, living wages, and the list goes on. People are discussing and spreading these ideas in the hopes of getting more people to think about and act on them. One day these progressive ideas will be a fundamental part of our legal code and workplace guidelines.

It’s frustrating and outrageous that we are still trying to get equal pay for all people, and that we are not where we need to be with regard to organizational diversity, but most culture change happens at a snail’s pace. I believe that the more people and organizations talk about and embody progressive concepts, the more viable they will be as places to attract employees who care about them. Of course, that means people and organizations need to walk the walk.

Those of us with the privilege and freedom to practice radical discourse should help expand the window. There is less risk involved, less to lose, especially for those in tech who make good money, have skills that are in high demand, and who have good access to jobs, networks and capital. The small wins will eventually add up to major change. I appreciate those who put energy into this for the purpose of making the professional world a more welcoming, inclusive, human place.

Photo 1 by Matthew Smith
Photo 2 by Carmine De Fazio

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