It’s time to decisively shift the Overton Window

The concept of Overton Window was developed by Joseph P. Overton in the mid 1990s as a framework to study the nature of policy making by politicians. It may be defined as follows:

“The Overton Window is a model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and influence politics. The core concept is that politicians are limited in what policy ideas they can support – they generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options. These policies lie inside the Overton Window. Other policy ideas exist, but politicians risk losing popular support if they champion these ideas. These policies lie outside the Overton Window.

But the Overton Window can both shift and expand, either increasing or shrinking the number of ideas politicians can support without unduly risking their electoral support. Sometimes politicians can move the Overton Window themselves by courageously endorsing a policy lying outside the window, but this is rare. More often, the window moves based on a much more complex and dynamic phenomenon, one that is not easily controlled from on high: the slow evolution of societal values and norms.”

The definition and idea of the Overton Window may be extended in its application to understand the play of larger meta political and cultural narratives operating in the society. The spheres of electoral politics and policy making are but mere sub-sets of the multiple layers of the society. As noted in the definition above, the larger, long-lasting changes in narratives come about organically from within the society.

Every society has its own Overton Window, i.e., a spectrum of ideas, within which it operates. The narratives and ideas acceptable for discussion, debate, and implementation are established by the society over decades and across centuries. It is these very ideas which the society begins to cherish and uphold over a long period of time, and thus transforms them into workable models which go on to serve as the foundations of civilizations. Pondering and arguing over ideas isn’t just drifting in the abstract, it plays a highly critical role in living by those ideas which enable the prosperity and flourishing of our civilization.

I was introduced to this concept for the first time by one of my friends, who used it in the context of the culture wars rampant in the modern West. If one gives it a brief thought, one might notice that although this concept is applicable to the Indic scenario as well, there is a fundamental distinction between the Western and Indic worlds. While what the West has been witnessing since the dawn of ‘modernity’ is a cultural war in which the opposing forces are ultimately products of Western modernity itself, what Bharat stares at today is a civilizational war. Further, the onslaught on Bharat’s civilizational existence dates back to at least a millennium.

Getting a grasp of this difference is essential in looking for possible remedies to the situation. This is because the question of what the range of acceptable ideas for our societal order should be, is directly linked to the well-being of our civilization. This in turn means that the Western theories about freedom of speech, political correctness, etc. can’t be directly juxtaposed on the Indic scenario.

Instead of importing such theories which have evolved in a given historical context, we need to dive into the Indic theories of knowledge and knowledge systems to understand what has been treated as knowledge in our civilization, coupled with an examination of the range of plural ideas, even if vague and not valuable, which have been allowed to operate in our civilizational matrix.

Such a rigorous, in-depth re-discovery of our knowledge traditions is crucial because it helps us in conceptualizing the range of acceptable knowledge, knowledge worth valuing, preserving, and disseminating, and the amount of space to be given to ideas which may be obnoxious and subversive of our civilizational values. It is to be noted that the latter should not be confused with dissenting knowledge traditions, as dissent has always been placed on a high pedestal in our culture.

At another level, our traditions also help us answer searching epistemological and philosophical questions such as – What is knowledge? How is it to be perceived? What constitutes valuable knowledge? What is its purpose? Is it linked ceaselessly to the structures of power? Could any and everything be treated as knowledge? How are the limits of valuable knowledge to be set?

A reading and reflection on Indic knowledge systems would help us in formulating the range of our Overton Window, which is important due to the fact that civilizational battles are decided on the basis of the range of this spectrum, which ought to be controlled and decided by the given civilization. Indic civilization and its indigenous people have been at the losing end of this cultural/civilizational war since centuries. So, a resurgence of our civilization isn’t possible without taking control of the narrative.

The basic modus operandi of winning such cultural wars is to keep the Overton Window shifting alongside its sensible expansion. The expansion of the window is to be moderated by ‘Civilizational Vigilance’, a term often used by scholar-activists such as Ashish Dhar and J. Sai Deepak, which requires us to remain alert at all times about the ideas and narratives that are subversive of our civilization.

Civilizational vigilance should be distinguished from political correctness, as unlike the former, P.C. culture tries to narrow the window to kick out alternatives and mainstream only the ideologically similar and adherent views which largely fit in the hegemonic worldview. P.C. culture is an act of intolerance born out of disgust for and shunning of dissenting views.

Civilizational vigilance is an alertness towards the prevalent narratives lest they destroy the very existence of a civilization and its ethics and values. Such vigilance helps in moderation of violently radical/anarchic ideas and in ethically deliberating the limits of the spectrum. At the same time while negotiating the brand and range of the spectrum, we must be constantly self-reflective and alert such that we don’t go down the same rabbit hole as our opponents by spinning fake narratives and mainstreaming them. The adherence to truth with a concern for the welfare of our civilization on its own terms should be the appropriate remedy.

The Overton window in our society has to be set right, and this is possible only when the shift comes decisively from within the society. Indic discourses have been merely lingering around the margins for decades. A change has surely come in the political sphere, which has provided our civilization with crutches to try and stand once again. The potentialities of this opportunity have to be utilized for the resurgence of Indic civilization.


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About the Author

Yashowardhan Tiwari
Yashowardhan Tiwari is a B.A. LLB. (Hons.) graduate from Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) and has previously worked as a Graduate Research Immersion Program Scholar at JGLS. He is primarily interested in the studies of constitutional law, history and the sociology of science.