How extremes alter public perception

The public needs extremes.

  • Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:33pm
  • Opinion

The public needs extremes.

So-called radicals, regardless of their spot on the political spectrum, can effectively sway the massive middle’s opinion. In an ideological tug-of-war, the side with the strongest anchors will yank the losers into the mud pit.

The Overton Window refers to a range of ideas considered acceptable at a particular moment. The theory was named after Joe Overton, former vice president for a conservative think tank. He believed lawmakers were constrained by the political climate, which could be changed by educating both lawmakers and the public.

Rhetoric shapes and shifts the Overton Window in the name of progress. Under this concept, the promotion of extreme ideas makes formerly fringe ideas appear more acceptable.

At the same time, ideas that were once acceptable become fringe or extreme. One online article suggests the Overton Window moves along a yard stick that represents two extremes of a certain political issue.

Unintended cultural forces also shift the window. Indeed, America’s leaders employ this weapon of perception to their advantage.

Consider global warming and its effect on politics. Former Vice President Al Gore may not be a textbook extremist, but he fueled radical predictions of worst-case climate scenarios. With the consequences of inaction now tattooed on the public’s consciousness, climate change occupies a more prominent throne than it did four years ago.

The movement for climate change awareness also amplified a desire for energy alternatives. The movement further heightened the stigma on oil drilling, all while coloring both red and blue states with greener goals. Politicians from both sides of the aisle either adapted or risked falling out of favor with the people who elected them.

The gay rights movement also illustrates the Overton Window’s effect.

Consider that homosexuality was primarily a hushed topic before the social and sexual revolutions in the 1960s. Since then, gay rights have shifted into today’s legal arena, where politicians pander to constituents with different expectations.

Lawmakers will not rush to legalize gay marriages in all states, but examples set by Massachusetts and California open the door to gay rights that seemed unthinkable 50 years ago. The “extreme” of two homosexuals entering a legal marriage in California, for example, clashes with states that have passed laws defining marriage. After moving the boundaries of what we know is possible, some states have granted more “acceptable” alternatives, such as benefits for same-sex couples.

Condemning such rights could be a political risk that at one time didn’t exist.

When talking of extremes on the political spectrum, we must not forget the center itself. The center defines what is acceptable, but extreme ideas re-define the center.

They both empower and repel each other.

But when one extreme stretches the limits, the other extreme fights back — turning the center into a battleground of thought control, for better or worse.


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