In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, I attended a very cordial and well-done debate on the subject of same-sex marriage. The debaters were thoughtful and the audience respectful. The event as a whole represented our free, discursive society in its best light.
Nonetheless, I thought at the time that my side, those advocating for the natural law, weren’t so much defending their views as they were discussing the terms of surrender.
After the debate, I asked the panel whether they believed society could expand wide enough to tolerate both sets of views. All the panelists assured me that it could. But I was skeptical. I am even more skeptical now.
Although I didn’t know the term then, I later realized that my question related to a concept called “The Overton Window.”
Coined in the mid-nineties by Joseph Overton, the Overton Window is the range of ideas and values which are deemed acceptable by the general population. Ideas too far outside the window are considered radical, or even unthinkable.
The window can expand, contract, and move. However, its two most important aspects are these: 1) it is finite; and 2) ideas which are too far outside simply cannot be tolerated.
The Overton Window was primarily developed as a tool for analyzing the relationship between politicians and society, as politicians are limited in their policy decisions by what society as a whole will accept. As society grows more fractured though, the Overton Window is making itself felt in our private lives as well. In fact, Cancel Culture is the natural result of a massive and sudden shift in the Overton window.
Conservatives typically argue that Cancel Culture is wrong. Full stop. But we fail to realize that Cancel Culture is the overgrown, misplaced version of a normal, or at least unavoidable, aspect of society: That in any society, there are some individuals on the fringes whose ideas prohibit full participation in that society.
As a clear-cut example, imagine encountering an individual who openly advocated for the reinstatement of slavery. You might grant that the First Amendment allows him to say what he likes, however vile it is. But you would not think it any great injustice if such a person had trouble getting into college, or finding a job, or making friends. The more charitable among us might try to dissuade him of his beliefs, but most people would probably just avoid him. Certainly no one would listen with an open mind as if he might actually have a point. Anyone who even considered that would be deemed suspect as well.
These reactions to radical beliefs are reasonable. If truly anything were tolerated, society could no longer function. That has always been true across every human civilization. The idea that society can stretch infinitely in any direction is largely a cover-idea for people who want to alter it radically in their chosen direction.
In actuality, we have to realize there always have been and always will be ideas that are simply out of bounds. The only question is whose ideas they are.
In America, there used to be very few individuals who fell so far outside the bounds of the Overton Window that they wound up socially shunned. But woke ideology is expanding that number every day, both by narrowing the window and by pulling it further and further left, leaving what used to be centrist ideas far outside the right-most margin. This has been a massively destabilizing event as huge swathes of the population have been left outside the Overton Window.
This is dangerous for two reasons. First, truth is being marginalized in favor of radical lies, particularly in the realm of sex and human identity. Second, it is massively destabilizing for the country as a whole. There is the great risk of two completely separate Overton Windows developing with no overlap whatsoever. Once that happens, dialogue is truly impossible.
This is exactly what happened to the nation during the Civil War. Indeed, it took that war to forcibly establish the Overton Window I used above with the example of slavery. Sometimes the right, fed up with the left, almost seems to want the final splitting of the Overton Window. But that would be a truly disastrous event. Once the window is split, there is no clear, peaceful path to recovery. I do not think we are quite there yet, but we are dangerously close.
The conservative response to this has been to argue almost exclusively for the re-expansion of the window to include our ideas again. That is what the panelists at the debate put all their hope in. It’s a good argument as far as it goes. The Overton Window could surely be larger than the left will allow. But even as we push for the expansion of the Overton Window we have to remember that the fight for its edges is a zero-sum game — and right now we’re losing.
The radical left is arguing that traditional, biblical, and common sense ideas, held by billions for all of human history, no longer have a place in our society. We need to demonstrate that they are the ones without a place. We don’t need to resort to their tactics of ruining private lives over stupid tweets, but we do need to abandon the pretext that ideas and practices like reintroducing segregation, mutilating adolescents, and butchering infants are acceptable in a just society.
Indeed, we should do whatever we can to remove those who hold those ideas from positions of influence both in and out of government.
At one time not very long ago, the vast majority of Americans agreed on basic truths like the value of life, desegregation, the biological reality of two binary sexes, and the foundational right of parents to make decisions concerning the education, medical care, and overall well-being of their children.
We ought to work towards a day when the vast majority will agree on them again.
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.