The Overton Window at Work

This election “year” has gone on longer than I thought possible, and each time I pop open NetNewsWire to sift through my vaguely-political set of feeds, I’m stunned that we’re still disagreeing about some things, and equally stunned that we’ve begun to disagree about other things as if they were reasonable topics of debate. Obama as communist socialist fascist terrorist? Really? How did we get there?

The Overton window is an attempt to explain these shifts in political dialog. Overton posited that there is a particular range of ideas deemed “politically acceptable” to the public at large. Ideas outside this range are regarded as “fringe” or “extreme” and are therefore politically difficult to embrace successfully. Further, Overton argues that it’s actually possible to shift this window of acceptability in one direction or another by promoting ideas even more extreme than then “fringe” position you’d really like to advocate. By introducing a bold claim that’s pinned way past the outer edge of public opinion (“Obama is a Marxist.”), you prime the electorial public to more readily accept your real position (“Obama is totally too liberal.”) as a very reasonable compromise and valid area of discussion. Your fringe position is made palatable by the perception of an even more extreme view. “Obama’s no terrorist, that’s for sure!”, the public will say, “But I guess I am a little worried about his patriotism…”

It struck me today that the Overton window is probably applicable beyond politics. It can explain some things in the workplace as well. In short, when you’ve shifted your perception of the reasonable range of day-to-day “normal” far enough away from what really might be “normal”, normalcy starts to look pretty strange… pretty extreme. And certainly far too difficult to attain, even if that normalcy was desirable. Which it probably isn’t. I mean, “productivity”? No reasonable person wants that! That’s a fringe idea, buddy.

This is a long way of saying that my work is driving me more-than-usually insane at the moment. Maybe I need to stop advocating my perceived normalcy, and start advocating extreme normalcy.

I’ll let you know how that goes.