Apologetics 101

The Overton Window shows what speaking the unthinkable can do

There are two ways to encourage our country turn in a godly direction. Both involve talking.

The following is based on a talk delivered Nov. 22, 2010 at a CHP event – you can hear the talk here.

Glenn Beck, a radio talk show host in the US, authored a novel with the curious title The Overton Window. Before ever reading the book I had to google the title to find out what it meant. I was glad I did – it turns out “The Overton Window” is an enormously useful way of looking at how ideas are discussed in the public square.

A political analyst, Joseph Overton, coined the term to describe how some topics/issues/ideas fall into a range – the Overton Window – where they are deemed acceptable for public discourse. To give an example, while no one likes property tax increases, we also wouldn’t think it radical or unthinkable to talk about hiking them a point or two. It is an idea that can be discussed publicly without embarrassment, falling within the “Overton Window” of acceptable discourse.

Now, some ideas fall outside the Overton Window. If we were to draw out a “spectrum of acceptability” (see the illustration below) for public conversations, then on the outer extremes would be ideas deemed simply Unthinkable. These are thoughts that, if anyone were to propose them, they would then be dismissed as crazy, bizarre, or bigoted. But as we move inwards, towards the middle, ideas start to become merely Radical, then become Acceptable, and as they become more and more Popular, they are so well thought of by the public, they may well become government Policy.

The Overton Window helps us understand why some of the issues most important to Christians just don’t get discussed. It’s because a politician isn’t going to dare talk about ideas that will make him seem like a kook – if an idea falls into the Unthinkable, or Radical end of the spectrum, he won’t touch them. That’s where we are right now with the issue of abortion in Canada. And that’s where we’re heading on transgenderism.

A daring politician may bring up ideas that are merely Acceptable, but most politicians try to find out which way the parade is heading, and then get out in front of it. So they will only bring up issues thought Sensible, Popular, or so accepted that everyone thinks they should be made Policy.

I bring up the Overton Window because it is a very useful tool to direct, and measure, what we are doing when we set out to shift the public’s stand on an issue. The opposition is trying, and largely succeeding, in making orthodox Christian beliefs seem radical. If we are going to change hearts and minds on issues like the protection of the unborn, marriage, human rights commissions, education policy, and restorative justice, we will have to begin by pushing our ideas back into Overton Window of “acceptable discourse.” We want our ideas, once deemed unthinkable, to be seen by Canadians as simply common sense, and so popular they should be policy.

Doing it right

So how do we make the shift? There are two ways.

1. Speak the unthinkable to makes it less so

Talking does wonders. The current transgender debate is being lost, quite quickly, and the biggest reason is that no one – at least none of our political leaders – are willing to speak up. The opposition has already managed to make it unthinkable to say, “God made us male and female, and wishing it was different can’t change that truth.”

But what if someone did speak up? Here in Canada in recent months we’ve seen the impact that even one person can have when they are willing to voice what has become politically incorrect. University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has made waves for publicly questioning whether people can choose to be genderless or “non-binary.” Because he hasn’t backed down, his solitary stand has become a movement of sorts, with thousands echoing his concerns. And it all started because he was willing to speak.

Heres another illustration: if a teenage girl wants her parents to change her curfew from 10 pm to midnight the most strategic way forward would be for her to start talking about how all her friend get to stay out until 2 am.* Now there’s no way her parents will let her stay out until 2 am and she knows it, but if she makes a credible case for this extreme, she might just succeed in shifting 2 am from an Unthinkable idea, to merely a Radical one. And that, in turn, might just make midnight seem downright Acceptable. By overshooting what she is really after, she can tug her parents to where she is actually hoping they will go.

We can do something like that too. We aren’t going to exaggerate our position like this girl – that would be lying – but we can take inspiration from her and speak out fearlessly on our most unthinkable ideas. If we are vocal, if we are heard, we can pull the public towards us, even if we don’t yet bring them all the way over.

So, for example, if in our day-to-day lives we all start wearing pro-life shirts that celebrated the humanity of the unborn, and if in the next election campaign CHP candidates effectively and vocally make the case for the humanity of the unborn, and then we all use the ARPA Easy Mail to write our MPs, and write in to our local papers too, all of us calling for an end to abortion, we could succeed in pulling the public enough our way to allow a Conservative MP to push for an “Informed Consent” law. This is a law that would require women be given all the facts before they have an abortion. Of course we wouldn’t be satisfied with this one small step forward, but some children would be saved. It would be a start.

But it will only happen if we are willing to speak the unthinkable fearlessly and boldly.

2. Speak the radical repeatedly

During the 2008 election, one-time US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin brought homemade cookies for students at a Pennsylvania school. She had heard that there was a debate going on over whether public schools in the state should ban sweets. “Who should be deciding what I eat?” she asked a cheering audience. “Should it be government or should it be parents? It should be the parents,” Palin concluded.

That a child’s parent should make their nutritional decisions, rather than some arm of the government, is not an extreme position. But unless, like Palin, we speak this truth repeatedly, repetitively publicly, and repeatedly (and repetitively) it could easily become extreme. It is only by repetition that common sense remains common.

How not to do it

Now there are also two approaches we can use to be sure we won’t shift our nation in a more godly direction.

1. We can’t expect change if we won’t speak

This might seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning, But it is our default. It is easier not to let co-workers know we oppose how a homosexual couple rewrote the BC public schools curriculum. It is easier to be quiet than do the research to be able to speak persuasively for the unborn. It’s easier to remain ignorant about what our country’s human rights commissions are up to. It’s easier to be unprepared, and unnoticed, easier not to stick out, easier to keep our mouths shut.

It’s easier, but we can’t expect change if we won’t ready ourselves to speak on the issues of our day intelligently and persuasively.

2. We also can’t expect change if we pretend to be less radical than we are

One of the reasons I’m bringing up the Overton Window is because it is a more accurate way to evaluate success than some of our more traditional measures. We sometimes get caught up in measuring our success by how many Christians MPs or MLAs we’ve elected, or how many votes our candidate received, or maybe how many pieces of legislation “our guys” have managed to pass. But there is a problem with measuring success this way. It is possible to increase our vote total and elect more Christian MPs even as our nation becomes increasingly godless. We can even pass positive pieces of legislation, without changing Canadians’ hearts and minds. How? By downplaying our Christian convictions. If we pretend that we aren’t radical, that our radical positions are quite conventional, we can get elected. But without any mandate to make the changes we are actually hoping for.

I want to note before I bring up this next example, that I am not trying to attack this man. I greatly respect him. But the strategy he employed is a very relevant example. When he was a Manitoba Conservative MP, Rod Bruinooge, proposed a piece of legislation that would have made it illegal to coerce a woman into having an abortion. It was, possibly, the very smallest step forward in the protection of the unborn, since it would have only protected those few children who were wanted by their mothers, but were being threatened by their fathers. It was a small step, but still a step! 

But it was not sold as pro-life legislation. Bruinooge was quoted by WorldNetDaily.com as saying his bill “doesn’t have any bearing on access to abortion.” He noted:

“That’s not related to this bill. Access to abortion in Canada is in all nine months….This bill doesn’t have any bearing on that… This bill is neither pro-life or pro-abortion.”

Now anything abortion-related in Canada would fall in the Radical/Unthinkable range. But if the public had taken Bruinooge at his word, and believed that his bill has nothing to do with abortion, perhaps they would have found it an Acceptable idea.

The bill wasn’t passed. But if it had, its passage wouldn’t have signaled any sort of shift in our nation. It will only have passed because MP Bruinooge avoided talking about abortion – so the bill won’t have done anything to change the public’s mind about abortion. It wouldn’t have done anything to shift the pro-life position in any positive direction in the public’s mind.

Conclusion

The shift that we are after is going to involve pushing boundaries, being radical, bringing up the unthinkable. That’s how we are going to start to shift hearts and minds – when we fearlessly and repeatedly and effectively present God’s truth to our nation.

And so to conclude I want to encourage you to speak out, in whatever organization you are a part of, and wherever God has placed you:  at your work, in the park, behind a podium, over the back fence, at the gym, Equip yourself to speak out and then speak. We all need to take on this task.

* Joe Lehman used this curfew illustration to explain the Overton Window on the Glenn Beck Show. Lehman is the President of the Mackinac Center think tank where Joseph Overton first thought up the term “Overton Window.” 

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