The ‘Overton window’ and shifting attitudes towards masculinity
Unless you are a political junkie or obsessive nerd like myself, it is quite likely that you have never heard of the ‘Overton window’. Named after its originator, Joseph P. Overton, the Overton window represents, at any given time, the frame of reasonable options or opinions across a spectrum of possible options/opinions in public/political discourse.
The Overton window, sometimes known as ‘window of discourse’, is useful for gaining an understanding of how ideas move in and out of the range of cultural acceptability. Proponents of political or cultural views outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public so that the window expands to encompass them. Opponents to the ideas, currently within the window, will likewise seek to convince the public that these ideas should be considered unacceptable.
Tactics can be used to consciously shift the window in the minds of the public. For instance, a political party might have a policy it wishes to implement that it knows would be rejected by the public should the policy be announced outright. Instead, to soften the blow and increase the policy’s chances of acceptance, the political party first proposes a policy it knows to be ‘unthinkable’ or too ‘radical’ given the current state of ‘acceptability’; once that policy proposal is rejected, the political party then proposes the less ‘radical’ or ‘sensible’ version of the policy, which is then accepted.
Here’s an example. A political party proposes to reintroduce National Service to combat youth disaffection; the public condemns the proposal, but following a debate, a ‘compromise plan’ of a National Citizen Service is proposed and considered to be a more ‘reasonable’ option; whereas if the watered-down plan had been put forward initially, it may have at first been considered too radical or unthinkable.
This diagram illustrates the process.
Once understood, the Overton window helps us to analyse how extremist views gain oxygen and how cultural/political shifts, that, only a short period ago were considered unthinkable, enter the realm of acceptability and in time become ‘facts’ or simple ‘common sense’.
In recent years, the Overton window and attitudes towards masculinity in the West have moved significantly; as such, ‘acceptable moral hatred’ in cultural discourse aimed at masculinity has grown considerably. One could write reams about the shifts; how they occurred, who’s driving them, and why.
Here are a few notable causes and outcomes worth mentioning to emphasise the point.
- Testosterone as unhealthy and cancer-causing
- Expanding reach and influence of gender-focused feminism
- Ever broadening definition of what constitutes ‘toxic masculinity’
- Loss of exclusively male spaces
- The feminisation of men and the rise of the ‘beta male’
- Promotion of the idea that boys are dysfunctional girls who must become not men but ‘good humans’
- All men are collectively guilty for the sins of some, and ‘good boys’ are feminist ‘allies’
- Use of prescription drugs such as Ritalin to control young boys’ ‘boisterous’ behaviour
- Acceptability of the idea that all men are potential predators
- Any criticism of feminist ideology condemned as ‘misogyny’
- Gender as a ‘social construct’
- ‘Boys will be boys’ no longer an acceptable expression
- The demonisation of traditionally male-centric comedy
- Double standards in legal language
- The normalisation of political correctness
- The politicisation of all forms of expression
- Marginalisation of fathers
- Belittling of men in advertising
- Increasing numbers of diversity quotas in media, education and corporate culture
- Gillette ‘We Believe: The Best A Man Can Be’ advertisement
- The American Psychological Association’s manifesto, Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men
- Banning of ‘harmful’ gender stereotypes in advertising
By no means is this an exhaustive list. But I hope it goes some way towards emphasising why attitudes towards masculinity are shifting and demonstrates how those who wish to gain control of the cultural narrative might do so.