The Overton Window and Modern Human Tribalism

Since the dawn of Man, humans have organized themselves into groups based on genetic similarity.  These groups cohere around shared customs – language, dress, food, and most critically (for our purposes here) beliefs.  We call these groups tribes.

In the modern world, a lot of these trappings of traditional tribal formation – language, dress, etc. – have become homogenized by mass culture in most of the West.  Top 40 radio, movies, fast food restaurants. All in the name of the almighty dollar, we have corporatized and standardized those things, making them more efficient, more scalable.  With one exception (at least so far) … that of belief.

Thus the one manifestation of tribal cohesion that still persists is that of shared belief. A way to distinguish between us and them.  Our in-group vs. the outgroupWho the “enemy” is.  Who we can exclude. Who we can hate.  Beliefs, and the virtue signaling that goes along with them, are a way to signal tribal identity.

We call this modern version of shared belief the Overton Window.

As per the technical definition, the Overton Window represents the range of acceptable topics for public discourse at any given time, stretching from “popular” to “reprehensible”.  Critically, this window shifts over time, so that ideas that were once perhaps acceptable become reviled or even censored, and vice versa. There are things that can and cannot be said out loud …

Even the mere act of suggesting something – such as the fact that there might be differences between women and men – can get you fired from your job as president of Harvard.  Or, once upon a time, arguing that the Earth revolves around the Sun could get you similarly ostracized.

These bounds of public discourse bear a very real impact on the behavior of individuals within a society.  A simple example is the notion of a woman being a housewife.  Something that was once socially valued (being a good mother, raising children, etc.) is now scorned as oppressive, or a “poor life choice” in contrast to materialistic pursuits of career/money.  Whereas previous generations would have seen the pursuit of worldly desires over one’s own family as gross selfishness.

History of America is rife with such examples.  From racial relations to gender dynamics to religion and everything in between.  Hell, there was a time in the United States when Irish people were openly discriminated against. Or if you go back to ancient Rome and Greece, pedophilia was perfectly legal and considered socially acceptable.  It is funny to realize that there was a time when Christians were considered rebels and outlaws, and yet another period where they were the dominant cultural narrative of European society.

The point is that what is and is not considered socially acceptable or “politically correct” shifts over time.  And those boundaries limit public discourse, and individual choices.  Moreover, they delineate those who stay within the bounds from those who do not, essentially two tribes.  This is the Overton Window in action.

It would seem that there is a primal need in humans for such tribal affiliation, even in modern times.  The Overton Window is simply how modern humans form tribes in the modern world, in this era of mass culture.


Given the above, there is a fundamental question one must ask: Is the Overton Window compatible with the principles of Classical Liberalism?

If the Overton Window, and the tribal mechanics that go along with it, limit the free exchange of ideas – and moreover the choices individuals can make within those bounds – is it compatible with the Doctrine of Individualism? With the notion of rational self-interest?  With the vibrant discourse that is the lifeblood of a free society?

Given the examples in the first section, I would argue it is not compatible.

I was just reading an excellent article last week discussing Jordan Peterson and his televised interview with Cathy Newman, and how their conversation was representative of the way white left-wing intellectuals have essentially become the “new bourgeoisie” over the last half century with the rise of Cultural Marxism.  How their values – equality, tolerance, diversity – are now thought of as universally acceptable values, as the one-and-only “good” values that one might have.  And that no one can even question that.

Political Tribalism at its worst.

It is a very clear example of the Overton Window in action, and its effects.  To shut down public discourse, limit individual choices, and stifle diversity of thought. It is in direct contrast to classical liberalism.

The question of course then becomes what we should do about the Overton Window?  Given its roots in the primal human need for tribal affiliation we’re not going to get rid of it.  I would suggest a couple things.  One is simply that any liberal society that wishes to remain so should be cognizant of the Overton Window, and the dangers inherent in it. Public awareness goes a long way.  Secondly, I would argue that cognizance of the Overton Window as a force shaping public discourse should become a core component of journalistic ethics, and the principle explicitly taught to journalism students.  Too many journalists seem oblivious to the concept, or the unconscious bias it can introduce to their reporting.  And yet journalists serve a critical role in a liberal society … we should hold them to a higher standard.  The same could be argued for tech companies like Google and Facebook, and the filter bubbles they inadvertently produce.

In the end, we may have come a good distance as humans, but in some ways we are not so different from our ancestors.  We may always long to be part of a tribe.

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