THE BABY, THE BATHWATER, AND THE OVERTON WINDOW

I’m returning to the academic classroom this fall. Sorta. I’m teaching a graduate course in communication ethics at Drury University; and as I prep my syllabus and lectures, I’m trying to integrate some of the things I’ve learned from our time on the road listening to America.

We met a lot of people out there who are frustrated with our toxic public life. Some are angry and want to fight, others want to talk peacefully with their enemies, and some are just tired and want to take a nap. Most people are trying to figure out what to say and how to say it.

For decades I have believed the art of rhetoric (or communication, more broadly) is in finding the balance between critique and comfort. Standing and speaking against something on one hand, and sitting with someone and listening on the other. To borrow from Finley Peter Dunne, I believe the ethical goal of rhetoric should be to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” We tend to think of critique and comfort as separate roles, often performed by different people, or restricted to unique historical moments – “I’m just not a fighter, I like to work quietly in the background;” or, “I’m not very good at peacetime, I was made for conflict;” or, “That was a different time, it wouldn’t work now.” It’s cast as a dilemma: we’re either speaking truth to power, or calmly gathering voices toward consensus. But, communication behaves more like art when we develop the capacity to shift our voice and purpose, depending on whether it’s a time to listen and empathize or a time to get adversarial and kick some ass (a shift I like to describe as “asking the judge for permission to treat the witness as hostile”). In any case, it’s about deploying communication wisely, to avoid the alienation and backlash from being overly aggressive, or the victimization and silencing we can suffer if we are too passive. It can feel paradoxical to perform both. Our cognitive dissonance pushes us to favor one, consistent approach. Listen to people defend their favorite presidential prospects and you’ll typically hear them extol the virtues of their candidate’s aggressive rhetoric and dramatic ideas, while someone else might highlight their candidate’s conciliatory tone and commitment to moderation. But, consistency isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. I lean on these words Dr. Clark Closser taught me to understand at Missouri State University 35 years ago.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”)

Not sure I share Emerson’s deification of inconsistency, but if you are doing great things, misunderstanding is inevitable. When you deviate from a script that’s become part of a shared narrative – which might have grown into a fundamentalist creed – you will be punished by the tribe. Relax, you’re in good company. Change agents don’t always do as they’re told.

As Betsy and I traveled around the country, we heard people line up solidly behind either the aggression of critique and protest, or the empathy of comfort and conversation, as though it was a giant either/or proposition, with angels on one side and devils on the other. They would usually follow up their proclamation about the preferred means of communication with something like, “It’s the only way we’ll ever get the other side to listen.” Trump supporters liked how the President had pushed beyond the politically-correct discourse of the status quo, making lawmakers and officials think about things they hadn’t previously considered. Likewise, progressive Bernie supporters argued for more radical policies and an unrelenting drumbeat as a way of pushing the public to consider policies that were too radical only months before. The near-extinct moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats all openly worried if we got too extreme we would further erode common ground and never solve the big problems facing us. In this week’s Democratic presidential debate, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper described the divide as revolution vs. evolution. Whether they know it or not, they are all talking about the Overton Window.

The idea was created by Joseph P. Overton at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the mid-1990s, but it has gained popularity in the past few years, as moderates and extremists have battled for supremacy in political parties, religious denominations, and other institutions. You can read more about it here, but the general idea is a “window of discourse,” or the range of ideas considered legitimate for public consideration. An idea falls outside the window when it is considered too absurd or too radical to be part of a serious conversation. Ideas tend to move into the window of consideration through incremental change over time (evolution), or because of a dramatic shift in public opinion in response to some significant stimulus (revolution). The Overton Window has become an important topic as bitter debates emerge about the most effective, or most ethical, means of change.

The companion pieces in persuasion theory are the foot-in-the-door (FITD) and door-in-the-face (DITF) theories. FITD is built on the idea that an audience is more likely to agree to a large request after having agreed to previous smaller requests. This is the approach of incrementalism and moderation, where change is achieved gradually over time (start with the Affordable Care Act and move toward universal health coverage). The premise of DITF is an audience is more likely to agree to a large, reasonable request after having rejected a larger, or more unreasonable request. This is a more radical approach of dramatic change (ask for Medicare For All and settle for a public option). Both techniques have proven to work well. One is not superior to the other, but each tends to play better to different audiences. The art of persuasion is knowing which to use in any given situation.

Not everyone advocating for change is factually correct or morally justified – grounds for serious disagreement and debate – but sometimes our differences are just about strategy. No single approach to persuasion and change is appropriate in every setting. My concern is the purity tests emerging among true believers of all kinds. It’s as though, if you aren’t in support of my team’s approach, in every case, you’re an infidel who should be expelled from the community.

A few years ago, Springfield was considering a city ordinance to ban smoking in most public buildings. As someone who played in a band and enjoyed going out to bars and restaurants, and as someone who cares about his health, I was very much in support of the ban. It was a move every progressive city in the country had taken; we were behind the times. The smoking ban passed, in part because of conservative evangelicals who oppose smoking as sinful. I disagreed with that as a strategy, but I was still very happy with the outcome. This example isn’t really about the Overton Window, but it illustrates how unlikely allies can cooperate to accomplish a greater goal, even if their methods are in conflict.

In a paper for my mentor in college, Dr. Carter Cramer, I wrote that part of my aim as a teacher would be, “to bring order where there is chaos, and a healthy dose of chaos where order is too much with us.” Different situations call for different methods. There are many reasonable ways to open the window of discourse. Pushing it with force is necessary sometimes; other times patience and perspective-taking are more useful.

The art of ethical communication is knowing when it’s time to sit and listen, or stand and yell. When we’re inclined to criticize our friends and neighbors because they are yelling when we are listening, or when they are quiet when we think they should be loud, let’s relax and remember we might be on the same team. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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