The tyranny of the many

There is a theory know as the Overton Window that suggests there is a finite range of political opinions which are acceptable for public discourse and any ideas which fall beyond this are the political equivalent of the “third rail” (the one carrying the fatal current on electric railways).

When Overton first suggested the idea, the Internet was in its infancy, a very different group of first adopters were engaging in online discourse in the mid-1990s than today. His theory was that societal norms policed the range of discourse and kept those opinions outside the “window” to the fringes.

This builds on observations by, among others, John Stuart Mill and De Tocqueville. In the latter’s work “On Democracy in America” he examines the risk of replacing tyranny from a despotic leader (the King of England) with a tyranny of the many. He gives the example that, in 1830s America, there was no law preventing a white man from marrying a freed African slave woman but the weight of societal pressure meant that this was prevented as surely as if there were a jail sentence.

This example is a useful compare and contrast opportunity for the present day; very few people would be willing to heap public condemnation on a mixed race marriage in the USA today. Those few that still do fall into two opposite sides of the Overton Window; white supremacists or those African Americans who condemn relationships with white partners.

This is a great example of what we instinctively know; “acceptable” opinions change over time. Mixed race relationships are now nothing to pass comment on, cross-dressers and those with gender disphoria are no longer considered as suffering from mental illness, and same sex relationships are given equal worth as traditional marriages.

We have a problem, however. The velocity of the movement of the Overton Window is leaving a large number of people with the “wrong” opinion on a subject exposed to the risk that they are on record (on social media, for example) expressing a sentiment that, just a few years later, is stranded on the windowsill outside of the Overton Window.

The change to the DSM rating of gender disphoria, for example; 10 years ago an opinion that it was a mental disorder would have been underpinned by the the work of the American Psychiatric Association. Today, you risk being subject to a social media “pile on” for exactly the same sentiment.

Why is this an issue? I offer a personal example;

I recently changed employer. Part of the pre-employment checks was the agreement that I could be subject to an Internet search for unacceptable opinions. The contract was a little more vague than that, claiming to look for information “unfavourable” to the organisation’s public reputation, but the interpretation is vague enough to prevent my hiring for “wrongthink”.

Fortunately, although it’s not difficult to identify me if the searcher was motivated, I have always kept my online discussions behind a pseudonym. In hindsight, this was a smart move as the Overton Window has moved and left me stranded in many subject areas.

Bill’s Opinion

Perhaps the Overton Window is another recipient of the Matthew Principle, “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” or a Pareto distribution where opinions accumulate in an ever tighter space.

Regardless, teach your children the important lesson that nothing on the Internet is biodegradable and that what might seem a perfectly acceptable opinion today is unlikely to remain so tomorrow.

2 Replies to “The tyranny of the many”

  1. Hi, I came here from Tim Newman’s blog. I’ve read a few of your posts and have bookmarked you for regular consumption.

    If I may ask you a favour, your site’s favicon is the same as everyone else’s running your blog software. If you go into your Settings page you’ll be able to change your favicon to something that stands out. Like mine (I’m the laziest blogger of all time and have posted about twelve articles in two years.)

    1. Thanks Michael.

      I’ll see if I’m technically savvy enough to do that.

      New blog post on its way later today, unforeseen externalities permitting.

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