Shifting the Overton Window in South Africa

The ‘Overton window’ has become a buzzword among many liberty-loving colleagues and allies during the past few years. The term, which was first coined by Joseph Overton in the 1990s, refers to the window of discourse that includes the range of ideas that are acceptable to discuss for the general public.

Overton considered how it is possible to bring unpopular and nonconventional ideas into the mainstream. He argued that the most effective way to do this is not to advance small incremental changes to an already-accepted idea, but to rather advocate for what would be considered as a totally unthinkable idea.

For obvious reasons, this term and theory has gained prominence in our free speech-limiting time, when some ideas are considered to be impermissible due to the personal characteristics of the person speaking or writing. At the same time, many people use it to explain certain political events such as the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and to a certain extent, expropriation without compensation, which many people predicted to be highly unlikely to happen yet, as we all know, the rest has become history.

It is easy to see why the Overton window is such an appealing concept to many. It is an easy way to simplify the complex and unexplainable in modern politics.

On our sunny South African shores, the Overton window is as relevant as ever. Due to the enormous influence of American and European culture and politics in our society, we have become increasingly-polarised and fractured. Even within particular groups, certain deep fragments exist. In South Africa, many of the left have adopted the culturally-Marxist views that have plagued American university campuses in recent years and many on the right have adopted the nationalist and isolationist views of Trump’s Republican Party.

Due to this fragmentation and our current political climate, I would argue that the main issue with applying the Overton window to South African politics (and possibly other countries as well) is that there exist two distinct sets of acceptable windows of discourse.

Most of us who frequent Twitter, read comment sections and interact with a variety of people, realise that often, despite even the best attempts at logical persuasion, basic concepts, that were quite mainstream and the liberal ideas of yesteryear, have fallen out of a specific set of the Overton window. A couple of years ago it would have been considerably easier to state in mainstream media that the merits of an argument are not determined or based on the characteristics of the person making the argument. In intersectional circles, this is no longer tolerable. The Overton window no longer only refers to the particulars of a policy or argument being acceptable or not, but also to the person making the particular contention.

Many commentators and public figures have frequently lambasted the fact that the Overton window in our modern politics has narrowed to an extreme extent. The American commentator, Ben Shapiro, often cites the Overton window in his writings and his podcast and he is, of course, correct. The Overton window of the leftist mainstream media in the United States has closed considerably.

The same is true in South Africa. The debate surrounding property expropriation without compensation, and I say ‘property’ and not merely ‘land’, has emphasised that there are certain opinions that are plainly unacceptable to our mainstream media. AfriForum’s publication of the list of farms that are due to be expropriated serves as the perfect example.  

My main contention is, however, that the Overton window has not shifted and narrowed, but that it has undergone a complete split. There seems to exist two wholly different clear-cut windows of discourse. The one is what the Marxist and leftist supporters view as being acceptable, and the other what more libertarian and conservative circles deem to be admissible.

If we look at both these sets, the Marxist and leftist window of discourse acceptability is considerably narrower than its counterpart, which in all honesty makes complete sense.

It does not take a tenured professor to point out that although libertarians, conservatives and the old branch of liberals have many disagreements, their fundamental agreement of free speech, property rights and varying degrees of free markets ensures that their mutual Overton window is larger than the Marxist one. Free speech that is advocated and applied will always lead to a wider Overton window.

That is why we see this unlikely alliance of individuals, organisations and communities that have banded together in the fight against totalitarianism in South Africa. That is why you will find people in the same alliance that completely disagree on steel tariffs, immigration and some social issues but that these disagreements are tolerable within these circles.

In the end those that tolerate more views and are able to critically engage on these broad differences will be able to attract the most support.

Daniël Eloff

Daniël is a Senior Staff Writer at the Rational Standard. He is a co-founder of AGENDA a South African non-profit aimed at enabling and empowering young South Africans with debating and public speaking skills and currently works at Hurter Spies Inc, which specialises in public interest and civil rights litigation, while completing his LLM degree in constitutional- and cyber law. He is also a co-host of the Afrikaans podcast Podlitiek.

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