Have you heard of the Overton Window? If not please don't go and google it straight away. I have never written an entry for a blog before and I feel I would have failed if you had left already. Follow me through. Please. I am going to have to talk about Brexit, football and the BBC which means I have to refer to a particular geographical location to make my argument. Not exactly my fault. The world is parcelled out. We are where we are.
I had a conversation with a friend a couple of days ago. He was very fired up because his team – England – was in the final of the European Cup. I said I wasn't into all the nationalist hype surrounding the event and he wasn't too impressed. 'It's just a game,' he told me, 'sure, I condemn all the racism too but after the dreadful year we have had it is bringing us together and giving us something to smile about'.
Now, as some of you reading this will know, I love a good game of football. But that is what I love: football, the beautiful game. This last month I have probably watched about 20 or 30 matches (sad or what?) involving France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal and teams considered more lowly: Denmark, Switzerland, Wales, Czech Republic... and I never care who wins. Everyone has a geographical location. Can't be avoided. We are where we are. Maybe I already said that but I am trying to say football is football and it doesn't have to involve nationalistic willie waving.
But within the Overton Window it does. Perhaps Brexit – more overtly political in many folks view – might help here. You see when we had the Brexit debate it split into the two, very familiar here, camps of Remainers and Brexiteers. These two groups were presented as binary opposites. Completely irreconcilable and with nothing in common. Except they had a lot in common. Both sides were nationalist. Both sides had to argue in favour of, 'what is best for the country'. Both had to argue in favour of, 'bringing the country together'. To question that position was politically unsayable. Even people considered progressive and radical toed the line.
The Overton Window is more complicated than I am suggesting. The basic idea is that politicians don't formulate policy. Instead the window defines what is a spectrum of possibility for government policy. Hence, whether talking about football or economic trade, to move policy away from a nationalist framework is not politically possible. Sure the window moves and a different scene appears through it and that can happen quite quickly and radically (1) But usually the system controls the parameters via the media.
This is the role of the BBC where I am. Personally I hardly ever watch it. But once every year or so I tune in for half an hour out of curiosity. I did so last night. It is fascinating to simply feel the pull of it all and your mind shutting down the possibilities which are not part of the narrative. It wasn't long before I started to hear ideas about football, 'bringing the country together' after, 'such a difficult year'. It was clear where my mate's ideas were coming from.
It has been a difficult year (and it ain't over yet). Many of us have been pushed more and more online whether we like it or not. And we have been building our own windows, freeing spaces, identifying areas of autonomy. These projects are dependent on their own windows. (They are also dependent on their own semiotics but that will be for my second blog). In some ways an Overton Window is, indeed, a kind of echo chamber. Perhaps along the lines of, 'your blinkered approach to reality is an echo chamber my enlightened view is an Overton Window'. There will come times when the windows clash. When the Squadron 421 arrived in Galicia the local press were focussed on the presence of a non-binary person. When Greenham Common was an issue here, back in the 80s, the media focussed on whether the women involved were failing their husbands by being away from the home. The nature of the mainstream agenda is always present. It's actually seen as quite subtle by those on the receiving end. Chomsky explains it like this:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of debate.
So, to my mind, the question arises: do we engage with the system and try to influence the range of acceptable debate (consider the success of the Yellow Vest movement in France) or do we seek to define our own areas of debate (our notion of freeing space?). I don't know the answer. I wonder what you think.
(1) Brexit is a case in point. For a long time the Overton Window stipulated that the UK would remain a member of the EU. It was just a question of getting special dispensation in certain areas. The in a move to appease members of his party David Cameron shifted the window by calling for an in/out referendum