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What shape is your Overton Window? Is it tall and narrow, or low and broad? That is, what range of ideas are you willing to tolerate in public discourse? And how high are you willing to pile the rhetoric? Joseph P Overton, who worked for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, believed the realm of political ideas wasn’t limited so much by individuals’ interests as it was by a window of public discourse, where ideas at either end of the window were considered radical, and ideas falling outside the window (too “left” or “right”, assuming limiting ideas to a one-dimensional spectrum makes sense) were considered unthinkable, hence unmentionable. This window of discourse, usually thought of in just one dimension, was named after him — the Overton Window.
I discern two dimensions to the Overton Window, though, both width and height. It takes effort to maintain a big Overton Window, whether the window is unusually broad (breadth of ideas) or unusually tall (how high do people ratchet up the rhetoric?). Mere mortals, it seems, struggle to maintain expansiveness in both dimensions. Recently, Ricochet Member @steverosenbach wrote a post asking the Ricoverse for the names of honorable pundits on the left. One often-cited name was that of Scott Alexander, who runs the blog Slate Star Codex (SSC). Truth be told, Scott is not very far left (probably one reason so many of us find him palatable); moreover, Scott is sympathetic to much of the backlash against trends in leftist thought. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Slate Star Codex, though, is that its Overton Window is panoramic.
If you have the patience to wade through SSC’s comments section on pretty much any article, what should astound you is the diversity of viewpoints in the commenters present. There are technocrats, libertarians, religious social conservatives, SJWs, the odd socialist, some neoreactionaries, some folks from the Manosphere and human biodiversity fans. David Friedman (Milton Friedman’s son) and Steve Sailer (yes, that Steve Sailer) regularly comment there. (If you’re interested in finding someone who’s really on the alt-right, but who isn’t just trolling, visiting SSC’s comments is perhaps the fastest way to find such a unicorn.) The amazing thing is that all these people are generally civil to one another. How on earth does this work?
Well, for one thing, SSC maintains a code of conduct. SSC’s code differs somewhat from our Code of Conduct (for example all expletives seem permitted by SSC’s code, but misgendering someone is not) and is in fact more subjective than our CoC, enforced at the “whim” of Scott Alexander himself. Scott will conduct “reigns of terror” if necessary to expurgate problematic commenters. The result, though, isn’t ideological narrowness, but ideological breadth — a panoramic Overton Window.
SSC has ties to the rationalist community. How rational rationalists manage to be is debatable — to outsiders they may just seem hopelessly nerdy, rather than paragons of reason. Still, they tend to share an allergy to heated rhetoric, and a skepticism of tribalism. Uncharitably, they’re skeptical of tribes because they’re nerds who struggle to fit into them, unless it’s their own tiny band of misfits. But that it’s OK to be a misfit there is one of the beauties of SSC: after all, so often what narrows the Overton Window is that people with misfit ideas are derogated as misfit people — people too contaminated by outgroupiness to hang with the cool kids, however “cool kids” is defined. Avoidance of contamination may be a moral foundation (for those into Haidt), but it’s also pretext for one of the crudest, most childish bullying excuses: outgroupers are gross ‘cuz they got cooties.
Conservatives are often outraged and disgusted. Actually, it’s hard to say whether flesh-and-blood conservatives are any more outraged than others while leading their everyday lives, but conservative rhetoric defends outrage and disgust on principle, as a moral foundation: there are some things up with which decent Americans should not put, like ending a clause with a preposition.
Heated, outraged rhetoric is by no means limited to the right. We are only so heated because they are, so they leave us with no choice, is how many conservatives feel about the matter. After all, one of the things which should disgust us as conservatives bravely willing to stand up for disgust on principle is emotional incontinence, and the emotionally incontinent include not only the unbearably sappy and precious, but also the unbearably irate. One way to resolve the paradox of our fury toward everything indecent, including emotional incontinence, is to decide fury isn’t really an emotion, at least not our own righteous fury.
At Slate Star Codex, though, fury is treated as emotional incontinence, even as a form of cooties — “the toxoplasma of rage”. If you’re more interested in rhetorically pwning your outgroup than exchanging ideas, Scott doesn’t really want to host you. One rationalist mantra is “politics is the mind killer” — if self-styled rationalists truly believed this, why would any of them run a political blog, much less such a diverse one? Sounds irrational, amirite? But consider what’s meant by “politics” in this context, “Politics [as] an extension of war by other means”:
Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy. People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional life as scientists, can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies when there’s a Blue or Green position on an issue.
Blue or Green, in this context, refers to sports fans of the Roman Empire. What matters is that Blue and Green are different teams, not if they really have differing principles. Sound familiar?
At Slate Star Codex, no-one has to pick a team. That’s curiously bloodless, even inhuman, you might think. And perhaps you’d think right. But it also keeps the rhetoric from piling too high and narrowing the Overton Window.
Many speak of broadening the Overton Window, when it seems their real goal, at least measured by what they actually achieve, is just shifting the Overton Window in their favor. Broadening the Overton Window among real humans also requires lowering it, humbling it, being willing to ratchet down the rhetoric as a sacrifice. Is that sacrifice worth it? I expect Ricochetians will disagree on that, as we do on so many things, but especially given the Ricochet mission, it’s hard not to admire Slate Star Codex’s panoramic views.Published in