How the Unsayable Becomes the Sayable

And why we should care.

Here’s a quick list of some things that were once upon a time considered unthinkable, unsayable, or undoable:

  1. That a proudly democratic country will create a law that explicitly discriminates against its citizens.

  2. That hundreds and thousands of people can issue rape and death threats to one person—online and offline—without any fear of being shut down.

  3. That a Presidential candidate can describe Mexican immigrants as rapists while announcing his candidacy.

  4. That there will be a complete breakdown in society over what simple facts are.

  5. That it’s OK to share racist, sexist, casteist, almost pornographic content on WhatsApp groups.

There are at least half a dozen more such examples that come immediately to mind, but you get the drift. We live in a world where the worst imaginable thing you can think of has already been done or described.

It turns out there are a couple of frameworks to help us understand how the unsayable becomes the sayable. Knowing them will help us anticipate how to react to the next unspeakable thing that gets mainstreamed.

The Overton Window

Imagine a window or a pane of glass. Inside its borders are all the things we think are OK to talk about. Near the centre are ideas that are completely accepted, such as the right of all people to vote in democracies. On the fringes of the window, and outside it are ideas that are considered radical or unthinkable. The journalist Andrew Marantz, who studies right-wing movements writes:

“The outer panes of the window represent more controversial opinions; radical opinions are close to the window’s edge; outside the window are ideas that are not just unpopular but unthinkable.”

The Overton Window is named after Joseph P. Overton, who worked at a libertarian/conservative think tank in Michigan state, USA. Here’s an illustration of his concept:

As you can see, the Overton Window can move up and down, as radical or unthinkable ideas become mainstream.

How does this happen?

Although Joseph Overton developed this framework to show how think tanks can influence policy, the Overton Window was appropriated by the radical right in the US. Their goal was to make their radical and unthinkable ideas mainstream. These ideas included promoting white supremacy, antifeminism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and the right to transmit fake news.

As Marantz writes:

“They were fine with being described as controversial, even dangerous, so long as they were placed somewhere within the bounds of recognized political opinion. Their long-term goal was to shift the Overton window, or to smash it and rebuild it in their image.”


The Donut

There is a second way to think about how the unthinkable becomes reality. This is the Donut Theory of journalistic objectivity, advanced by communications Professor Daniel Hallin of UCSanDiego. Even though his theory is about objectivity, we can adapt it for our purposes.

Imagine a Donut. The hole in the middle is round, i.e., a sphere. The donut itself is another sphere. And the space around the donut is yet another sphere. All told, there are three spheres.

1. Sphere of Consensus

The hole in the donut represents the Sphere of Consensus. Ideas that are widely accepted are contained in this sphere: such as the right of every adult to vote, or the idea that men and women are equal.

2. Sphere of Legitimate Debate

This sphere is represented by the donut itself. Challenging, even controversial ideas that are seen as legitimate are represented in this sphere.

Here are some examples of topics that were in this sphere (before they moved on to the Sphere of Consensus):

  • During the time of the constitutional debates between 1947 and 1950 in India, a few members of the constituent assembly didn’t want to allow universal voting rights.

  • Before the suffragist movement’s success in several countries, women didn’t have the right to vote.

  • Black Americans didn’t completely get the right to vote in the US till they got it in 1965 (even now there are structural inequalities that prohibit their ability to vote, but that’s another matter).

Today, these three examples are no longer in the sphere of legitimate debate; they have become so widely accepted that they have moved to the sphere of consensus.

3. Sphere of Deviance

The space outside the donut is the sphere of deviance. Ideas that are radical, deviant, unthinkable or unsayable are represented in this sphere.

The idea of democracy was once in the Sphere of Deviance. Kings and queens did not believe that their subjects could one day decide whether they stayed on in office or not. Gradually, the idea moved into the Sphere of Legitimate Debate, and from there to the Sphere of Consensus.

Even today, this idea lies in different spheres in different countries. In China for example, you still can’t have an open debate about democracy. The idea is considered deviant.

As ideas change and mutate in society, what seems to be in the sphere of deviance (unaccepted, unthinkable ideas) today can move to the sphere of legitimate debate and from there, onto the centre of the donut: the sphere of consensus.

Another way of putting it is that ideas can move into the centre of the Overton Window.

Another thing. The two frameworks — the Overton Window and The Donut — account for both regressive and progressive ideas that become acceptable.


Example: Reparations

The idea that African-Americans ought to be compensated for centuries of slavery has, to my knowledge as an Indian, gained more and more credence only in recent years. At least the first I heard of this idea was in 2014, when writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published the essay The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic.

In which sphere should we place this idea of compensation? It’s not accepted widely that African-Americans ought to be compensated at all, so it’s not in the Sphere of Consensus. But Coates’ publication and subsequent movements, such as #BlackLivesMatter, have legitimized it. If at one point in time, this debate was in the Sphere of Deviance, it is today in the Sphere of Legitimate Debate.

What about reparations for Indians from the British? Or caste-based reparations in India?

The former was eloquently talked about by Shashi Tharoor in the now famous debate at the Oxford Union, and got a response Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India is not promoting this line officially however, but it remains in the Sphere of Legitimate Debate.

The idea of reparations for Dalits and Adivasis has been discussed periodically in newspaper columns and websites, but has it entered the Sphere of Legitimate Debate? I’m not yet sure. Maybe it requires the equivalent of a Ta-Nehisi Coates to make that demand. To me at least, this idea still lies in the Sphere of Deviance. I have no doubts, however, that its day will arrive. (Disclaimer: As a ‘savarna’ male I am perhaps the last person to know in which sphere this last debates lies.)


Why should we care?

History has seen a number of progressive and positive ideas that started off in the Sphere of Deviance but are now a topic of total acceptance and consensus. For example, here are three ideas that have become mainstreamed (or are in the process) around the world:

  • Equality for the LGBT community, including gay marriage and decriminalization of being gay.

  • Gun control.

  • Legalization of marijuana use in several countries.

So some previously unthinkable stuff will change things for the better, but some ideas will make (or have made) our world worse.

Today, we live in a world where even the fantasies of a deranged few can get mainstreamed, because we are all digitally connected as publishers. All they need to do is tap into our grievances, and as humans, we have a vast set of grievances that can be readily weaponized.

At a very basic level, an understanding of how the weirdest and wackiest conspiracy theories or perspectives can become mainstreamed may give us some immunity from them.

We need to learn to accept basic facts or the idea of an objective truth, without ceding the spotlight to those who see conspiracies everywhere. For regular folks like you and me, the way to do so is to keep our eyes open, and regularly update our political and cultural vocabularies, or our ‘Politics Buddhi’.

Correction: In an earlier version of this piece, I wrote that African Americans got the right to vote in 1965. The history is long and complicated, but Black American men got it in 1870 through the 15th Amendment. My thanks to Sree Sreenivasan for correcting my mistake.


Image credits: Peanuts comic strip, courtesy Giphy; Overton Window: Wikipedia; Donut Theory: H R Venkatesh


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