What is the Overton Window?

‘Calling-out describes the act of publicly naming instances of oppressive language and behaviour. What makes calling-out toxic is the nature and performance of the act.’ 1

‘Calling-in is a proposed alternative to call-out culture that entails having a private, personal conversation with an individual who has used oppressive language or behaviour in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle out of it. Calling-in recognises that people are multi-faceted and that an instance of oppressive behaviour does not define the totality of who we are. We as humans make mistakes, and calling-in can be a powerful tool to address those mistakes and create space for real change and positive impact.’ 1

However true it may be that people are multi-faceted, in my experience of activism around race has led me to believe that the pressure to adopt ‘calling in’ culture is born of toxic white supremacy; this pressure normalises a power imbalance on behalf of the person giving offence. ‘Calling in’ fogs the issues around the damage caused, calling in firmly centres, focuses and places the onus on those who have and will feel the hurt.

It is akin to victim-blaming,

‘I’ve beaten you to a pulp, but you should not be speaking or challenging me in that way’.

Activism should be solely based on an understanding of systemic structures and the experiences of those who are ‘othered’ by the status quo.  All activism is not about the self, or A focus on the individual at the expense of systemic structures is detrimental to progress and impact. Harsh though this may seem, it’s those systemic structures that hold us all back and without the discipline to let go of personal concerns we will actually be choosing to subscribe (and promote) those structures.

If you want to be a decent human being (expect no ally cookies or medals to be awarded for this)

  1. Invite challenge.
  2. Starve your fragility by listening to the voices of those with lived experience and knowledge around systemic issues.
  3. Interrogate your epistemology
  4. Strive to be ‘better, next time’.
  5. Please for the love of God, as a person with privilege (wherever that may be located in your identity) never lecture an oppressed person about their activism.

I reiterate that, as a person in privilege, to be a decent human being we have to invite challenges and act upon them.

As a cis-hetero, able-bodied, man, I openly invite challenges, in whatever form because if I am causing the damage, I have no right to fragility. I am not a guru (a word appropriated from my culture, by the way), and believe me, I am also still learning. On my journey thus far I have learned to listen (more) and, more importantly, start with keeping my mouth shut.

So, if you find yourself being ‘called out’ publicly and it is making you feel uncomfortable, embrace that feeling, then:

  1. *Listen*
  2. Reflect
  3. Apologise
  4. Be better.
If you find yourself being 'called out' publicly and it is making you feel uncomfortable, embrace that feeling, then: *Listen* Reflect Apologise Be better. Click To Tweet

For what is worth I am ‘called out’ a lot; I am better for it. I thank all of my people (let me shout out @bristol_teacher, who I hope has never pulled punches when supporting my reflexivity). As a result, I don’t see the value in doubling down on actions that uphold systemic oppression. Why would I be resistant? Because I only made one mistake and people are vilifying me? Because I didn’t mean it? Or is it that, having made a mistake, I don’t want to admit it? I do see why many find this situation challenging but I have rarely (if ever) seen activists continue to call out people after they have reflected, even if they are the people directly impacted by careless actions and/or words.

What makes Change?


‘At the centre of this conceptual space is (1) the zone of consensus, comprising social forms regarded as very broadly supported and culturally normative. Beyond that is (2) the zone of legitimate controversy, encompassing “issues” about which it is believed that reasonable people may disagree and still remain within the societal mainstream. At the outer region is (3) the zone of deviance, comprising what is broadly rejected as marginal, nonnormative, or otherwise illegitimate.’

Hallin 1984 in Clayman 2017


(Ibid 2017)

In short, the inner two circles are what is acceptable in society and discourse, I like to think about the zone of legitimate controversy as the there are ‘two sides to every story’ zone, where the zone of deviance is commonly regarded as extremist and radical.

Zone of Consensus Some knowledge-based and some skills-based in education.
Zone of Legitimate Controversy Solely ‘Knowledge rich’ ideology is the way forward. Solely ‘progressive’ ideology is the way forward.
Zone of Deviance We should all be less intellectual.

The Overton Window


There is a congruence between the zones of conceptual space and Overton window; the latter concentrates solely on policymakers. Policymakers will work within the realm of acceptable to acceptable; however, this window will move as the definition of what is acceptable/radical/sensible begin to blur.

Our society agrees that vehemently that rights afforded through trade unionism, race and gender equality, having a weekend, sick pay, the abolition of child labour are correct. However, this was not always the case. These rights and laws were once seen as radical and extremist. This is evidence that the Overton window of what is acceptable can and has moved and extended.

Before the movement of the Overton window, no policymaker would endorse or attempt to legislate towards a radical or extreme policy.

Clayman’s 2014 describes politicians need to appeal to the centrist voter and while simultaneously appealing to a more partisan base voter (Brady et al. 2007). The centrist and partisan section on the above diagram of the Overton window would be from acceptable to acceptable.

‘The most common misconception is that lawmakers themselves are in the business of shifting the Overton window. That is absolutely false. Lawmakers [politicians] are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it’ 3

Does it beg the question are policymakers leaders or are they followers? As they follow the narrative and the parameters laid out by the window.

Does it beg the question are policymakers leaders or are they followers? As they follow the narrative and the parameters laid out by the window. Click To Tweet

Who Control the Parameters of the window?

Clayman describes the role of journalism as to 1. Ascertain the position a politician takes and 2. To judge where within the Overton window or zones of conceptual space the position falls in their exposition.

Clayman’s findings shed light on how politicians balance appeals to centrist and partisan viewers, how journalists set the boundaries of mainstream politics, and how both parties contribute to a process of legitimation that enacts and at times modifies the parameters of the socio-political mainstream. Journalists control which policies (and discourse to an extent) are acceptable and which are not.

In today’s society, do journalists hold the same power? Or has the invention of social media added a rogue element to the way we consume media? 

For Calling IN and OUT influence Policy Change.

My take on this is that people are still being abused in the streets; black people are now 9 times more likely to stopped and searched by the authorities who are supposedly there to protect them, serve longer custodial sentences, it goes on.

Do we expect all activists to expend emotional energy on convincing people to do the right thing? I recognise some of our work is completed in private, but don’t pull down those who stand publicly against injustice.

Do we expect all activists to expend emotional energy on convincing people to do the right thing? I recognise some of our work is completed in private, but don't pull down those who stand publicly against injustice. Click To Tweet

All of our actions have consequences, ‘calling in’ can be dangerous because while we mollycoddle people privately, their words and actions still continue to do damage. While this behind the scenes process occurs, we show zero solidarity with those impacted by it.

There is also a societal conundrum to consider here. Like it or not every person with a social media profile has become a journalist. The public nature of the ‘call-out’, fulfils the same role as journalists to ascertain a position and judge through exposition how legitimate that position is. Every single time this does not happen or the extremist/radical view is endorsed and the Overton window shifts as a result. Consequently, politicians and policymakers follow suit. Be aware ‘in’ or ‘out’ what we do matters.


  1. Mahan, Jennifer. Calling In Versus Calling Out Throwing Out My Activist Armchair. if when how. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
  2. Clayman, S. E. (2017) ‘The Micropolitics of Legitimacy: Political Positioning and Journalistic Scrutiny at the Boundary of the Mainstream’, Social Psychology Quarterly, 80(1), pp. 41–64. doi: 1177/0190272516667705.
  3. Robertson, Derek. “How an Obscure Conservative Theory Became the Trump Era’s Go-to Nerd Phrase”. Politico. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
  4. https://www.mackinac.org/OvertonWindow. Mackinac center for public policy. Retrieved 31 October 2019.

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