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Dec 07 2011

Overton bigotry

The Overton window is a political concept that refers to the range of policy opinions which are considered acceptable by the mainstream. The window encompasses views that are seen as relatively uncontroversial, while excluding ideas that are so far out of the norm as to be politically suicidal. A key feature of the window is that it shifts over time with public opinion, and people may sometimes attempt to move the window in a certain direction. For instance, the emergence of an unthinkably outrageous proposal can make merely terrible ideas seem more palatable in comparison. In this way, what constitutes the perceived moderate center can be pulled closer to an idea that someone seeks to legitimize. By essentially lowering the bottom of the barrel, previously controversial positions might start to look like they’re not so bad.

I’ve often noticed that people appear to follow a similar model when forming their views on how much injustice is acceptable to inflict upon minorities: extreme acts of bigotry are cited in order to minimize and ignore any lesser bigotry. For example, people may dismiss the importance of gay civil rights by pointing out that black people endured slavery, lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement, systemic social inequality, and the most horrible forms of abuse. Some even go so far as to reject the notion that the pursuit of gay equality could qualify as a civil rights movement, as though the very concept of a movement for civil rights was strictly limited to black Americans.

But arguing over who’s worse off is only a distraction here, because it has no bearing on the relevant issue: the unavoidable significance of fully equal rights for everyone. People seem to be under the impression that the degree to which a group has suffered defines how important their civil rights are. By this standard, the rights of gay people are far less valid, worthy, and urgent because they were never subjected to the horrors of slavery. Any other legal and social injustices we might experience just aren’t that much of a concern, because at least we’re not being segregated and disenfranchised. The Overton window of equality has been pulled so far downward that full and equal participation in society is no longer considered to be everyone’s birthright. Instead, people seem to think that all they have to do is refrain from lynching and enslaving us, and anything beyond that would be doing us a favor.

This is an impressive display of heartlessness, with utterly repugnant implications. After all, if not enslaving people means that we can eliminate their rights at will, would disenfranchising black people be any more acceptable if they had never been subject to slavery and segregation? Of course not. Likewise, could straight white men now be treated as property simply because they’ve never experienced any such institutional abuse? Surely no one would agree with that. Everyone deserves their equal rights, regardless of whether or not they’ve suffered “enough” to satisfy the ridiculous demands of a majority.

If you’re going to protest that gay people haven’t been subject to the most extreme brand of injustice, then why would you be in favor of forcing them to endure any degree of injustice? This shouldn’t be an excuse to preserve the inequality that remains. It should be a reason to eradicate it. What kind of person would force people to experience the evils of slavery and lynching and segregation before recognizing their rights, when they could have simply chosen to abolish this inequality because it’s the right thing to do? In case you’ve forgotten, you’re not supposed to enslave people. You’re not supposed to lynch people. And you’re not supposed to deprive people of their civil rights. Shouldn’t you be glad that we’ve come this far already? So why stop now?

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Jaime

    This is a very interesting perspective. I’ve always just assumed that those who put forth such arguments were doing it in order to minimize their bigotry in their own eyes, rather than in those of society at large. I had honestly never considered the possibility that the people who make such arguments were trying to legitimize oppression in general.

  2. 2
    random redditor

    random redditor here. welcome to the /r/LGBT frontpage. awesome read, really well thought out.

    enjoy your stay at the top of the heap

  3. 3
    fester60613

    An excellent explication of the fabled slippery slope.

  4. 4
    Daisy Bellis

    It’s that whole “Jews had it the worst” debate. It’s sickening. One factor that enrages me behind this oppression is the fact that some people don’t consider gay rights to be a matter of civil rights! Of course, that stems from the debate over Homosexuality being a choice.

    Regardless, our liberties at the mercy of ‘national moral code’ is a mockery and degradation of civil justice.

    -DB

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