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Pied Piper: how to make acceptable what is not (Matrix Life #4)

In the broad panorama of society and ideas, there are concepts and phenomena that can move from taboo to acceptance, influencing public perception. The pandemic, lockdowns and the inoculation of a mandatory drug in the name of an unclear “collective interest” are some recent examples of impositions that would have been unacceptable until a few years ago.

Overton Theory is a concept that offers a perspective on the variety of political or social ideas that are considered acceptable or permissible in a given society or cultural context. The theory is named after its creator, Joseph P. Overton, and was formulated as a tool for understanding the changing landscape of public opinion over time.

In his studies, Overton tried to explain the mechanisms of persuasion and manipulation of the masses, in particular how an idea can be transformed from completely unacceptable to society to peacefully accepted and finally legalized.

Advertising and marketing experts know these refined techniques well and are increasingly being applied on a global scale by economic and political think tanks to guide the way of thinking and inclinations of public opinion.

All this is happening today more than ever. It is no coincidence that Italy is in 58th place in the ranking of countries in which the press is most corrupt. Communication (newspapers, television and radio) is in the hands of very few editorial groups which belong to the most economically prominent families in the country. Families with “their hands in the dough” in billion-dollar businesses who direct their communication in the direction most convenient for them. The other communication, the so-called “independent” one, is instead subsidized by international foundations and NGOs supported with billions of dollars by magnates and lords of high finance who, as is well understandable, dictate the editorial line to be followed on blogs, bloggettini, social pages created specifically to guide collective opinion.

Issues such as same-sex marriage, or euthanasia, have simply gone through the entire “technological” process of transformation from “unacceptable” for society to “legalization”.

Or do you seriously think that the current economic crisis is the result of “chance” or a “mistake” in evaluation? It is in this way that radically new socioeconomic conditions (neoliberalism) have been imposed during recent years. Increasingly higher taxes, privatizations (such as that of water), schools and healthcare at third world levels (actually no, they are better there now…), salaries that no longer guarantee decent incomes and so on… so many changes that if they had been applied at once, they would have caused a revolution, but instead, gradually, they were accepted by society. “It’s the crisis..” I hear myself reply every day. After all, television also says it, so it will certainly be true.

After all, it is the typical pattern of dictatorships. In fact, one wonders, often in hindsight, how entire populations, not only and not always as a result of violent pressure, could at a certain point find themselves all thinking in the exact same way and submissively sharing lifestyles that were previously not even imaginable, to find themselves finally locked in a prison cave, as in the fairy tale of the Pied Piper. As happened with the racial laws or the gas chambers…

Yet it happened and happens. Indeed, in the age of the internet and artificial intelligence – which was just in its infancy in Overton’s time – new boundless horizons have opened up, where scenarios worthy of the dystopian novels of Orwell and Benson seem to materialise, dominated by invisible big brothers and masters of world.


Overton was not a moralist, nor a staunch defender of non-negotiable principles on the frontiers of the struggle against ethical relativism. Not even he can be included among the proponents of “libertarian” theses according to which, since there is no natural law, everything is granted to the individual with respect to himself and everything can become lawful. Overton simply studies the path and stages through which every idea, however absurd and bizarre, can find its own “window” of opportunity. Any idea, if skillfully and progressively channeled into the circuit of the media and public opinion, can become part of the mainstream, that is, of widespread and dominant thought. Behaviors that were unacceptable yesterday can be considered normal today, tomorrow they will be encouraged and the day after tomorrow they will become the rule, all without apparent force.

According to Overton, this progression is marked by a precise sequence which can be summarized in the following phases:

1 Unthinkable It is the moment in which the “window” opens. The idea and the associated behaviors are unpresentable, arouse general revulsion, and are the subject of a ban. But we’re starting to talk about it… and, without anyone realizing it, we’re talking about it more and more. The tom tam has started and the idea is ready for the next step.

2 Ban, but with some exceptions At this point the debate opens. The “window” remains confined to the field of impermissible transgressions. However, one cannot generalize. In some cases it is necessary to consider the motivations and the idea, however extreme, radical and inappropriate it may find space, at least at the level of provocation.

3 Acceptable “I would never do it, but why stop others from doing it?” Even with the necessary distinctions, the “window” enters the sphere of the socially relevant. Experts in various capacities take to the field in television salons. Public opinion suspends judgment and moves towards “softer” apparently neutral positions.

4 Reasonable At this point the idea has already almost completely lost its initial subversive impact. “There’s nothing wrong”. It is more than understandable, normal, absolutely normal… indeed necessary, “we must create the conditions so that…”

5 Widespread The “window”, which has reached a new stage, gathers growing political consensus and at the same time can increase political consensus. It now represents a widely shared common feeling, which is reflected in popular culture (testimonials, singers, actors, television programs, etc.)

6 Legal The idea is officially implemented into state law. The objective is achieved.


The “Overton Window” is neither progressive nor reactionary. The scheme works the same whether inputs come from the right, center or left.

Some time ago the Russian director Nikita Mihalkov, inspired by the Overton Window, hypothesized the movements of the “window” on an idea now considered totally extreme: that of cannibalism. Unacceptable to most, even horrifying. Having moved on to the second stage, the narrative will imperceptibly change: calling eaters of human flesh “cannibals” is a simplification, it would be better to speak of “anthropophages”. In some cases the phenomenon, widespread since ancient times and rooted in some cultures, finds explanation in long periods of famine and perhaps also in a genetic predisposition.

If a pressure group or a lobby manages to move the “window” forward, we will have an almost edifying portrait of the previous “cannibals”. In the debates some scholars will begin to call them “anthropophiles” (lovers of the human race). This eating habit should not be criminalized – it will be said – it is a possible and ultimately natural option, without prejudice to health and hygiene precautions, provided that it does not cause permanent damage to third parties and that they consent. And so on…


To stay on topic, Noam Chomsky, a contemporary anarchist philosopher, had already expressed the so-called “boiled frog principle” in sociological terms, taking inspiration from the results of an old nineteenth-century scientific experiment.

If you throw a frog into a container of boiling water, the amphibian makes a lightning leap as soon as it touches the water and almost always manages to come out alive. If you put it in cold water and heat the container very slowly until it boils, the frog ends up boiled without showing any sign of reaction and without trying to get out.

“If we look at what has been happening in our society for a few decades – claims Noam Chomsky – we realize that we are undergoing a slow drift to which we get used. A lot of things, which would have horrified us 20, 30 or 40 years ago, have little by little become banal, sweetened and today they disturb us only slightly or leave the majority of people decidedly indifferent. In the name of progress and science, the worst attacks on individual freedoms, on the dignity of the person, on the integrity of nature, on the beauty and happiness of living, are carried out slowly and inexorably with the constant complicity of the ignorant or naive victims.” .

Just like the “boiled frog”, cooked to perfection, as it calmly wallowed in its increasingly warm water.

translated from: www.informarezzo.com

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