Dangerous Ideas

Commentary, Culture Wars, Gerry Bowler

You have opinions. I know you do. You have opinions about immigration, gun crime, people who let their cats run loose, and the prospect of a return of major league baseball to Montreal. You have thought deep thoughts about aboriginals, levels of taxation, transsexuality, and the state of the roads in your part of town.

And I know something else: among those opinions are some you are afraid to speak out loud in public. You are fully aware that, should you express some of your ideas to your neighbour or your employer or online, these opinions could cost you your job, or friendships, or end in your reputation being smeared across Twitter with your name attached to a lot of words ending in “-phobe”.

Scandinavian languages even have a word for the range of ideas a citizen is allowed to express – they call it the “åsiktskorridor”, the opinion corridor. Should you dare to stray outside this zone, you will be treated as if you were not a decent person. If a political party does overcome social stigma and runs on these ideas and, even more astonishingly, wins an increasing amount of support from the populace, other parties will refuse to consider them as coalition partners.

The “Overton Window” is the term used in North America to describe the spot on the spectrum of opinion where ideas are “acceptable” or “popular”. Outside that frame they are “radical” or worst of all “unthinkable”. That window, of course, moves over time. Ideas that were once preposterous or dangerous are now regarded as politically orthodox and taught in schools. Beliefs that were once the bedrock of society are now regarded as so horrible they can only be whispered in the dark.

Too narrow a range of public opinion makes for a weak democracy and ill-thought-out policies. If we are allowed only to mouth slogans that are this moment’s socially-approved line, we surrender decision making to activists who shout the loudest or who have the ear of the media. Most of us think we have better things to do than to blockade pipelines, gather in mobs to prevent opponents from speaking, or engage in online shaming campaigns. Politicians who are unchallenged by new ideas or radical proposals need never move from the safety of the herd.

We can neither be true to ourselves or useful as citizens if we allow our voices to be silenced. Online bullies, “experts” in the pay of special-interest groups, semi-educated journalists, and those trumpeting the latest trend in public opinion need to be engaged, not ignored or kowtowed to.

If you have an opinion, speak it out loud. Form a circle to discuss or promote it. Tell your cabinet minister, MP, or MLA what you think so that they not the prisoners of their civil service advisers. Read more widely. Support your side of the argument by paying for your online content.

This is where think tanks (such as the Frontier Centre for Public Policy for which I work) come in. They provide fresh research and novel proposals from the left, the right, and the middle. Their job is to move the Overton Window by presenting governments and voters with ideas that might be unthinkable today but which tomorrow might fuel an economic revival, or save higher education, or solve a long-standing social dilemma. Support one of them.

Just don’t keep quiet.