Lifting the Ban: The Overton Window

Despite its rising popularity, professional MMA is still illegal in several states in the US.  Part of the challenge of getting MMA legalized is changing the perception of the sport; as long as there are people who view MMA as a barbaric spectacle, there will be many obstacles to widespread acceptance.  While most efforts to change public opinion focus on education that helps to break down misconceptions about MMA, there is another approach to changing perception that is potentially worth exploring.


There is a concept in political theory called "The Overton Window."   Wikipedia describes the concept as follows:

The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Joe Overton, who developed the model. It describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

Basically, the idea is that an idea needs be acceptable before it can become popular, and it needs to be popular before it can become policy.  If you wish to make something policy, you need to alter the idea of what's acceptable by promoting the unthinkable.

To apply this theory to legalizing MMA, we first need to define the range of opinions that will define our window.  One possible way to define this spectrum  is as follows:

  1. All combat sports are immoral and should be banned.
  2. Some combat sports are acceptable, like boxing, as long as they are regulated and only professionals can participate.
  3. Some combat sports are acceptable, like boxing, and amateurs and pros should be allowed to participate.
  4. MMA is acceptable, as long as it is regulated and only professionals can participate.
  5. MMA is acceptable, and amateurs and pros should be allowed to participate.
  6. No holds barred fighting competitions should be legal, as long as the participants are willing.
  7. Street fighting should be legalized.

Certainly there are all sorts of other ways to define this, but let's use this as the basis of our discussion.

Right now, I think it's fair to say that opinions #2 - #3 are in the "window of acceptability."  Depending on where you live, #4 and #5 may also be considered acceptable. 

By Overton's logic, one way to achieve the desired perception shift is to actually promote more radical concepts, such as those espoused in views #6 and #7.  If an organization were, for example, to begin actively promoting Tyler Durden-style street fighting, it would make big news.  Many people would very likely be outraged and offended by such an unthinkable idea.   If this idea were to get enough traction in the media, you would likely see a counter-argument being made; people would begin speaking out against this unthinkable idea. 

So, what does that accomplish?  Well, by focusing people's outrage on something more outlandish, MMA becomes more tolerable.  People would begin to adopt a "well, at least they're not street fighting" attitude.  If you believe Overton, this could lead to more widespread acceptance of MMA.

Some might argue that this approach is manipulative and dishonest.  I can't say I disagree, and I'm not really sure if I would be comfortable using these tactics myself.  But the efficacy of the approach is undeniable.  (If you're unconvinced, try Googling for "Overton window" and "school vouchers" or "Overton window" and "estate tax" for some examples of how previously unthinkable ideas have been made into law.)

I'd be interested to hear any thoughts other fans might have about this idea, or other ideas to push for MMA legalization.

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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