Ideas change, and what's radical to one generation may be normal to the next.
Imagine traveling back 100 years and saying that both men and women should be able to vote. It would have been controversial—women only gained the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920. Now, of course, the idea is so completely normal that we don't even think about it. When we talk about this move from radical to normal, we can use the term "the Overton window" to sound more sophisticated and to get our point across more clearly.
Simply put, the Overton window is the range of reasonable ideas. In the center, a view is considered popular. Moving away from that, views can be sensible, then unusual, then radical, then unthinkable.
The Overton window can move quickly. For instance, the Canadian government is expected to legalize the sale and use of marijuana in October 2018. Even a few years ago, that would be considered unthinkable.
When discussing controversial topics, especially in speaking tests like the G.B.C., it can be useful to mention this principle. But be careful, not everyone knows what the Overton window is. If you use the term, it's a good idea to explain what it means. Here are a few examples:
Autonomous vehicles are very controversial, but that's only because they are new. I think they are a sensible tool, and over time, they will become popular. At the moment, most people don't trust them, but eventually, people's views will change. That's the Overton window—you know, ideas that are acceptable—and they can change quickly.
The Overton window can also move away from ideas:
I think the education system is getting worse because it's getting more expensive. People forget that in the early 1970s, in Japan and in the U.S., a lot of universities were basically free. Now the idea of free higher education seems radical. That's the Overton window—popular views change. But if good universities were free, then only the most talented students would be able to enter. It would be a fair competition.
The Overton window can be hard to predict:
Universal basic income—the idea that every citizen should get a basic salary, even for doing nothing—is a radical idea. It's definitely outside the Overton window—the set of ideas that are accepted in general. But, the window does move. I don't know, maybe in 20 years, universal basic income will be considered normal. For now, we don't have enough data to really decide if it's a good idea or not.
In speaking tests, using terms like "the Overton window" is a good way to impress assessors. It's also good for showing you know how to explain new terms in simple language. That skill will help you in your working life when you have to explain new and complex ideas to co-workers or clients.
So, if you are preparing to take a speaking test, try to use business terms. Be sure to check previous blog posts for other business concepts.
radical [adjective]—shocking and usual.
controversial [adjective]—causes controversy or disagreement.
unthinkable [adjective]—so strange that a person would not generally think of it.
higher education [noun]—education at universities or similar educational establishments, especially to degree level.