Challenging norms

I have recently been working on a couple of projects aimed at questioning current thinking, one around addiction, another focused on animal agriculture. A similarity exists in the ideas that emerged from these; both anticipate a voice of reason winning out, were it not for the normalisation of current thinking. I think this is a theory worth dwelling on, one I liken this to paths through a forest. Most people will follow the path most well worn, because this is a logical indication that this path tracks the best route. Another path, which takes in the more beautiful scenery, may have fallen out of use. This could be for good reason, perhaps a tree had fallen and blocked the path. What if that tree has since been removed however? Then walkers are missing out on the view, simply because that is what everyone else is doing. There is great potential here for the more scenic route to become at least as well trodden, but it requires two things. Firstly, someone to investigate the path and report their findings. Secondly someone to spread the word, or signpost the path. While some of my work in recent years has been in aid of the first task, it is the second that I am interested in here.

It should be stated here that the reality is more complicated than one idea being more intuitive than another. While research has shown than humans have a consistently occurring set of values, we also have to consider what it means to have prescriptive social norms. In the world of politics, there exists an idea known as the ‘Overton Window’. The Overton Window, a term coined in homage to Joseph P. Overton, late vice-president of a political think tank, describes what is considered politically possible or reasonable at any given time, while remaining within the political mainstream. This is obviously a useful tool for a political leader; ensuring that new policies sit within this window prevents them from being labelled as extreme or absurd. The important aspect of the Overton Window to consider here though is its movability. A policy considered too radical to be popular with the public, can, by shifting the Overton Window, become mainstream, and even considered common sense.

Back in the world of advertising, one of the key findings of the UK Government’s anti-smoking campaign, when looking at international best practice, was the success of California in disabusing smokers of their beliefs about smoking. Beliefs fostered by the smoking industry. The UK campaign identified and confronted such beliefs, for example “You might as well smoke, because you’ve got as much chance as being run over by a bus, as dying from smoking.”. We find these irrational thought patterns elsewhere too, where norms have been established that defy reason. Interviewees in Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows are left sounding irrational, when prompted to talk about their meat eating choices, for example. To encourage the questioning of common sense, I suggest that we need to do more prompting.

Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” I find this not only to be a good description of, but an explanation for, the social issues that I am thinking about here. These are issues with logical and reasonable solutions, but solutions that require a shift in thinking. I believe that artists and designers are well placed to facilitate this thinking, via their ability to disrupt the established narrative, just long enough to reveal the hidden truth. I suggest, as a compliment to the Voltaire quote: Those who can make you question absurdities, can help you to prevent atrocities.

Sam Smith

Designer, coder & photographer. Works at Mint Canary & Open Knowledge.