Over my lifetime, one concept has popped again and again to tangle things in a web of pseudo-logic. It seems to go unexamined most of the time, until it emerges as the fulcrum of issues over systemic change. Normal. We seem ever in search of Normal. To be Normal, to return to Normal, to stop deviations from Normal.
But we have a damnable time defining what that is. I mean, really, just exactly what is Normal?
Normal has changed steadily over my lifetime. And with every major realignment, a new Normal becomes established and accepted and soon enough we find ourselves contending again over that which is Not Normal. It’s understandable that some people get confused and frustrated. I keep remembering poor Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, striving to find a way to see the changes and accept them, always declaring his fidelity to Tradition.
It doesn’t help that we all have a different idea about what Normal is. Not necessarily wildly divergent ideas, but if the topic is pursued long enough, these small variations can emerge that throw the whole notion of Common Ground into question.
What is Normal?
More to the point, why should we always try to assert a common definition as if anything else will doom us to chaos and agony?
I see two concepts of Normal in conflict. They overlap, but are not the same. The first might be something like “that which supports a common and consensual equilibrium throughout a community.” Normal, in this case, might be construed as that much-acknowledged but hard to achieve “level playing field” we hear so much about.
That it is so difficult to achieve may be due to the other concept of Normal: “that which allows me to feel secure in my expectations and opinions.”
In my teens, men with long hair were seen as violators of Normal. You could point to pictures of Wild Bill Hickock all you wanted, and Society refused to accept that boys walking around with hair to their shoulders was in any way Normal. It wasn’t done. And while it may seem trivial today (because that background concept of Normal has changed) it created an ugly atmosphere in the country. (My freshman year in high school saw the football team assault the handful of “hippies” that attended my school and forcibly cut their hair off. Of course, three years later, some of those with the longest hair in the school were on the varsity team.)
Why should these things conflict? Well, that should not be difficult to understand. If you have an idea of what is Normal and then the community around you exhibits changes that cause you ill-ease, requires you to question your assumptions, or even, at some point, shift your politics or moral assessment, what we see most often is an aggressive denial of those changes, and at some point a reliance on a presumed set of standards called Normal.
“That’s not Normal!”
We can go down the list of things in the last 60 years that were opposed because they were not Normal. Civil Rights. Homosexuality. Women’s Equality. Opposition to these things often enlisted language and philosophies that seemed more involved and sophisticated than merely saying they were not Normal, but when you dig down you can see that, for many people, these were violations of personal desires to feel secure in their expectations and opinions. We know this because over time, all of this has become accepted—become Normal—for most of us. It turned out none of these things were actually dangerous to the community.
Opposing them was.
The perversity of these conflicting concepts of Normal can be seen in cases of those who engage in behaviors which they personally pursue but then hide because they realize this may not be Normal. The awareness of community standards drives the given behavior into hiding. Sometimes these behaviors are inimical, both personally and publicly. But attempting to be seen as Normal overrides even the logic of coming to terms with the deviation.
How to tell the difference? How, in other words, to “normalize” something and how to know when such normalization is not acceptable?
Start with a simple question: does this hurt anyone? (One should include one’s self in that question, but for practical purposes, look beyond.)
Help for certain problems is avoided by the overwhelming urge to appear Normal.
But we don’t actually have a good idea of what that really is. To each their own only goes so far, because the community had to be considered.
So perhaps a definition of Normal might be: “that which allows for a mutuality of conditions sustaining both community equilibrium and personal fulfillment in private choices.”
Ah, but what might this mean in practice?
Obviously, this would entail a recognition that personal concepts of Normal have limits. As would community concepts. (There was a time unwed pregnant girls were put in “homes” so they wouldn’t be seen out in public. A girl in my high school sued the public school system when it tried to kick her out for being pregnant—and won. Of course, many people expressed outrage that a pregnant girl would be attending classes with all of us “innocent” students. But this was what passed for Normal back then. And it changed.) So obviously some notion of harm would have to be better codified on both sides.
It could be worked out. We do it anyway, but it’s such a messy process that often leaves casualties behind. Those chains of Normal are loud when they get rattled. I think it’s an innocuous idea that becomes pernicious too easily. We’ve traditionally been too willing to censure, incarcerate, punish things that in the end only make certain people uncomfortable. Their efforts to suppress behaviors that ruffle their delicate sensibilities (or their power base) harm far more than not.
Just now we’re seeing that conflict play out over competing notions of Normal. Not to make light of it, but really, the outraged sensitivities of one group trying to reassert a standard of Normal that was revealed as inadequate decades ago is causing enormous harm.
Normal is a monster. I’ve had that cudgel waved over my head a good deal of my life, for one thing or another, most of it relatively innocuous in itself. “Why don’t you be normal?” And ultimately, the question had little meaning, because all it meant was “why don’t you be like the rest of us and not make us feel uncomfortable around you?” Well, in the end, their discomfort was not my problem, though they tried to lay it on me. And this was over things like hobbies or aesthetic preferences (my love of science fiction at one time). What might it have been like if the issues had been more life-threatening?
I would welcome a community-wide reassessment of what constitutes Normal. We have a heuristic appreciation of it and in some instances it works well enough, but given that the only constant is change, we need to have a clearer idea about it.
Fascism, after all, is the ultimate insistence by one group on everyone else about what is Normal. We’ve seen what that costs.