Sunday, September 28, 2014
Truth and Meaning: Normal
Normal. I am hard pressed to think of a word I dislike more in the English language. Whatever definition one uses, I believe the word creates confusion and prevents us from engaging in useful and productive dialogue.
For instance, one may say that a society is "normal," because it functions by the laws or norms that it has established. Should we consider normal the fact that nearly 50 million people in the richest country in the world live in poverty? Should we consider normal that there are as many guns as people in this country — and we have the gun death rates to back it up? Should it ever be normal that most of our elected officials could not pass the simplest tests on women's anatomy, the environment, or our national banking system?
One may also say that something is normal if it is the "usual" state or condition. But tens of millions of Americans have untreated physical and mental illnesses. For them, the "usual" state consists of pain and anxiety, disability and depression. Tens of millions of people of color in America are "usually" treated as inferior by so-called white people. Should that situation ever be accepted as normal? On the average, 430 young people injure themselves and 13 succeed in committing suicide every day. How could a society ever consider such a "usual" state to be normal?
We routinely say that someone is "normal" if they are free from illness or sickness. Well, if that is the case, then there are no normal people on the face of the earth. We learn more each day about the nature of physical and mental disease, about neuroscience and addiction, about the impact of stereotypes on our levels of stress, and about the long-term impacts of trauma and abuse. Normal health does not exist and we delude ourselves believing that it does.
The word "normal" always carries with it an inherent stigma. When a teacher calls Johnny a normal student, the implication is that he does not really excel at anything but fits some arbitrary average. He may be the next Rembrandt or Albert Einstein, but we might never know because he is dyslexic. When friends call Katrina a normal-looking girl, the implication is that she is not beautiful. She may be the next Amelia Earhart or Sally Ride, but we might never know because she suffers from bulimia. And when we say that the Smiths are a normal family, we imply that the Smiths are heterosexual, have children, and pursue goals that match those of their neighbors. We don't notice the bruises on Mrs. Smith's arms, or the way the children flinch from the slightest touch. And the "abnormal" Joneses next door may be an amazing gay couple who could revitalize the neighborhood, but they just got evicted from their apartment and fired from their jobs for being gay.
"Normal" should be an aspiration — not the average or worse yet, the least common denominator. Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of the United States not bombing some other country in the name of democracy and freedom? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one gay teenager being beaten and bullied, and not one woman assaulted or raped? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one single instance of wanton police brutality against unarmed and innocent civilians? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of every person in the world being fed, clothed, sheltered, safe, and happy?
Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and our leaders insist that those aspirations are currently beyond our reach. So, in the meantime, I will revel in being abnormal. Because the only way we can make those aspiration real is if we all excel in whatever makes us not normal — that is what makes us who we are.