Chocolate or normal?

The board in the café showed that ice cream was available for dessert.

‘What flavour?’ I asked the young guy behind the counter.

‘Chocolate,’ he said, ‘or normal.’

* * *

Didn’t he know that the most popular ice cream is ‘vanilla’? Or was something else going on here?

I play with this for a moment, thinking about what happened to vanilla when it was transformed into ‘normal’ by this guy. Let’s call him … Jack.

How Jack might have been suggesting that vanilla/normal is the standard against which all other flavours are measured. (A gold star to you, Vanilla.) ‘Normal’ doesn’t need to be articulated any further because it is so obvious; it is presumed to be understood.

How, on the other hand, he might have meant that vanilla/normal is boring, run-of-the-mill, predictable. What is ‘normal’ is not named because it is contemptible. To give what is normal its own name would be to neutralise it; whereas it is important to flag awareness of what is contemptible.

One way or another, vanilla – once it had been described by Jack as ‘normal’ – was no longer a flavour like other flavours. It had become something else.

* * *

What is this idea of ‘normal’?

Last week, while out and about, I took a quick survey.

Respondent #1: ‘Everybody’s normal is different. We all grow up with different cultures, religions, etc. that represent our “normal”. Living in a multicultural place, your sense of normal is more fluid; you’re exposed to the idea of a range of different normals.’

Respondent #2: ‘”Normal” is other people; the ideal person.’ She paused for a second. ‘We (teenagers) don’t think of ourselves as normal; we think of ourselves as unique.’

Respondent #3: ‘Abnormal is murdering people; excessive greed. It goes beyond the range of normal need and behaviour. But one has to eat … what falls within that wide range of necessary selfishness is normal.’

Myself, I have been focusing recently on ‘normal’ as it stands against the idea of ‘difference’ – physical or other.

Such varying ideas. It’s striking how ideas about ‘normal’ link, in very specific ways, to our identities and experiences.

* * *

‘Who actually believes they’re “normal”?’ I asked a friend some months ago, thinking of the inner turmoil that so many of us seem to experience about some aspect of ourselves.

‘Some people do,’ she says, with conviction, but without explaining. She had been telling me how some of her own behaviours were perceived by her sister as being abnormal.

But who, I wonder? Perhaps all of us, sometimes.

In domestic conflict, we childishly accuse: ‘Any normal person would (remember to shut the door … refrain from wearing a T-shirt with that many holes in it … know how to listen to me properly).’

How it grates to have to negotiate in a relationship for behaviours one feels to be normal – effortless – what anyone would do – what should be second nature. As if the negotiation were a waste of time, of breath. As if normal should just happen. As if, what’s more, our own assumptions and expectations were the natural state … as if we ourselves actually lived up to them consistently.

We struggle to see ourselves clearly. We blend in to our own world; hardly see what we are. We proceed as if normal – natural – were somehow embodied within us; as if we held the key to it.

We rarely doubt that our normal exists, is a real thing, but find it hard to articulate. We say – or think – ‘normal’ when it might be more useful to say, for the sake of clarity, ‘vanilla’ – or whatever it might be.

* * *

To be precise, to speak meaningfully, to specify ‘vanilla’ rather than simply saying ‘normal’, is one thing.

Yet when we do try to articulate some kind of a ‘normal’ – especially if we are coming from the position that what we think of as ‘normal’ is also what is desirable and good, both for ourselves and other people – the result is often dogmatic. It can reduce the world to absurdities that do not reflect the plurality of human life and experience.

But in fact I wonder: is it our very diversity – and our modern awareness of that diversity – that creates our need for a term such as ‘normal’? Do we need this word as a way to signal – and to draw in – ‘our group’, whatever that might be?

* * *

Much is said and written about the increasing homogenisation of the world we live in: from the loss of languages and cultures, to the increasingly felt pressures to look and behave in certain ways. There’s an idea that there’s a sort of sameness creeping into all our lives, even afflicting the way that we think.

My father would comment sometimes that in his childhood, expectations around clothing and fashion were far less restrictive than they are now; he thought people looked more different from one another than they do now. Looking back at photos, I have to admit I can’t see what he means, but I’m prepared to believe him, at least conditionally.

But have things really changed that much? The urge to conform seems always to have been very powerful, no matter the place or time, and no matter the exceptions who appear every now and again to shake things up.

One thing that is certainly true of our time: most of us can see others – vastly more others – on a day-to-day basis than ever before, due to the ubiquity of electronic media in our lives. As well as that, more of us than ever before are gathered in cities, thus increasing our chances of coming face-to-face with others who are highly distinct from us.

This might explain how it is that, at the same time as we are forced to become aware of, and to tolerate, many more different ways of living in the world, in many parts of the world we are also becoming more broadly alike – because we are attempting both to blend in with and to live reasonably harmoniously alongside one another.

It might also be said that our attempts to live as we see others living, or as we are led to believe they are living, could be having a profound homogenising effect.

A Philosophy Talk podcast and blog on the topic ‘What is normal?’ notes that it is possible to observe how ‘the common habits and strategies that successful people use … often become social norms to which others are expected to conform.’

In other words, we watch those who (we think) are more successful than us for signs of how to get on in life. After all, we are all competing against one another for our economic survival: these are things we really need to know. And having achieved some kind of success, most of us are not willing to jettison it by stepping noticeably outside the norm we adhered to to get it.

To get on, we might hide our differences in the hope that the qualities we share with others might therefore be more apparent – as in, ‘passing for normal’. Or we might adopt the normative characteristics of others in an attempt to be taken more seriously – as in the wearing of power suits by women attempting to gain entry to the ‘halls of power’ (something I fervently hope is no longer necessary).

By contrast, as an act of political protest, we might accentuate aspects of our identity that present an overt challenge to the ‘norm’, but which assert an affiliation with another group – as in Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade.

Whichever way it goes, ‘normal’ is the pivot around which these expressions of identity slide.

Maybe ‘normal’, however we mean it, is simply an attempt (at times desperate) to locate ourselves and the people we’re connected to among all the possibilities of being.

* * *

Steve Seidman, in his article ‘Defilement and disgust: Theorizing the other’, highlights that use of the word ‘normal’ in its current sense is relatively new. Referring to Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, he notes: ‘Elias underscores the absence [in late medieval and early modern European cultures] of the medicalization of the body and its ethic of normality and hygiene’.

Normal, Seidman suggests, is an idea that has come into use as the self – and the self in relation to others – has evolved, so that the self has come to be seen as  ‘sharply differentiated’ from others. As part of that, the acceptable social self is now required to maintain a high level of emotional and bodily control; to lack this control is to be seen not only as abnormal, but as unwell.

In ‘What Is Normal?’ psychiatrist Peter Kramer examines the way in which the option of being diagnosed as simply ‘normal’ seems to be narrowing in the psychiatry field, as more and more conditions are labelled and described. However, he says: ‘As the experience of mid-century shows, we can hold two forms of normality in mind—normal as free of defect, and normal as sharing the human condition, which always includes variation and vulnerability.’ In fact, he looks to the possibility of ‘an era in which abnormality is universal and unremarkable’.

In the Philosophy Talk podcast and blog referred to earlier, John Kerry and Ken Taylor, in their discussion with Charles Scott, also link the idea of normal to the increasing medicalisation of our lives. Where medical science attempts to establish what is normal through agreed averages and descriptions of typical symptoms, etc., so that it may more effectively identify and treat problems, at the same time it has given us a way in which to characterise ourselves and others as normal or abnormal – well or unwell – that can be as damaging as it is powerful.

Beyond the medical field, as Charles Scott reflects, the value of normalcy is social cohesion, and communal recognition and predictability of standards. The downside is homogenisation and the marginalisation of those who are seen to be abnormal.

* * *

But I can’t help wondering if, in critiquing the homogenisation and conformism of our own times, we are overlooking the realities of past lives. How truly free were people of the past to be what we might now think of as ‘abnormal’ – although in the context (of course) of the values of their time and place – while also being accepted for what they were, even celebrated?

You’ll be relieved to know I can barely imagine how to even begin to answer that, but it does make me think of something I was reading recently: Hannah Arendt’s description in The Human Condition of the ancient Greek polis, the realm of which ‘was the sphere of freedom’. She describes this freedom of the polis – the political/public realm – as being reliant first of all on its members’ ‘wealth and health. To be poor or to be in ill health meant to be subject to physical necessity …’

To be free to participate fully in political life, the male citizen of ancient Greece needed therefore to have wealth and health, and in addition to have ‘mastered the necessities of sheer life, by being freed from labor and work’. Mastering the necessities of life required that he have absolute and complete rule over a household consisting of his family and his slaves, who would entirely take care of those necessities.

She says, ‘To belong to the few “equals” (homoioi) meant to be permitted to live among one’s peers; but the public realm itself, the polis, was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements himself from all others … The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.’

In a way, it sounds ideal, if rather tough … but how very far from ideal sound the lives of everyone else – the majority – the ‘unequals’. For a moment, I find myself wondering if to be abnormal in the polis – especially if one performed there with exceptional courage – might actually have been desirable.

Just a thought …

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

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