Not Normal

81e48716ddf4ca3d44ade161a8930d2dI’m a very recent convert to the idea of normal.

My allergy to the word has come from two separate strands. One is a trend I’ve noticed among students for at least 20 years, wherein they apply the word normal to forms they consider standard. My creative-writing students, for instance, decry John Barth’s as being “not normal” stories. My literature students ask if I want them to write a “normal” essay. I want to shake them by the shoulders and say, “There is no normal story! There is no normal essay!” Complicating this trend is students’ confusion of normal with normative, which is a term of art in philosophy and the social sciences. In philosophy, a normative statement is about how things “ought” to be, according to the one making the statement, and is far from synonymous with whether the thing referred to is standard or traditional. Social scientists speak of beliefs like family values having “normative” effects, that is, pushing behavior in the direction of societal norms, but it makes no sense to say, as some students do, that sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with your family is normative … unless you mean that it’s obligatory. (I’ll get back to this point in a minute.)

The second trend making me allergic to normal is, in theory, outdated, though recent events make it loom large again. I’m referring to the conformist notion that majority beliefs, actions, or orientations are “normal,” rendering the beliefs, actions, or orientations of the minority “abnormal.” Thus it becomes normal to be straight, abnormal to be gay, normal to be neurotypical and abnormal to be autistic, normal to be white and … you get the idea. Normal implies its opposite, and abnormal begs to be treated. If you spent your childhood, as some of us did, being instructed to “act more normal,” you may share my allergy.

Now, though, I count myself among the resistance to attempts to “normalize” the results of our presidential election. I nod my head whenever someone points out that this is not normal. Headlines, of course abound: media from Mother Jones to John Oliver to The New York Times decry the normalization of the current state of affairs. What’s odd, here, is that normalizing normally means changing something to bring it in line with whatever norms are prevalent. When we normalize relations with another country, we don’t simply call our relations with them “normal” and act as though everything’s fine. We change something about our relations, like sending diplomats to each other’s capitals. The Oxford English Dictionary’s examples refer to an 1880 “scheme for simplifying and normalizing orthography” and to a bodybuilding manual’s instruction to wait a minute “for your breathing to normalize.” On the other hand, under the definition “make normal,” it does include a New York Times note of 1864: “These attempts to normalize despotism display the impotency as well as the malignity of the Executive.”

My point here is that “normalizing” the results of this election has nothing to do with changing Donald Trump’s ambitions or attitudes to bring them more in line with the norms of our country. It has to do with whitewashing those ambitions or attitudes so as to assume they are already in line. More dangerously, normalizing may mean shifting the norms themselves, so that we are, in effect, not normalizing Trump but bringing our own ethics and mores into accordance with a very different set of standards — standards that we previously regarded as anything but normative.

Which brings me back to normative. Clearly, broad-based acceptance of the Trump Administration on the basis of the Electoral College win is having a normative effect. That is, it is moving the words and actions of other elected officials and media pundits away from blistering attacks on this bizarre ascendancy and toward the kinds of language and ritual that are the norms for presidential transitions. We even find opinion setters making normative statements, in the philosophical sense, about how the rest of us ought to be behaving — for instance, showing our respect for the office by respecting the man who is slated to occupy it. For this sort of normativity, I have no use.

Finally, as I complete my conversion to a lover of what is normal — as opposed to what has been normalized, as opposed to normative pressures — I’m ready to accept, in this instance, both the term and its antonym. Broadly speaking, in my lifetime, regardless of my approval or disapproval of the ideologies and practices of the administration in power, our government has fallen within the parameters of normality. What we’ve got coming is abnormal. I don’t know the treatment for it, but calling it “normal” is a mighty ineffective cure.

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