The Dangers of Being Normal
‘Normality’ or ‘normalcy’, as a concept, is long due for the crematorium of bad ideas, alongside racism and homophobia. Indeed, it is precisely these kinds of ideas the defence of normalcy encourages and gave birth to: it is both kingmaker and mother.
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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Any defence of normalcy by definition enforces an opposition to, or even the concept of, the ‘abnormal’. But who or what is abnormal? Women – in various ‘non-feminine’ roles were and are regarded as abnormal – whether indulging in the delights of other women, equal rights, independence, a refusal to procreate or be a mother; gays were and are treated as secondary or non-persons, due to not being able to ‘procreate naturally’, going against god, and so on; people with disabilities create disgust, fear and face other kinds of social and societal stigma; different races, especially non-whites, and different nationalities were and are ostracised, belittled, ignored, hated.
But it’s captured in the degree adverb ‘too’: You’re too weak, too poor, too feminine, too masculine, too strong, too rich, too fat, too thin, too disabled: here, you’ve broken the bonds of normalcy and are letting the reality, of varying kinds of life, seep in. The assertion of normalcy creates with it a static – and therefore false – conception of what it means to be human. We’ve frozen personhood, we’ve done away with the fluidity and horrors and demands of actual life.
Defending normalcy, we treat responses and conditions as mere aberrations on the theme of human life. Yet, this theme is not a monotone: it is one of a myriad of voices harmonising and grating against the unevenness and ignorance of what life brings. To say at this point, according to these conditions, based on this race, on this sex, in this age-bracket, on this weight, on these kinds of physical properties of two legs, two perfect-working eyes, two functioning hands, this specific height, with none of these medical infirmities, with this number of children and this number of friends, earning this kind of income doing this kind of job is to treat ‘this’ as the definite article ‘the’: The age, the weight, the physical properties, the race, the sex – combine them together into the hodgepodge, mythical box of idealism and we come to the idea of normalcy. And this is what we want to defend?
But no one is the right height and weight and size and earner. Merely acknowledging biology undermines the view of ‘normalcy’. Are children, in their weakened, shortened, etc., state meant to be treated as ‘abnormal’ or as part of the fluidity of how we adult members of society should respond? We don’t expect children to grasp concepts of income, earning, politics, voting, driving, so we do not give these to or expect these from them: this doesn’t however prevent them being fed, transported, looked-after.
Why then should we consider, for example, people with disabilities as ‘abnormal’? I’ve been troubled by this concept since receiving several letters from readers based on my previous post on sex workers and their important work with people with disabilities.
I, alone, cannot get to a meeting many kilometres away in under 10 minutes. However, with vehicle transport, I can. Am I therefore abnormal for using technological aid to get me there? I don’t think anyone would say so.
Why then should we consider somebody in a wheelchair or requiring artificial limbs to be ‘abnormal’? As Martha Nussbaum has said in her beautiful book Hiding From Humanity, as soon as society begins setting in stone what constitutes ‘normal’, it helps create divides leading to ostracism of particular (minority) groups, for no good reason other than that they aren’t the majority. That is, by virtue of what appears to be majority of citizens’ attributes – especially physical – we begin creating glass divides of who is requiring ‘special’ treatment; who isn’t ‘like the rest of us’; it’s the creation of what Jenny Morris calls ‘tyrannies of perfection’.
But, as I indicated with my use of a car, we all of us require aid in some form. We all regularly make use of such aid, even from society, in the form of roads, stairs, and other items we take for granted – indeed, it’s just that this aid has bled into the background, creating what Nussbaum calls ‘fictions of normalcy’ which
block us from understanding that institutions such as staircases, visual (rather than tactile) signage, and telephones are in no sense inevitable or natural, and that they have vast consequences for people who are in wheelchairs, blind, deaf, et cetera. (P. 208)
Consider for example an everyday staircase. As Nussbaum colourfully indicates, ‘we do not find staircases built with the step levels so high that only the giants of the Brobdingnag can climb them.’ We are all of us, as I say, beyond the bounds of what constitutes normalcy. By rejecting the fluidity and varying degrees of persons, it is itself a fiction. As I indicated with the idea of children, merely this recognition should be a catalyst for rational reflection that even within lives – as opposed to between lives – there exists fluidity of circumstance: we lose our eyesight, use of limbs, hearing and so on. Even bouts of sickness require compensation: leave, medication, extra attention from loved ones, etc. Normalcy is undermined the day a ‘normal’ person is portrayed with spectacles, in other words.
Hypocrisy Creates Divides
It’s long recognised that normal is a rather useless idea. Yet, while I think most of us recognise this, we don’t recognise our hypocrisy with the stigmatisation of those who don’t fall into normalcy, such as homosexuals, transsexuals, women (still), polyamorous couples, incestuous twin brothers, sex workers, and so on. We like to think we’re beyond ‘normal’, yet the outrage fuelled by majority opinion is precisely indicative of the fiction of normalcy, the tyrannies of perfection, the engine of stasis.
We hurt the so-called abnormal in two ways: firstly, through direct stigma and undermining, through a distancing and ignoring, through overreaction and outrage. This is fuelled by the very machine that creates the unjustified conception in the first place: these people are normal, these others are not.
Secondly, we also deny parts of ourselves: none of us are without needing aid of some kind. We are all the ‘abnormals’, permanently, in our non-permanent nature due to aging and life and non-perfect bodies: we’re even potentially limbless, sightless, deaf, and so on.
What separates a person with functioning legs and a person in a wheelchair? Her inability to get to certain places is no different than if I had to face thousands of stairs, upon discovering a broken lift. We are both physically incapable of succeeding: me because I’m unfit, she because of her missing legs.
But we can consider this even more basically. What happens if there are stairs, which I can use, but nothing else for her? Thus, it is not that the person in a wheelchair has a disability “more severe” than my own: it’s that it is much harder for her due to their being no, say, ramp, lift and so on, since most people don’t use these. Once these are in place, how is she different from any other user of the building?
There are discussions to be had about severity or depth of a disability, but often these can be framed against how much society has catered to these. Without corrective lenses, I would be severely hampered – but spectacles are now as common as shoes (another technological aid). Similarly, there’s little reason all kinds of measures can’t be in place to aid fellow non-perfect beings with conditions not catered for now. We’re seeing more redress for people in wheelchairs, for example. But this kind of thinking goes further.
As I highlighted even activities, such as sexual behaviour, are put into a box called normal. Often in this blog, I’ve tried to outline why people claim “non-normal” kinds of activity – incest and so on – are wrong. But these are not: blanket assertions arise instead like “it’s wrong because it’s not normal; It’s wrong because it’s not majority”. But this has been and never will be an argument to take seriously. The danger of regarding yourself as normal, the danger even in defending normal, is that we set in stone the tyranny of majority in the form of perfection.
We know we’re not perfect – but now we must recognise that we’re also not normal.
This should aid us in recognising something being ‘out-there’, ‘peculiar’, and even ‘outrageous and offensive’, is no reason to consider it wrong. Yes, it’s not ‘normal’ in the sense of common.
But then, neither are you.
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