Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Does That Really Mean? Part 1: Normal

I’m often getting into trouble for asking just what people mean when they say certain things, and in many cases it seems that people don’t really know the meaning of what they’re saying or what they’re implying by saying it. The purpose of this series is to look at some of the words we use everyday and take at face value, and while we’re at it deconstruct them so we can find out what’s really being said.

I’ll start with one of the basics of sociology and expand from there. Our first target?

Normal. This has to be one of the most abused words in the English language and one of the most misunderstood, since people use it in a variety of contexts where it doesn’t belong.

The best example of this that I can think of occurred at a workshop I went to that explored the concept of bisexuality and the myths surrounding it. A major part of this workshop involved ranking yourself anonymously on the Kinsey Scale at different points in your life, and then having your survey anonymously given to another person who stood in for you on a giant version of the scale set up in the room. At the very end we each read what our survey taker defined themselves as, and in the mix of “gay” “lesbian” “bisexual” and “straight” answers there was one “normal”, which drew negative reactions from the rest of the room.

This was a clear case of someone using the word normal as a value judgment, and given that at that point most of the other participants were some variant of LGBT the negative reaction was understandable. With the rest of this person’s responses taken into account (several of which bordered on homophobic) there was a clear implication that anyone who did not consider themselves a full Kinsey 0 like this person was wrong and somehow deficient, the irony being that within this particular group this person was actually in the minority, as the participation of the LGBT group on campus meant that most of the participants were in fact clustered towards the greater numbers on the scale. The very fact that this person felt the need to call themselves normal rather than simply “heterosexual” or “straight” demonstrates just how important this concept is to our sense of identity. But as per the title of this article, what does it actually mean, and what do people mean by it? That’s what I’m trying to answer.

On a very basic level the root of the word is Norm, one of my favorite words. A norm is, simply enough:
“A standard, model, or pattern regarded as typical.”
What I love about this word right off the bat is the fact that "regarded" is in there, telling us that it’s subjective rather than a universal, unchanging concept. You can’t isolate normal and put it in a jar, and a norm doesn’t exist until someone defines it. Additionally, trying to get people to agree on what is normal for a particular thing will inevitably produce varying results.

Another thing I love is the fact that a norm by itself has no value judgment attached to it, it’s just something that exists and can be studied. I’m about to veer into Sociology 101 territory for a moment, so bear with me so we can get that part of the definition out of the way. A norm is what a group uses to police itself and its behavioral expectations, and a law can be thought of as an elevated and codified norm, but not all norms are laws. In fact, most are unwritten and unspoken, it’s just assumed you’ll know what they are and that you shouldn’t break them.

These leads us to the other aspect that defines a norm, which is that breaking one carries repercussions, be they as formal as legal action and imprisonment or as informal as a dirty look. But once again there’s no value judgment attached to either the action or the repercussion, all that makes a norm is that someone creates a standard around something and that someone might deviate from it.

So Normal, then, being the adjective form of the word, describes a something that stays within the bounds of the norm. This can be applied to people, inanimate objects, and both conscious and unconscious behaviors. To be normal is not to be good or bad, it’s just to be within the bounds of what someone set as a norm. I know I sound like a broken record as this point, but you’ll see once again that there have been no value judgments in any of these, they’re merely saying that something is or is not part of a norm. I keep stressing this because oftentimes when people use the word “normal” they are attaching a value judgment, and it’s that part of the use of the word we’re here to deconstruct.

When you use normal to apply a value judgment you’re no longer using it just to describe the norm, and the word itself becomes a way to police the edges of the acceptable and decide what belongs inside and outside of it. This is where it has the potential to become malicious, and many of the problems in our society can be traced to reactions towards people who fall outside what's seen as the norm. These situations generally go one of two ways: a person is either pushed to change their behavior so they fall inside the norm or they are rejected and made into an outsider, a process referred to as "otherization". To be abnormal is to be looked down upon and segregated, so the desire to be normal impacts just about every part of our life and the choices we make at some level, though we are almost never aware of the fact that we’re doing this.

A quick search on Amazon reveals that over 603,000 books have “normal” in their titles, and though these days many of these books are about deconstructing the idea of normal, the average layperson, like that participant in my panel, believes that being normal means to be right and good, so clearly as a society we’re a long way from understanding what it really means. I tend to not only ask what people do when faced with certain questions, but also what they don’t do, since that’s as important if not more important than what actually occurs. And since we tend to take norms at face value no one ever seems to ask who came up with those norms or why, and the process of trying to define and analyze them is a fundamental principle of sociology.

So, the next time you hear the word “normal”, take a moment to consider just what’s being implied by it, and whether it’s being used to simply describe something that’s viewed as typical, or if it has another purpose and is being used to classify people as good or bad.

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