What is it that we call 'normal' in our society ?
The other day an acquaintance found it necessary to remind me that some of my tastes, preferences, priorities, ideas and opinions, are slightly outside the usual, what she called ‘everyday, normal’ range; when she noticed my face, she quickly added ‘but in a nice way’, so I forgave her instantly. Apparently, she found my enthusiasm for opera and poetry, my willingness to discuss rural life and the accompanying, lower case ’c,’ conservative attitudes robustly, and my equal unwillingness to dedicate a large part of my life to village concerns rather alarming. The fact that that doesn’t worry me seemed to disturb her even more.
She was right, of course, I can quite see that.
We think of ourselves as liberal and open-minded, we understand and feel sympathetic towards everybody and everything. We practice tolerance.
But what happens when this tolerance comes up against people who look, behave and act outside the parameters of what is generally seen as the norm, who provoke our sense of decency and custom, who are simply different from others?
Being concerned about how society sees us, how we want to be seen, is this question still relevant in today’s world, where anything goes? I remember the time when parents and teachers reminded me of what is and isn't 'done', how I should look and behave to please convention. How many of us experienced and remember the phrase "what will people think"?
Who determines what normal is, who defines normal and not normal?
Basically, the majority of people want to be seen as normal, be part of a set, avoid sticking out like a sore thumb, avoid being instantly, recognizably different. It’s comfy and safe being one of us, belonging.
There are as many ways of belonging as there are of being different.
Every parent has had cause to say “what do you think you are wearing?” Every child has, at some time, replied, “Mum, Dad, this is normal, this is what everybody wears. You wouldn’t understand”. This difference in personal taste goes on throughout life; while we stay broadly within the appropriate grouping, personal preferences matter little. We are still recognizably normal. Whatever way of life we choose, we will still fit some pigeonhole or other. We may get stared at for the way we look, be ridiculed for our opinions, what we eat, even, but either we pay little or no attention, or we conform.
But what happens when we are disabled, mentally or physically? When we bear the visible scars of impairment, when we ‘show up’ as different. When we are not 'normal' ?
We all try very hard to stay fit; consider the fitness mania. The moment we are ill, many hide away. If at all possible, we pretend that nothing is wrong; if we can’t, we feel ashamed. Why should the disabled person feel ashamed for being different, why avoid eye contact on an equal level, lower their gaze?
Considering that a huge percentage of the population will, at some time, suffer from mental illness, why is mental illness still such a taboo? Something to be ashamed of?
Being depressed, sad, disturbed, happens to most people, are we not normal when we suffer? An acquaintance admitted to a family member’s brush with the law quite cheerfully the other day, but the same person hid, for as long as she could, somebody else’s depression. This mental illness was hidden so well, that the sufferer received no help and attempted suicide.
There are still many places today where a person’s sexual orientation is cause for scandal, censure and condemnation. How appallingly hard it must be to keep such a huge part of your personality a secret. Worse, to feel trapped in the wrong body, unable to do anything about it; having to come to terms with being an outsider, a misfit, abnormal. How does this person cope in the face of Society’s disapproval?
This is where Society itself becomes abnormal. In the mass, it is normal to bay for the blood of a perceived wrong-doer, found guilty or not, there is mass hatred of countries which live to a different code from our own; in the mass, mankind is a very frightening animal indeed. But nobody says, ‘this is not normal’.
Lying politicians, companies who cheat and exploit, clerics who abuse their calling, nobody calls them abnormal. We say they should be ashamed of themselves, which they obviously are not, as we watch them, or another of their ilk, carry on. Most of the time, there is no punishment to fit the crime.
We tolerate their actions; they are wrong perhaps, even immoral, but still within the bounds of normality.
Or so we say.