Who gets to decide what’s normal?

whatisnormalI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the broad American social struggle of the past 60-odd years, about what ties the whole messy package together. I’ve been thinking about how for the vast majority of human history, men have ruled the roost, but only men of a certain socio-economic standing — something that has varied from culture to culture (much as the ethnicity, religion, and geographical seat of these men has varied), but has always translated to “power.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how, in this country, in this time, when white, Christian men of a certain socio-economic standing (and heteronormative identity) complain that something is being ripped from their hands, that order hangs in the balance, they’re right.

They’re right, because ever since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement (or, in fact, ever since abolition and universal suffrage, but more comprehensively since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement), more and more people have been chipping away — tchink, tchink, tchink — at that order, and the central American discourse has become about who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior.

Like everything else in human history, there’s no straight trajectory, if only because the Human Venn Diagram is too messy. Black men are men; white women are white; rich Asian Americans are rich; Christians with handicaps are Christians; and every one of them is something else besides.

But if we look at the arc of American social and political upheaval since about 1955, that’s what it comes down to: Who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior?

Within those questions are, of course, many other questions (not least, of course: Where does your right to help shape our discourse impinge on mine? And: What are the words with which we may reasonably hold that discourse?), and every individual and community struggle is unique. I’m not trying to draw unwarranted parallels, or erase diversity of experience — it just strikes me that when history looks back in 100, 200 years, that’s what people will see: A massive upheaval of norms and mores, from all corners and all comers, a mighty tussle, often with individuals and communities tumbling over and on top of each other and each other’s needs and rights as we all continue to chip away  — tchink, tchink, tchink — at what was once Normal.

Seeing this arc, seeing a unifying question that goes beyond the rather imprecise metrics of “equality” and “perfecting our union,” helps me also to grasp what we in social justice circles so clumsily call “intersectionality” — because really, if in my struggle to achieve the space to contribute to the social compact and determine its parameters, I leave others behind, what have I accomplished? My struggle to achieve, say, the right to decide my own body’s future is entirely of a piece — is wrapped in the same garment of destiny — as that of a black man to wear a hoodie without suspicion, and a trans* woman to live as her most authentic self, and a Muslim in a wheelchair to both wear her hijab and have access to her classes.

What we’ve been saying for the last six decades, with more and more people listening as the years fly and crawl by, is that all of this belongs to all of us. We all get to say what society is and does. We all get to set and then move the boundaries of what’s ok. We are — all of us, even (often) the straight, white dudes — rethinking and reshaping the social compact itself.

This strikes me as a fundamentally American thing to do — wasn’t Independence the breaking of one compact to build something new? Isn’t our very Idea rooted in an ever-expanding circle of rights and interconnected responsibilities? Our system is flawed, positively riddled with imperfections, but it’s structured to allow us to continuously fix those flaws. It’s fundamentally American to do so.

Maybe this isn’t a particularly new idea. Many people have probably said and written similar things, and I’m late to the understanding. But this has been a fascinating notion for me to consider, and, ultimately, a tremendously hopeful one. This is our conversation, and we’re changing the rules — right now. Together. All of us.



  1. Reblogged this on Amanda's Words / starfire8me and commented:
    F-IN A!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. “Normal.” “Traditional.” “Biblical.”

    Our society is trapped by words such as these, into believing that there is a singular blueprint for human society, and it belongs along one line, one path, and deviations from that are “abnormal” or “non-traditional” or “against the will of God.” These are used as justifications for prejudice, bigotry, and hatred, for stripping some of rights, for holding others as “paragons of virtue.”

    The idea of a norm is a statistical affectation, that data points can be reduced to a set of measurements that show how far any one point deviates from a “normalized” curve. While this works very well in the realm of dry, static numbers, it has no business leaking out into the world of humanity. We are not immobile, unchanging points; we are free to express, to think, to love, to move, and we cannot be nailed to one point on a graph.

    If normal has any significance, it is to the individual, not the greater whole of human society. There is the set of conditions, expectations, and beliefs you hold, and that may be considered your “normal,” but those conditions, expectations, and beliefs, even if shared to some degree by others, does not mean they are equivalent.

    When you boil it right down, Jefferson did not get it right: all men are not created equal, in the sense that we come from the womb into the same world with the same absolute set of rights. We each come into the same world that obeys the same physical laws, but beyond that, we are at the mercy of the social, political, economic, and familial environment. As we see even today, those “inalienable rights” each of us is supposed to have are all too subject to the caprice of a segment of the population bent on denying them.

    I may consider what happens to me “normal.” I may consider what I think “normal.” I cannot, however, expect to expand my “normality” beyond my sphere, save where I find others who believe it fits in with their “normality.” Even so, we would eventually encounter those who do not share our view of “normality.” Where that is the case, it generates friction, and societal friction invariably brings about conflict.

    I feel that, in the end, organized human society is an attempt to create a framework of realistic and mutually beneficial agreements that boils down to being those that everyone finds the least objectionable. Realistically, what the Founding Fathers started, and what we continue to do today, is subject democracy to the crucible of humanity, attempting to burn away the impurities of the long, dark past. Even if this social alchemy continues to be successful, there will be those who will react badly to it, because it forsakes their view of the world. We can never hope to convert them, only outlast them.

  3. This is excellent Em. I shared on all of my social networks. Keep writing the good write. 🙂