What is normal? On the changing of American social discourse.

I was reminded of this post today and decided to re-up it. Because why not?

I’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. Captain Button

     /  January 16, 2014

    The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
    – Bruce Cockburn

  2. It may not be a new idea, however, there are always new ways to say it. “Normal’ is a cycle on a washing machine, it does not apply to life as we know it.” – author unknown.

  3. Interesting post! I would even say that the civil rights movement has moved beyond just human rights into the realm of animal rights, but it’s all really on the same continuum.

  4. saramcknight

     /  January 20, 2014

    For me, if you plot all the types on a graph, the ones that grouped together and make the center I would call ‘normal’. As in you just created a normalized graph, and the center is the norm. The stuff on the edges of the center of your graph will be the extremes.

    However, if you want to talk about normal as far as people and cultures go. Nothing is normal, there’s just socially acceptable and not. Although, the internet definitely ‘change the rules’, and will probably show all us of us just how weird everybody is, and then we can stop debating what’s normal!

  5. michaelcboxall

     /  January 20, 2014

    I take my hat off to optimists.

  6. Mike@UsneakydevilU

     /  January 20, 2014

    1) Change today’s norms, then the new norms will offend; 2) groups will push to change those norms and those norms will then offend. Establishing all-inclusive norms in such a diverse society as America is impossible. In America — everybody, every group wants some, and there inlays the problem. We are a selfish people!

  7. Gratitude Connections

     /  January 20, 2014

    Well said!

  8. Reblogged this on bobarees2's Blog and commented:
    As a ‘normal’ white dude . In this instance a Canadian child of the 50’s .. its a big melting pot and normal is a now part of the day to day learning curve ..I agree with your opinion.

  9. This is our conversation. I completely agree. I wonder if we’re truly having the conversation though. As an African-American, I’ve always been saddened that we own the voice of racial injustice in America but rarely use that voice to help others seeking to establish a new normal or use their voices. We all go it alone. This needs to change and clearly that starts with us.

  10. Society has to do away with labels and categories for people, it is the only way we could see each other eye to eye as who and what we are. People. No more hierarchy or social class until then there will be no peace there will be no harmony. Check out my blog if you get the chance I write poetry about these very social issues and about the cognitive dissonance that exist within our culture.

  11. I’ve also thought about this a few times. It all comes down to the media and those who have power though, like you said. Those people dictate what is the norm by force-feeding their opinions to a generation consumed by media and technology. If it creates a buzz on the internet, media will draw it’s attention to it, and it will be recognized as “Socially Acceptable” which will then become a norm.

  12. northernmalewhite

     /  January 21, 2014

    “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”

    i think this is very much
    NOT true
    the system is set up to
    deny change
    especially for those in minorities

    that is very American though


    • A really loud part of me instinctively agrees with your statement above; a quieter part of me believes that, as much as our system(s) have been and continue to be incredibly stubborn, they can’t possibly be impossible to change…because they have changed, right? And they continue to do so. I think – and hope – that at its crux the American system allows for change but that kind of change has to come from an overwhelming shift in public opinion; there will always be marginalized voices and it’s all of our responsibilities to always be fighting to support them because who says we can’t have the fair and equal society we all profess to want? Change comes but it is always excruciating, always ugly and disheartening; and, yet, it keeps marching.

      Flux: Encountering Adulthood

  13. Normal is loving and caring for People and our Planet. Normal is standing up for and defending Human Rights wherever these rights need defending. Normal is living honest and with kindness and sharing where you can. Normal is acceptance of views different to yours. Normal is leaving your comfort zone and helping others to become as independent as you are, so they can provide for their families and give them a future. Normal is remaining a happy spirit with laughter and humor your constant companion, especially when things are as tough in the world as they are now! Normal is not forgetting to meditate in solitude daily at a regular time so your soul can recharge the batteries of your mind and body!

  14. Reblogged this on codeywoods's Blog and commented:
    This is great!

  15. I should have placed my last “normal” point first. Meditation — sitting quietly on your own and trying to calm the mind and make it quiet, is the most powerful medium to bring about change. It is not easy to achieve a quiet mind, but oh the fruits are stupendous! Just sit comfortably in lose clothes as quiet as you can. Scientists who pooh-poohed meditation but a few years ago, now agree that it not only heals the body of disease, but renews the brain. I can only say, that fighting against racism, social injustice and all other evils, the power of meditation as our only direct link to go within, is phenomenal and if you all start doing it and continue with it, things will change and for the first time in human history, people will connect as humans and not as different races. Start a meditation movement where you live and spread it all through America, but you do need to sit in meditation regularly and at the same time, preferably at the same place (when you’re home), and do it daily. When you’re tired it will energize you more than sleep. Even if initially you sit for 10-20 minutes, the peace it brings will make you become so drawn to it, that you will have little choice, because the more you sit, the more love comes and the more love you feel, the more you will want to meditate. Meditation, makes us strong but also gentle and loving and what we become, affect and break down barriers of resistance against what is right and just. Meditation has nothing to do with religion only with the inward journey of discovery we have each been given. It releases the energy of the soul, which is pure LOVE. It is not about sitting and making a petition to God, it is simply sitting quietly and listening to what comes. It is the only way we can all change the terrible wrongs in our world. I love you all, because in fact we are not strangers, but intimately connected not just to each other, but to everyone on the planet and the Universe, the Creation, that is why the power of the positive is so mighty and beyond our understanding, it can automatically change what is attempting to keep us apart and destroy us.

  16. dshah96

     /  January 21, 2014

    I love your post; it makes one think about things that would otherwise be ignored. “Normal” gives birth to stereotypes. Here are some of my thoughts on the topic: http://mybeautifullife96.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/those-ugly-indian-stereotypes/.

  17. Reblogged this on apolitical and commented:

  18. normal…what a difficult concept to try to define, as everyone’s view of normal will vary at least slightly making a true ‘normal’ impossible to achieve. Interesting thoughts though, thanks for sharing this.

  19. i work with middle schoolers…there is no normal

  20. Reblogged this on 4orce_fitness.

    • It’s a basement chritter! My goodness! : ) Hi there, friend!

      Wow, that’s incredible – I hadn’t looked at my stats in a while (because I’m mostly not posting anymore – see: https://emilylhauserinmyhead.wordpress.com/why-is-this-blog-updated-so-sporadically/) and now look! Lots of people coming to those old Jezebel posts! That’s bananas.

      Please tell all and sundry (such as you still know and have contact with) that ellaesther says Hi and sends many kisses and hugs. xoxoxo!

      • Also, I’m sorry to hear you’re not posting much anymore, yours is a voice that should be heard.

        If you are ever bored and restless, c’mon over to GT. I help mod these days, and it’s got a lot of the flavor of old Jez, and no editorial interference whatsoever. In fact, it’s entirely its own space, under the benevolent dominion of our glorious leader, Slaybelle. Serious pieces can get a lot, I mean a LOT of visibility, and unserious musings about what your cat may have done that day are always welcome as well. You have my email, or you can just go there and give a shout out, it would be a distinct honor and privilege to hook you up with a great little explicitly feminist (unlike Jez itself) community.

        Okay, ’nuff evangelizing. Peace to you, old friend.

  21. Normal is a relative term and not unlike Beauty. It’s in the eyes of the beholder.

  22. Reblogged this on timeandspace and commented:
    Normal society?

  23. Unfortunately, Civil Rights are being slowly taken away, I am in Los Angeles, the most progressive city in America, but it is ruled by white male republicans who live in Orange County.  I was discriminated on my job for disability, and to no avail, after going through the legal process I was screwed by the companies lawyers who were “friends” with the Republican judge, the people that discrimated still have their jobs but I don’t, how is that for Civil Rights?

  24. A bit challenging to join this discussion because there are so many different issues under the same roof. There has always been a norm. There will always be a norm. What we are experiencing now is really not substantially different than before, it is just that we have more information readily available. We have better social science research and, believe me, better education for a greater proportion of people thus higher expectations. For many of us, we have never had it so good BUT that is not to say we ought not to strive on demanding better. Not so long ago, country X could be a bloody mess and country Y would not have known for months, if at all. Now the actions in distant countries impact us instantly.

    Just want to make 2 more comments: If white men believe that things are being taken from them, well, it just might be true. There is a tremendous, power shift happening and it is unstoppable. Our world is changing just like it changed for the Indian, African, Persian and Chinese empires. Women had more power at some times in history. They were the owners of property and were equal in standing to men. They were dispossessed and became servants.
    I am black, male heterosexual, married, and you guessed it…….Liberal.

  25. annettsjourney

     /  January 23, 2014

    What if we change the word “normal” and make it “norm” which then gives us the option to look at the things that most people have in common which then will create a visual as to whats the norm/normal. This visual does not care about skin color, heritage, language spoken or size of a bank account. A norm should be without being affected by all of these things.

    I may be broke, overweight and have more children then others but it doesn’t make me odd. It just makes me an individual 😉 i fit no norm because the few common things every individual has only creates a “normal” for a minimal amount of people simply because we are all individuals with different believes , lifestyles, incomes, languages and mind sets… truly, uniquely individual..

    Just my 2 cents of thought 🙂 good night world

  26. annettsjourney

     /  January 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on A Truly Amazing Journey.

  27. Katherine Jean Legry

     /  January 24, 2014

    I don’t think people strive to be normal. I think they strive to be comfortable which causes a lot of disputes over entitlement.

  28. This is The Human Rights Movement

  29. Reblogged this on ShereeKrider.

  30. Reblogged this on Finding My Voice.

  31. The problem with the issue of “normal” is that even though we continuously say that there shouldn’t be anything that’s supposed to be classified as universally normal because the idea differs for every race, religion, ethnicity, and whatnot; it never happens. We, as a society, always create standards for what we call “normal”. We can’t help it. We always end up creating these standards and being “enslaved” by such standards because we sometimes can’t keep up and the rest of the society judges us (and we end up feeling bad). To some extent, it’s like a vicious thing.

  32. Good to know I wasn’t the only one thinking that last night. 🙂

  33. As a dear friend of mine says: “Normal is an opinion.” Which means that the concept of ‘normal varies from one place to another. For example: In some countries, it’s normal to consume insects. While in others, it’s deemed abnormal and unsanitary.

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