What’s really normal in this world?

There’s seldom been so much talk about normality as in the past few weeks and months when everyday life has been completely turned upside down – practically from one day to the next – by the spreading of a novel virus called COVID 19. Is this the new normal?

But what do we actually mean by normality and who gets to decide what normal is? It’s a question that you might already have wondered about and it’s a question that is fiendishly difficult to answer. Yet because it’s of such pressing importance nowadays, it’s a question that I would like to try and address.

What’s considered as normal is subject to constant change

Science and technology work with constant norms.  The length of a metre is not up for debate nor are the measurements of weight and speed. The German Industrial Norm (DIN) ensures uniform standards for all kinds of objects. Such uniform standards are good to have because they really make our lives much easier.

It’s a different matter though when it comes to the variable parameters of normality. For instance, up to a hundred years ago it was considered normal that women in Germany had no right to vote. And even fifty years ago the law still laid down that a woman who wanted to go to work first had to seek permission from her husband. States of normality that would be unthinkable today. And in the same way things which we now accept as normal will be seen as unimaginable in twenty or fifty years’ time.

A project in India recently succeeded in bringing together people living in the same place but in different and mutually exclusive castes into a form of cooperative coexistence so that they now ask themselves why they clung so long to a belief that such a venture was impossible. They shed one normality and adapted a new normality of togetherness.

This example shows just how repressive and destructive deeply rooted culturally set collective norms can be. But it also shows that such norms are not set in stone for all eternity but can be changed – if there is motivation to set the ball rolling.

Individual normality

In an open society every one lives their life as they wish to within the bounds of set values and norms. On such a basis everyone can live their own individual normality which can be very similar to that of their neighbours or other people, but which may also significantly differ.  Normality unfolds in a context of tolerance.

The day-to-day normality of someone working in a company is very different from that of the freelance self-employed or indeed the creative artist for whom a ten hour working day or night is normal. If the normality of a working day was defined according to how the majority of people work, it would be a set 9 to 5 working day with a steady income. The working life of a creative artist or a freelance self-employed entrepreneur has never fitted in such a mould. But the people who lead such lives still consider them as normal.

The same is true of individual relationships. No matter whether somebody lives alone as a single, lives in a heterosexual or homosexual partnership, lives with or without children, lives with their own parents or in a commune – all these relationships are now accepted as normal by present-day law and conventional norms. And we should be thankful that they are. However, this was certainly not always the case.

Collective normality

In totalitarian societies a certain way of thinking and living is declared as the binding norm. Even when there might be a broad variety of individual lifestyles in the background, the foreground is still very much a façade that constrains people to displays of sameness and uniformity, and embodies the normative power of the majority which has nothing to do with the principle of majority rule that holds sway in a democratic society.

In an open society based on intelligence and the creative power of diversity, the majority never claims the right to determine how minorities should think and act. On the contrary, the majority respects the opinions of minorities so long as they both share common values. And in particular it protects minorities who need the protection afforded by a community.

A common normality is created through interpersonal relationships and specific collaborative ways of work and action. It is based on the principle that everybody is free to do whatever they please as long as they don’t impact on the freedom of other people or adversely affect them. The essential condition for establishing such a form of common shared normality is that one person’s own lifestyle cannot become the norm that everybody else has to subscribe to. In this kind of normality it’s “normal” that other people are look and dress differently from one’s self. In a country of immigration a thoughtful zone of tolerance is essential for a commonly lived, value-based normality.

History teaches us to be careful when dealing with normality

Norms are the glue that holds society together. The history of the last few centuries up to our present day shows us where it can lead when such social cohesion is misused for ideological purposes to isolate, dominate or even destroy everything that doesn’t fit in the prescribed mould. Whoever doesn’t conform to the norm is declared an enemy.

For centuries European colonialism made itself the standard for all the rest of the world, and still wouldn’t recoil from committing the vilest crimes against humanity, even when the enlightenment had long been spreading the ideals of liberty, progress, toleration and fraternity, if they served the purpose of imposing its own standards for its own advantage.

Just one hundred years ago people were still being shipped from Africa to Germany where they were put on display as abnormal exotics in a kind of human zoo. Some circus companies which are still around today earned a great deal of money from this kind of definition of what is and is not normal.

For centuries the rule of what is considered normal in this world asserted itself as the rule of white supremacy – from the attempt to exterminate the indigenous peoples of North and South America to the missionary zeal for converting the “savages” in Africa. The consequences of such self-glorification can still be felt today. The everyday normality of brutal police violence against the Afro-American population of North America has been thrown into unprecedented sharp relief over the past few weeks and has entered the consciousness of people who don’t experience it on a daily basis.  It’s a normality that needs to be tackled and changed everywhere it has taken root. “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed”, said Will Smith, one of the most famous and successful Afro-American actors of our time. What is normal must not be what is right which is why it’s important to continually challenge every kind of normality.

Who decides what’s normal?

Back in the 1950s an intelligence test was developed to answer the then topical question of what exactly intelligence was. Such a test lead to the definition that intelligence is what the intelligence test measures. Even today many people still believe this without ever enquiring who developed such tests and what kind of questions and exercises were used to establish a person’s intelligence. At the end of the test came a person’s IQ – a magical figure that claims to measure a person’s intelligence.

Fortunately so far no normality test has appeared that gives an “NQ”. But just imagine for a second that there were such a test and you instantly know in what kind of a social scenario it would be used. Each in its own manner, totalitarian systems have always defined and violently imposed their paranoid regimes in the name of normality.  Stalinism and National Socialism are two such fearful examples from the 20th century.

A glance at present-day reality in the People’s Republic of China shows how state-of-the-art digital surveillance technology is being used to monitor the public everyday behaviour of people, control it and order it within a normative value system. The state then uses the results of such assessments to exert a corrective or rewarding influence over the lives of its citizens. Given the power relationships in present-day China, such surveillance of people’s everyday lives will come to be seen as normal in the next few years. Yet normality is not intrinsically good, it can only be good when based on the values of a humane and democratic society.

Normality in a time of corona

At first glance, it seems that it was always the powerful in history who tried to determine what the majority should think and what is and is not normal, and who made it their mission to combat what they had defined as not normal. In the age of the internet we now have seen the rise of novel types of powerful people – influencers and opinion-makers, both overt and covert.  This doesn’t make things any easier. They create normalities in the minds of people that have very little to do with the way they actually lead their lives.

And now all of a sudden a virus appears and from one day to the next turns everything considered normal upside down and creates a “new normal”. What a massive intervention in our system of what we hold to be normal!

Whether and when we should leave our homes, see friends or visit our parents in a care home, whether we should shake hands or hug one another – the spread of the corona virus has brought a new normality into our everyday lives as we struggle to find answers to such questions. The experience of emotional loss we suffer as a consequence is drastic.

In the meantime the lockdown regulations have been relaxed. Even so, this does not mean that the normality we used to know just a few months ago has now returned. Yet even in these tumultuous times, at the end of the day it’s up to each and every one of us to decide what we consider as normal and good. We can all inform ourselves and know what makes sound sense even when it stands in contradiction to the normality of how we used to behave. And in doing so we also define the dimensions of our own humanity and fellow-feeling. As long as we have no vaccine against this virus, we need to take care, we need to be considerate. Anybody can infect anybody, and nobody knows whether another person is infected or not. Perhaps these times we are now living through will make us realise how important it is for each of us to decide what belongs in the tolerance zone of normality and what doesn’t. Defining the parameters of this tolerance zone for oneself is part and parcel of the new normality.

It’s good for all of us to keep our physical distance and comply with the prescription to wear a mask. These are norms whose sense is not difficult to grasp, especially as by complying with them we are actively helping to further the easing of more restrictions. What’s more, by doing so we are also learning how to set new priorities. The first priority goes to our parents, grandparents and our children. Discos, cinemas, concerts and restaurants are not unimportant but in times like these they no longer stand at the top of the list as they might have done in the old norm. And I say this as someone who used to go to the cinema at least once a week.

At some point the day will come when going to the cinema will again become part of my normality. And I’m looking forward to it like a kid looks forward to Christmas.


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