The world is full to the brim with limitless variety, and humans themselves have boundless diversity. But many people have some concept of what is “normal” that selects a small slice of this diversity and nothing else. In and of itself, categorizing things this way is not harmful; however, usually the concept of “normal” is accompanied by a condemnation of what is “abnormal”. And when people are pressured to be “normal” and any deviance is denigrated as “weird” or “strange”, the social ostracism and identity conflict that this can produce can bring immense psychological suffering. It hurts to be abnormal.
There are some who fashion themselves to be the “defenders of normality”. We have all seen and heard these people, because they are generally outspoken social conservatives who feel the need to defend “traditional marriage” (as if there ever were such a thing!) or heterosexuality or “traditional” gender roles. But in reality, these people are not “defenders” at all—they are on the offensive, with their explicit goal to ensure not only that their own household is “traditional”, but that everyone else’s is as well. Often their rhetoric revolves around “social decay”, as if embracing the variety that already exists out in the world will lead to the collapse of civilization and lead us to an apocalyptic state of barbarism and savagery.1
But so much ink has been spilled on these people that I fear we might soon drown in an ocean of black liquid. The truth is that there are other defenders of normality, and many of us are those people. Humans have a natural inclination (or more of an incessant need, really) to categorize things. With this frame of mind, it is easy to judge one category—usually the one we fit into—as superior or preferential. Add to this inclination the fact that humans live immersed in the norms of the society around them. These norms identify what is to be expected of social citizens and into what category they should fit. So all humans have a capacity to defend the normal. With this in mind, let me give a few examples of the ways in which regular, decent folks like you and me defend what is normal, perhaps without even realizing it.
The Distress of Disability
Some people mock or make faces of disgust at people with disabilities. Of course, decent people don’t do that. We are kind and accepting people! However, we can still defend what is normal with our pity.
Pity can be a good thing, and is entirely appropriate when unfortunate circumstances occur. For example, soon after a devastating accident, when a victim first deals with the difficulties of his or her resulting disability, pity and compassion are justified, and generally the victim needs that support. But after a person with a disability has come to terms with their situation in life, pity becomes an impediment to their personal growth. By saying, “Oh, that’s so unfortunate,” or “I don’t know how I’d ever live with such a disability,” or “You’re such a strong person for living with your condition,” you make them into a sideshow, a novelty, something other than fully human.
Those who have lived their whole life with a disability are generally no longer defined by their disability. Certainly it plays a part in their self-identity, but in their own eyes, they are more than just their amputated leg or their blindness or their heart defect.2 By pitying them, you make their disability the constant focus, the core of who they are; regardless of your good intentions, you defend the normal by making them abnormal, and you do so at the cost of their own well-being.
North America is obsessed with weight. If that isn’t the understatement of the year, I don’t know what is. But with all the health food, the dieting, the liposuction, and the exercise, this obsession comes at a price. Fat people are vilified for their weight. And not in the sense that they are generally underrepresented in advertising or the media. There is a very real sense of moralistic finger-pointing that blames fat people every time the news presents yet another story on the “obesity epidemic”.
It is understood and expected in North American culture that fat people should feel ashamed of their bodies. We give them disapproving looks when we see a large person eating a Big Mac, like fat people are not allowed to enjoy the occasional treat. For us, it’s a treat—for them, they probably eat at McDonald’s every day! Or even worse, when an obese parent is seen with their child eating hamburgers, they are automatically seen as defective parents, teaching their children terrible eating habits. My parents took my sister and me out to fast food restaurants on occasion, and they weren’t seen as bad parents for that. But the automatic assumption is that eating fast food is a regular occurrence for fat people.
I’m not trying to argue that we should all be fat. I do think there is a problem when we focus on weight loss instead of on healthy living in general, but that’s a topic for another day. And while there is generally some correlation between health and lower body weight, the issue is not straightforward. It is absolutely possible to be overweight and yet healthy, and absolutely possible to be skinny and yet terribly unhealthy. (As someone with a high metabolism that can eat terrible junk food and not gain weight, I should know.) But my argument is that there is an expectation that fat people should feel ashamed of their bodies, and be consciously working to lose weight. If they are actually comfortable with who they are, they are somehow bad human beings. This, despite the fact that we all seek to be comfortable with who we are. Such a double standard reveals the inconsistency of our social norms.
The complementary issue is that fat people should be trying to lose weight because they feel ashamed of their bodies. This is a terribly insidious defence of normality. I am a big fan of self-improvement. Nobody is perfect, and there are all ways in which we can become better, more loving, more fulfilled human beings. But setting goals for self-improvement is something that needs to be done on one’s own terms, for rational reasons. If a fat person wishes to live a healthier lifestyle because that is something that they find important, that’s great! But supporting them in that goal is very different than supporting their attempts to lose weight only because they feel sufficiently ashamed of who they currently are. Shame like this has no place in society except to defend normality. The consequence of this defence is unproductive, miserable self-loathing.
Uneasiness of Androgyny
Have you ever seen someone in a store or on the street and immediately wondered to yourself, “Was that a man or a woman?” If you didn’t get a good glimpse at the person, sometimes the urge to sneak another peek can be overwhelming. Suddenly, whatever you were thinking about at the time is forgotten, and your goal becomes the discovery of what gender that person is.
The character of Pat from the Saturday Night Live sketch is an excellent example of this in action. Years ago, I remember staying over at my cousin’s place and watching the movie It’s Pat at about 3am. The movie wasn’t that great, but we had to watch it to the end because we just had to know whether Pat was a man or a woman. Of course, they never revealed it, and we were left frustrated over the ambiguity.
But why is this urge so irresistible? Why do we have to know? What business is it of ours what gender a person is? Humans have such an obsession with categorizing things that the inability to fit someone into a convenient little box can make us uncomfortable. At drag shows, this discomfort is intentionally played upon to announce the overarching, implied message: “It doesn’t matter!”
When we make the discovery of someone’s gender of prime importance, we defend normality. We allow our discomfort with “abnormality” to affect our perceptions of a human being. But in and of itself, our own private thoughts of someone’s gender are relatively harmless; what makes us true defenders of normality is when this attitude then creeps into areas that really matter. If we defend the normal in our own minds as we sneak peeks of strangers, how do we then raise our children? How do we shape our own identity? If I experience strong discomfort at people who don’t fit neatly into a box, how urgently do you think I will make sure I myself fit into that box? This attitude can infect every other area of our lives, so that we teach our children they must conform outwardly to their appropriate gender; we start shaking our heads at men with ponytails or women in business suits, and so on. To relax and just be okay with someone who defies conventional gender norms is freedom not only for them, but also for ourselves.
I could write many more pages on other examples of defending normality: tokenizing visible minorities; continually suggesting to single people that they need to “find a good man/woman”, and suggesting to married couples that they need to have children; and so on. There’s nothing wrong with being normal, of course—clearly, many people are that way. But there is also nothing wrong with being abnormal, and even decent folks like us can fall into the trap of conveying to others that there is.
By treating people as less than human (even in subtle ways) when they don’t fit into the category of “normal”, we chip away at their own self-identity until they either conform or withdraw. Such attitudes are not helpful in a society which has such endless and wonderful variety, and such a stark choice—conform or withdraw—is a sure way to constrict the pulse of such a society. It is only by allowing individuals to exist as individuals that we are able to take advantage of the benefits that diversity brings. So stop being a defender of normality. Find ways to embrace those who don’t quite fit into the “socially acceptable” column. They’ll be better off for it, and so will you.