From the Ideal to the Normal
From Diversity to Abnormality
Plato taught that there is an ideal realm of ideas that is more real than the realm we inhabit on Earth, and that the Thingness of things is the ultimate reality of which individual things partake and against which all things can be measured.
This assertion of an abstract reality of ideal concepts became the philosophical basis for mathematics and this abstracted realm of perfection, Plato believed, is not created by human minds but discovered.
His most famous student, Aristotle is credited with being the first scientist, and he was arguably far more grounded in the material reality of the world than was his mentor, believing that the essence of things was found in the things themselves and not in some abstract realm.
Platonic idealism and Aristotelian metaphysics, epistemology and ethics held sway for more than two millennia of Western civilization. Until the 19th century, in fact, it was broadly accepted in Western thought that there existed an Ideal or Essence of humanity that, like all Platonic Ideals, existed beyond earthly life (this is the root of the heaven myth) and against which actual people could never measure up, but were always found wanting (the Fall).
Human characteristics and character existed along an infinite spectrum of variation below the Ideal, with some being more plain and some more eccentric than others. It could be said that this imperfection of humanity (as with all things) is precisely what makes it real – somewhat like the Velveteen Rabbit or the Japanese Wabi Sabi tradition of deliberate imperfection.
The Ideal vs. The Norm
Once math and statistics began to exert dominance in Western thought, the Ideal was replaced by the idea of the “norm”, average, common, or usual state of things. This created a generalized sense of “normal” and, consequently, a range of “abnormal” on the edges of the bell curve.
The effect of this shift in thought and perspective is that what had been interesting or even salutary eccentricity and diversity of human character and behavior, became at best “abnormal” (as in “abnormal psychology”) or worse: sick, diseased, crazy – and requiring the intervention of law and/or professional health specialists.
While American and European society has more recently made at least tentative moves to welcome and appreciate “cultural diversity”, its paradigm of thought and analysis is one which necessarily marginalizes anyone more than a bit outside the narrow center of “normal”, and immediately labels as “crazy” anyone or any behavior that seems to conflict with or undermine accepted standards of normality.
As with almost all such unintended and unconsidered consequences, dropping the bell curve onto human character and behavior has effectively imprisoned society within a bell jar with very little room, and precious little air, at the edges.
What is Normal?
“Normal” comes from the Latin normalis (in conformity with rule) from norma (rule, pattern, lit. “carpenter’s square”), which derives (via Etruscan) from the Greek γνώμων (gnomon; rule, “carpenter’s square”).
- c.1500, “normal” meant “typical, common”
- In the 1640s, “normal” meant “standing at a right angle”
- The modern meaning of “conforming to common standards, usual” is from 1828, but probably older
- From 1890, “normal” was a noun meaning “usual state or condition”
- In 1894, “normal” was ascribed to a “normal person or thing” rather than a state or condition
- The term “normal school” (1834) is from French école normale (1794), or a teacher’s training academy, which inculcated the society’s norms
- The city of Normal, Illinois was named in 1857 for the normal school established there
Wooden squares dating back to 1500 B.C. have been found buried in the tombs of master Egyptian builders. Roman carpenters used framing squares to build hip roofs and formidable warships. Medieval European timber framers used framing squares to lay out bents and ribbed vaults for houses and cathedrals.
The square was the quintessential carpenter’s tool for establishing a “rule” or a “norm” to the built environment. It measured and figured as well as offering a template for the all-important “right” angle. The term “right” in regard to the paradigmatic angle is borrowed from the Latin angulus rectus, with rectus meaning “upright”.
Normal = upright: honest, honorable, respectable, law-abiding, right-minded, worthy, moral, ethical, righteous, decent, scrupulous, conscientious, good, virtuous, principled…
Hence, by contrast, anything not “right” or “normal” is unworthy of civilized society.
Statistical Mean – or the Meanness of Statistics
In statistics, the normal function is the most common distribution function for independent, randomly generated variables. Its familiar bell-shaped curve is ubiquitous in statistical reports.
The graph of the normal distribution is characterized by two parameters: the mean, or average, which is the maximum of the graph and about which the graph is always symmetric; and the standard deviation, which determines the amount of dispersion away from the mean. A small standard deviation produces a steep graph, whereas a large standard deviation produces a flat graph.
While the concept of the average seems to be profoundly useful, it deceives at least as often as it informs.
Example 1: What is the average income at US Widget?
The CEO makes $100,000 per year, two managers make $50,000 each, four factory workers make $15,000 each, and two trainees make $9,000 each.
$100,000 + (2 x $50,000) + (4 x $15,000) + (2 x $9,000) = $278,000
$278,000 ÷ 9 = $30,889
Hence the average salary at US Widget is $30,889. However, only 1/3 make that much money and 2/3 make less than half that much!
Example 2: Ten people are riding on a bus in Redmond, Washington. The mean (average) income of those riders is $50,000 a year. Joe Blow gets off the bus. Bill Gates gets on. Now the mean income is around $50 million, and you could honestly say that the average income of those bus riders is 50 million bucks. But those other nine riders didn’t become millionaires just because Bill Gates got on their bus.
Example 3: If you’re lying across your kitchen table with your head in the oven and your feet in the icebox, on average you’d be quite comfortable, even if your head was burning to a crisp and your feet were frostbitten. (For this excellent example, I am indebted to my father, who taught research methods and statistics in a graduate school for Social Work, and had to make mathematical concepts simple enough for mathephobes to understand.)
To be average, or “normal”, in any context does not in any way suggest that one is well off, or healthy or happy – just run-of-the-mill.
The Standardization of Mediocrity
By shifting the philosophical and perceptual focus from the ideal to the average, we have created a culture that most values the Average Joe or Jane, the person who is least deviant from the norm, the one right in the middle of the pack – in other words, the mediocre.
Mediocre: ordinary, average, middling, middle-of-the-road, uninspired, undistinguished, indifferent, unexceptional, unexciting, unremarkable, run-of-the-mill, pedestrian, prosaic, lackluster, forgettable.
While we do tend to value celebrities, those at least somewhat exceptional people who figured out how to market their uniqueness (and often undermined their lives in the process), most deviance from the norm is considered “abnormal” or worse.
This becomes evident every time another public mass murder occurs in the US, and everyone immediately labels the perpetrator “crazy”, “insane”, “psychotic”, or “sociopathic” – even when, almost universally, there is little to no prior indication of mental illness and often not even any remarkable red flags that might have predicted the behavior.
In traditional cultures, on the other hand, such as the Native American, the Two-Spirit (transsexual), the Contrary, the Trickster, and the Shaman (typically one who is in some way deformed or odd) are among the most respected.
In the branch of physics known as mechanics, a normal force is a force exerted perpendicular to a surface, such as the weight of a person standing on the ground; or the perpendicular component of an angular force, such as the reaction force of an inclined plane to an object sitting on that incline.
Whether a block resting on a ramp will slide depends on the angle of the inclined plane, the weight of the block, the normal component of that weight which, along with the friction coefficient between the two surfaces, determines the amount of friction (or resistance to motion). If the angular component of the block’s weight is greater than the friction due to the normal component pressing it against the inclined surface, then the block will slide on its own.
In other words, in a tilted world, it is only what is normal that matters. In society, it may be more accurate to say that in a “straight” world, it is only what is normal that counts. Those whose lives are too far “tilted” out of plane with the rest of society, are considered abnormal and – unlike in physical mechanics – the more the tilt, the more friction the person experiences.
Perhaps this non-synchronicity between social rules and physical laws suggests that society is out-of-synch with the Universe, now that “normal” has become the standard, or rule, against which all must be measured.
The Urban Dictionary defines normality as:
The thing one reverts to if he’s lost all creativity, sense of humor, or individuality.
A variety of mental illness typified by symptoms such as an incapacity to differentiate oneself from others, an obsession with the maintenance of meaningless rituals provided these are also prevalent among others, and a pathological gullibility towards claims made by others with the same condition.
Sufferers often experience acute delusions, such as the belief that the present global system functions effectively.
People suffering from Normality can be extremely dangerous in large numbers, since they often maintain that only their own interests and needs, and not those of other psychological groups, are relevant in determining social policy.
Normality is currently incurable.
The normalcy bias, or normality bias, refers to a mental state people enter when facing a disaster, which causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects, resulting in the failure to adequately prepare for, or respond to, a disaster. The normalcy bias creates a cognitive dissonance that sufferers then must work to eliminate, by convincing themselves that everything will be all right, as that is the normal state of affairs. It’s those who don’t suffer from this bias who are most likely to survive a disaster (and lead others to safety).
The Perfect Storm of Normalcy
In fact, humanity (and, thanks to us, the rest of the ecosystem of the planet) is facing a disaster of unprecedented proportions – caused by an addiction to normalcy.
It has become normal to desire, acquire and hoard material objects, under the false belief (disproved by research) that it will make us happy.
It has become normal to exploit the environment, the planet and one another for private gain and the illusion of progress, while leaving wastes behind in an ever-accumulating mass – including a great number of wasted lives among the marginalized.
It has become normal to value individual freedom over community, and self-preservation over altruism (the root of America’s obsession with guns and the “free” market).
It has become normal to prefer capitalism over any other socio-politico-economic system that leans more towards social values and the common good.
The direct and unavoidable outcome of this sort of normalcy is a fast-growing global population with half the world’s people in poverty and without some of the essential elements of subsistence, such as clean water, sanitation, sufficient food and decent shelter.
The direct and unavoidable outcome of this sort of normalcy is a planetary ecology in ruins, with soil depletion and salinization, polluted surface and subsurface aquifers, depleted fisheries, oceanic dead zones and massive plastic garbage islands, species extinctions at 1,000 times the background rate, massive loss of rainforests, and irreversible global climate change.
The direct and unavoidable outcome of this sort of normalcy is mass migrations and refugees due to poverty, violence, war and climate change.
The direct and unavoidable outcome of this sort of normalcy is the stunning dulling of the human mind, the loss of human imagination, and the scarcity of real diversity and genius.
The direct and unavoidable outcome of this sort of normalcy is a world which is anything but normal, since for 99.5% of the human journey on planet Earth, we did not live in such an insane manner. Prior to our departure from the mythical Garden – the shift from gatherer/hunter to sedentary agriculturalist and the rise of cities, hierarchies, armies and epidemics – we humans lived in relative harmony with our surroundings.
There is no greater insanity than the belief that such a dramatic deviance is both normal and the way we were meant to live. And yet such an insanity is now “normal”.
This suggests that, if there is any possibility of outliving our collective insanity, we must learn to celebrate and embody creative deviance. Remember that the Ugly Duckling turned out to be a beautiful swan, while his “siblings” were nothing but a bunch of quacks.