Friday, 11 January 2013

How do you feel about Normalcy?

For work the other day, I was in a class where the lecturer asked the students to answer the question 'What is normal?' For responses, she had them write whatever they thought of on sheets of paper (each with an image that had resulted from a Google search for 'normal'), and then she took a selection of these and put them on-screen for the whole class to see.

There were lots of obvious answers, both of a biological and a social kind. People talked about number of limbs and eyes, health and wealth, fashion and cliques. But there was something completely missing from the discussion and I was genuinely surprised that it didn't come up.

No-one, in a room that must have contained over a hundred students, most of them 18 or 19, expressed the opinion that 'normal' is an insult, or a bad thing to be.

Now, I've taken for granted for many years that 'normal' is something to react against. For me, it probably started as a way of coping with how unpopular I was in my teens (which may or may not have been my fault - even by the standards of teenagers I was a particularly unpleasant, self-absorbed and socially stupid teenager), combined with the fact that one of my closest friends discovered 'alternative culture' very early, and so I was freely exposed to a broad range of anti-normal forces.

However, as I came to the end of my time at school, the people I knew all seemed to have caught up. Very few of us managed to actually *be* non-conformists (since most non-conformism is really just conforming to some slightly less common type), but we all thought we were, and even rabid X-Factor watchers and people who held season tickets to local football grounds would claim that they viewed 'normal' as an insult whenever the topic came up.

I definitely think this is the right attitude to have to social norms (moral and legal issues notwithstanding). It just isn't true that there's such a thing as a 'normal' human being, and every time I've seen someone 'try to be normal', it's hurt them. I certainly did myself no favours in my few clumsy attempts to 'fit in'.

And pretty much everyone I know, I think, would agree (and no, it's not ironic that the one thing we can all conform on is the rejection of conformity - it's a perfectly natural logical inevitability. Stop trying to be clever ;D). Equally, I move in pretty much exclusively academic and nerdy circles, social environments which are structurally opposed to the social norm in pretty much every dimension.

So, where did this (fairly large) roomful of students who shared no such thought come from? Some of it may have been the way the question was set up, in that they were asked 'what is normal?' rather than 'what do you think about normalcy?', but the bits of discussion that I was in earshot of certainly ranged over both. The more aggressive non-conformists in the class may also have felt a little bit nervous about speaking up, too. But does that explain the total absence of a critical sentiment towards 'being normal'?

The difference is particularly interesting because the university I work for, Liverpool Hope University, specialises in taking in students from poorer backgrounds (unlike the university I study and sometimes teach at, which, like most of the top flight of British universities, is still predominantly the preserve of the middle economic classes). So there is a quite noticable class divide between the people who were in this class and the people who were and are my fellow students (and for what it's worth, the students at Hope tend to work rather harder and with rather more devotion, though that's both a potentially patronising remark and a blog for another time).

It might, then, be that my attitude to normalcy is an artefact of my background and the limited social horizons it has imposed on me. Maybe I've hung out with weirdos so long that they've become normal to me, or I've forgotten that other views exist (this is very possible). The alternative, and it's an alternative I find very appealing, in a self-exasperated sort of way, is that most people do share this attitude, but most people don't feel the same need to shout about it that those of us who are self-consciously anti-normal do.

This would mean in effect that the normal attitude to normalcy is 'Who cares what's normal?'

Here's hoping. Given what I've said about the kind of people I know, it's probably self-defeating for me to ask what your attitude to normalcy is, given that you're almost certainly either nerdy or academic in some way (let's be honest, if you've found your way to the philosophical blog of an obscure early-career fantasy author, you're probably some kind of nerd <3), but I am interested in your opinions. Do you ever long to be normal? Do you deliberately avoid things you think are normal? What does 'normal' even mean to you?

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