The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality

A lot of folks have been asking, “How do we protect our own emotional health without normalizing what’s going on?”

They’re speaking to the tension between being horrified, terrified, and disgusted by what’s happening and what’s about to happen politically, and yet still being able to get up in the morning and go to work or do whatever it is you do and function as if life is, well, normal.

To be honest, I don’t know. And to be honest, I really feel the temptation to just assimilate this into my model of the world and go on with my life as if it’s no big deal.

Of course, doing so is dangerous because it breeds complacency. If this is normal and no big deal, why fight against it? If it’s normal for our country’s leadership to casually throw around ideas like Muslim registries and internment camps, what can be done anyway? If swastikas all over everything is just a thing that happens now, why bother?

So we must retain our capacity for horror, even as it drags on year after year and threatens to feel less and less horrifying.

On the other hand, I also know this: no living thing is meant to live with unrelenting stress. Our stress response evolved to help us escape life-threatening but temporary situations. It spurs us to action that quickly burns through our reserves of energy but is meant to get us to a place where we can safely rest.

One of the ways in which mental illness can develop is that this physiological response is fired up constantly due to trauma, abuse, adverse life events, overly stressful jobs, and so on, to the point where we never have relief. It’s not meant to work that way, and depression and anxiety result.

That sort of constant stress can also lead to physical health problems, and it’s one reason (along with healthcare disparities and so on) why marginalized people tend to have worse health outcomes. The added stress of constant racism or other forms of bigotry takes both a physical and a psychological toll.

The reason so many of us are feeling such a strong urge to just accept our new political reality and move on isn’t just because activism is hard or because we’re lazy or whatever. It’s because, unfortunately for progressive politics, that’s actually the psychologically adaptive response. You’re not a bad person or a bad activist if it feels like your brain is urging you to move on.

This isn’t to shame anyone who can’t move on. Many people aren’t anywhere near feeling “normal” about this election because of preexisting trauma, mental illness, or any number of other factors that prevent them from “getting used to it.” That can make it even harder for them to go on with their lives, but that’s not their fault.

But if you are fighting the impulse to normalize, know that you’re to some extent fighting with biology. That doesn’t make you wrong and biology right–we fight and control our instincts all the time, often for our (and others’) greater good. That just means that you shouldn’t blame yourself if it’s hard and you sometimes fail.

As I said, I’m not sure where I’m at with this myself. I’m still very much in the place I was in my previous post, and I’m still dedicated to giving myself space to move through my own feelings rather than shoving them aside for others’ sake. The thing is, if I don’t normalize at all, I’m going to burn out. And not only is that horrible for me, and for all the friends and family and partners who depend on me, and for my parents who cosigned on my $160,000 of student loans and will have to pay them if I become too depressed to work, and for my clients who depend on me to provide them with mental healthcare–it will also be ultimately bad for any sort of activism or organizing that I was supposed to be involved in, because then I won’t be doing it at all.

And if I were going to give any actual advice in this post, it would be this: be on guard for the possibility of burnout, and know that you owe it to yourself to do what you need to do to protect your own health. And the people who depend on you need you in good health, too. But more importantly, so do you.

The struggle against normalization also belies the fact that, unfortunately, what’s happening right now actually is kind of normal on a global and historical scale. It may be relatively abnormal in the United States, but many people have already lived through it. The fact that I was raised by such people might by why I’m simultaneously so triggered and so resilient–triggered because unlike them, I don’t yet have the confidence that I can survive it, but resilient because I’ve learned some of their coping skills. No matter how bad things get, my parents spend time with their loved ones, do “silly” things like watch bad crime shows to relax, invest in their work, take care of their health, and do things they enjoy. Oppressive governments are entirely normalized to them, and they survive. To some extent, they’ve passed that down to me. It’s hard for me not to feel like this is just the way of things.

That said, we don’t have to conflate normalization with acceptance. That swastikas and casual references to mass internment may be normal here right now doesn’t mean we have to let them remain normal forever. We can’t let them remain normal forever.

That means that we may have to look beyond emotional reactions to motivate our activism. If your main motivator is the anger you feel when you witness bigotry or when Trump opens his mouth (so, when you witness bigotry), you may stop acting when the anger stops coming. And for many of us, it will, because our brains can’t sustain that level of emotional response for four-plus years.

Since I’ve never really been motivated by negative emotions–for me it’s more about the satisfaction of doing something that I think is meaningful and effective–I’m not actually that concerned that I’ll stop doing things once the pain of this election outcome stops feeling so raw. Actually, I’ll probably be doing more things because I won’t be so fucking overwhelmed with despair.

And if you think about it, many of the things we fight against–racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on–have always seemed “normal” to us because we grew up steeped in them. That didn’t stop us from fighting. The threat we face now is of a different type and a different degree, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t feel both normal and unacceptable at the same time.

Something I’m going to try to do to maintain both my sanity and my outrage is to set aside times for doing political things and times where I’m going to keep political things out of my head and out of the conversation. Sometimes I’ll sit down for an hour or two to read the news and write a letter to my representative and feel angry and worked up during that time, but then I need other times where I am free to not think about that stuff at all, to not give a fuck about it. Not everyone is able to achieve that sort of compartmentalization–it’s something that comes easy to me after a lifetime of necessity–but if you can, it might help you.

So I suppose my final answer to the question I opened with is that, for the most part, you cannot maintain your mental health without doing some amount of normalizing, or whatever else it takes to gradually reduce your stress response so that you can function rather than sobbing for days on end like I did right after the election.

But it matters how you normalize–what language you use, and what you do in response. “Trump’s not that bad I guess” combined with no action is disastrous if enough people adopt it; “It is currently normal in our country to advocate mass internment and I must act against it” would be a very beneficial attitude for people to take, even though it doesn’t necessarily involve getting your blood pressure up at each mention of mass internment.

Unfortunately, the people who most need to resist their urge to accept this are the people least likely to be reading this article or worrying about normalizing horrible things to begin with. If you’re worried that this will become normal to you and you’ll stop caring, I’d predict that you probably won’t stop caring. But, of course, you know yourself best.

And again, if you cannot normalize, you don’t have to, and I hope you can find a way to be okay without it. But if you can, that’s not a personal failure; that’s your brain trying to protect you. You don’t have to let it, but you’re also allowed to put your own oxygen mask on first.


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The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality