Making the Normal Abnormal

Much of progressive activism focuses on making things that seem weird, abnormal, and wrong to many people seem more ordinary, normal, and acceptable. For instance, activists have tried to show that being attracted to someone of the same gender is no different from being attracted to someone of the opposite gender, that eating vegetarian or vegan is no big deal, and that abortion is just another medical procedure that everyone should have access to.

Making the abnormal seem normal is a crucial part of activism, but so is the opposite, which is less talked about: making the normal seem abnormal.

Here is a “normal” thing in our society: a young woman walks down the street at midnight, one hand clutching her keys and the other holding her pepper spray with her finger poised on the trigger. Her heart pounds and she walks as fast as possible. Few other women are still out, but plenty of men hang around, walking freely down the street. A few of them shout sexual comments at the woman just for shits and giggles.

This is our normal. This is okay to many people. Not only do they think this is normal, but they might even advise this woman to do this whole keys/pepper spray/avoid certain streets/don’t show skin charade. They might even consider her stupid or foolish if she does not perform the charade well enough.

So what I want to do is to get people to look at this differently. I want them to see how weird, how artificial, how bizarre this actually is. I want them to imagine a sentient alien species visiting Earth and furrowing their brows (if they have brows) and wondering, “Wait, so, you divide your species in half and one half can’t walk down the block without getting harassed or threatened by the other half? And your solution to this is not for the ‘men’ to stop harassing and threatening, but for the ‘women’ to stop walking alone?!”

I want them to see how utterly fucking weird it is that one half of humanity has a socially-imposed curfew every evening because we won’t teach the other half to leave them the hell alone.

Here’s another normal thing. An 8-year-old boy likes the color pink, so he brings a pink lunchbox to school. He gets bullied mercilessly. People might agree that this is sad–the more liberal among them might even say that they wish things weren’t this way–but many will agree that responding to a little boy wearing pink by bullying him is normal, understandable, “natural.”

No. It’s not. It’s really fucking weird. Wearing or possessing something of a certain color makes you a target for abuse? And our solution to this is to teach children not to have or wear things of certain colors?

We created pink as a signifier of femininity. Girls are not born swaddled in pink blankets (and neither are boys in blue ones). This is not some all-powerful, hurricane-like force of nature that we just have to live with and plan our lives around.

But we throw our hands up and let children be abused by other children because of their aesthetic preferences.

One more example. In this country, unlike in many others, you have to pay inordinate sums of money to get an education that will allow you to have a job that you can actually support yourself and your family with (unless you’re Bill Gates, but most of us are not). And unless you are lucky to have a family with tons of money, you have to take out loans with horrible interest rates to get this education. Sometimes these loans will be 3 or 4 times what your starting salary will be. People will tell you that this is a “bad idea,” but you don’t really have much of a choice. No, being born into a rich family is not a choice.

Isn’t that kind of weird? We need people trained in all kinds of professions (not just business, finance, and engineering) in order to have a functioning society. But rather than making this training affordable to those who want it, we either discourage people from getting it or make them take out huge loans that they may default on. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and we wonder where all the good teachers and therapists and so on are.

When you start to see how abnormal many aspects of our day-to-day existence are, you realize that changing them is not optional.

People have a vested interested in seeing injustice as “normal,” not only because that frees them from the obligation to fix the injustice, but also because it spares them from the despair of realizing–really realizing, not just in the abstract, platitudinous, “yeah well life’s not fair” sort of way–that injustice exists.

Always remember that. And know that most people do not do this intentionally. Most people do not maliciously decide to treat terrible things as okay because they want others to suffer. And although intent matters when assessing an individual’s character, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to the consequences of that individual’s actions, especially not when viewed in the aggregate: many individuals making many little choices that all add up to create a society in which it’s viewed as “normal” that, for instance, a teenage girl should expect to be brutally gang-raped if she decides to hang out with some male classmates.

Whether or not anyone intended to create this society, it is nevertheless the one that we created. Debating intent diverts attention from the more important question: how do we fix it?

When someone says that rape is “just a thing that happens” or that “it’s only natural” for poor people not to be able to have healthy food and a safe home, what they’re doing is normalizing injustice. They’re constructing injustice as a regular, expected, run-of-the-mill fact of life, to be met not with anger and collective action, but with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Don’t let them.

Making the Normal Abnormal

13 thoughts on “Making the Normal Abnormal

  1. 4

    A relatively short and powerful post, like a punch in the face. Bip.

    I wonder if Elyse’s newest post at Skepchick is going to win any hearts and minds from the Slyme? It goes the opposite way to achieving impact – oppressively brutal and lengthy.

    With all the brilliant writing being done on these subjects lately, these jerks have to pop out their eyeballs to keep up their comfortable ignorance. Seriously, I want to see even one high level defection from those dudes.

  2. 5

    Hello Miri,

    would you agree with me that if we ought to combat every injustice and abuse regardless of the victim and the offender?

    In France, political correctness makes it impossible to talk about certain kind of racism and xenophobia:

    I hope you won’t censure my message and am looking forward to learning your reaction.

    Kind regards from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    1. 5.1

      would you agree with me that if we ought to combat every injustice and abuse regardless of the victim and the offender?

      Well, when a statement is as general as that, I’d have to agree, just as I’d have to agree with statements like “you should be kind to your friends” and “not having money feels bad.”

      However, I’m not going to respond to this beyond that because I consider it quite rude to go on someone’s blog post and promote your own writing about an entirely different subject, and expect the author of that blog to take the time to read and respond to it even though it’s completely off-topic.

      I do a thing semi-regularly here called “Occasional Link Roundup,” in which I post links to great stuff I’ve read recently and invite others to share their own writing in the comments. In the future, please reserve your self-promotion for those posts.

  3. 6

    I regularly find myself dealing with people who shrug off some ludicrous (usually economic, for me) thing that’s happening as ‘just the way it is,” whereupon, depending on the circumstance, I have no recourse but to either walk away, or shout very loudly “That’s not a law of goddamned nature, it’s just a social convention, and it can be changed, just by doing things differently.”

  4. 7

    You’re making a great point here. Unfortunately, pointing out that some “normal” and “natural” things really aren’t, often leads to people just accusing one of political correctness or oversensitivity.

    Also, seconding Dalillama. I hate hearing that it’s just the way it is. So what, I shouldn’t even say that it’s wrong? Or worse, it’s worth mocking that maybe I wasn’t aware of this being just the way it is, and now being surprised at the unfairness? The paternalistic tone implying that poor wittle girlie is just learning about how life works really improves the experience in these situations.

  5. 8

    I couldn’t agree more! I think claiming there are “normal” ways to do things are just as ridiculous as claiming there are “normal” people. I had a lovely teacher once who used to say that “normal” things and people belong in a museum, not in the real world. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that something is typical, prevalent, or common, providing it’s not automatically seen as the only legitimate way to do things or to be.

  6. 9

    Something about ‘normal’ is that sometimes what gets called ‘normal’ isn’t even globally normal (if such a thing existed.) Plenty of things assumed ‘normal’ in the States are anomalies (like employer sponsored health insurance) that don’t require much research to realize aren’t universal.

    Great post – things are only ever seen as ‘normal’ because there’s some incentive in normalizing it.

    On ‘how things are,’ they’ve changed so much that any ‘that’s how things are’ is a total cop-out.

  7. 10

    If humans had just thrown up their hands and said ‘that’s just the way it is’, we would still be hunter gatherers. How the hell do they think we got this far at all, imperfect as it is, except by people rejecting ‘that’s just the way it is’ and constantly redefining what is accepted as normal and abnormal.

  8. 11

    “There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that something is typical, prevalent, or common, providing it’s not automatically seen as the only legitimate way to do things or to be.”

    super awesome, succinct, will be memorizing this for possible future rebuttals 🙂

  9. 12

    Great post. There are far too many things that are “just common sense” (gender essentialism, many aspects of capitalism, all kinds of health-related shaming … it’s pretty much an endless list) when a little thought makes it clear that they are anything but.

    “There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that something is typical, prevalent, or common, providing it’s not automatically seen as the only legitimate way to do things or to be.”

    Beautifully put. I’ll go with that one too.

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