An Analysis of the Term 'Normal,' according to Michael Warner and Mary Douglas
"Normal is not something to aspire to, it's something to get away from."
"First, the categories need to be distinguished. Norm is a broad concept, quite different from law or power. To resist or critique law, rule, authority, or power is not the same as to resist norms. In fact, doing so presupposes or implies an opposing norm. There is also a tendency to conflate ethical, practical, and social norms, which might be different in kind and valence. And normalization is something else altogether: a phenomenon characteristic of modern, mass-mediated societyÃ¢ÂÂ¦. [N]ormalization results from the way modern society is organized around distributional norms that are silently understood as evaluative norms. Just because something is statistically normal doesn't mean it should be normative, but that's the way much modern culture works."
In his book, The Trouble With Normal, Warner questions the very definition of the word 'normal.'
He observes that "[n]early everyone, it seems, wants to be normal" (53). Simultaneously, though, people also seek individuality, as long as it is of the normal kind, and given a choice between being labeled as normal or as an individual, most would choose the former. So what is normal? Warner recognizes a widespread acceptance of normalcy as being something to aspire to, and he blames this on statistics.
[P]eople didn't sweat much over being normal until the spread of statistics in the nineteenth century. Now they are surrounded by numbers that tell them what normal is: census figures, market demographics, opinion polls, social science studies, psychological surveys, clinical tests, sales figures, trends, the 'mainstream,' the current generation, the common man, the man on the street, the 'heartland of America,' etcetera. Under the
conditions of mass culture, they are constantly bombarded by images of statistical populations and their norms, continually invited to make implicit comparison between themselves and the mass of other bodies (53-54).
He realizes that the form of statistical information convinces readers that they are normal; it allows for evaluation "that makes people who belong to the statistical majority feel superior to those who do not" (54). This raises the question for Warner of why anyone would want to be normal. "If normal just means within a common statistical range, then there is no reason to be normal or not. By that standard, we might say that it is normal to have health problems, bad breath, and outstanding debt" (54). It would seem, at this point, that Warner would most likely agree with Foster's statement. However, he goes on to explore the impossibility of ever achieving normalcy. "[T]o be fully normal is, strictly speaking, impossible. Everyone deviates from the norm in some way. Even if one belongs to the statistical majority in age group, race, height, weight, frequency of orgasm, gender of sexual partners, and annual income, then simply by virtue of this unlikely combination of normalcies one's profile would already depart from the norm" (54=55).
For Warner, being normal or abnormal is not a decision to be made. According to this philosophy, we cannot choose to stray from normalcy. We already do stray from normalcy, every single one of us. I am reminded of a class exercise I did in fifth grade during which we were given a box of crayons and asked to classify them into as many different groupd as we could think of. Most groups consisted of grouping the colors, while some creative students grouped the crayons by length or how much they personally liked each color. This was when the teacher pointed out that every single crayon should be in its own group, for even if you classified down to brown crayons with dull tips, perhaps one of them had a tiny rip in the paper while the other did not. Looking at the world from this perspective, Warner believes the classification of
human beings to be impossible. Eventually, we would all belong to our own group anyway. It is extremely rare for a person to fit every statistically established social norm. And those that do create a group of people defined by a new norm, and so on and so forth. Warner would most likely contest both parts of Foster's argument. "Normal is not something to aspire to:" Warner believes this act to be impossible. "[I]t's something to stray away from:" the act of doing so, according to Warner, leads to the formation of new norms. And these norms will inevitably be deviated form as well, as the process endlessly repeats itself.
From what has been previously stated about the effects of statistics on how a majority of the population classifies and categorizes human beings, it is easy to agree with Mary Douglas' opinion on the structure of society. She says that
[t]he idea of a society is a powerful image. It is potent in its own right to control or to stir men to action. This image has form; it has external boundaries, margins, internal structure. Its outlines contain power to reward conformity and repulse attack. There is energy in its margins and unstructured areas. For symbols of society any human experience of structures, margins or boundaries is ready to hand (373).
To Douglas, the complexity of a societal structure in itself is an extremely large reason why people categorize, draw boundaries, set norms, etc. She would most likely argue that Foster's view of the normal is dangerous in that she even recognizes that normalcy exists, and in doing so also established the existence of abnormalcy. For Douglas, [a]ll margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of functional experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins" (374). If she were to address the idea of normalcy, Douglas would probably argue that the distinction is a product of situation and placement in time, rather than statistics. When talking about why certain bodily margins exist, she draws this conclusion:
Each culture has its own special risks and problems. To which particular bodily margins its beliefs attribute power depends on what situation the body is mirroring. It seems that our deepest fears and desires take expression with a kind of witty aptness. To understand body pollution we should try to argue back from the known dangers of society to the known selection of bodily themes and try to argue what appositeness is there (374).
Given this, Douglas would most likely analyze our human desire to be "normal" as a product of our culture. According to this way of thinking, what is considered normal to us today is so because of past associations and the history that the situation around the word reflects. For example, should one analyze the "abnormalcy" of identifying as a homosexual, they would need to look at the world surrounding homosexual identity. One might argue that homosexuality is not normal because heterosexuality is the only sexual identity documented consistently throughout history. This can be traced back through the development of mankind all the way to, what the majority of the world's population (Christians) believe to be, the beginning of time and God's written law, or intention for the world he had created (for man and woman to complement one another). For Douglas, statistics would only exist in this analysis when admitting that norms are based on the beliefs and values of the majority.
Douglas, Mary. "External Boundaries," Purity and Danger: An Analysis oof Concepts of
Pollution and Taboo. New York and Washington: Frederick Praeger, 1966.
Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. USA:
The Free Press, 1999.
Warner, Michael. "Queer World Making: Annamarie Jagose Interviews Michael Warner."
Genders Online Journal 48 (2008).