“From Norma to Normalization,” the first audio post for A Future Worth Thinking About, is now available for public consumption.
I reference The Cosby Show, in here, and, recently, I’ve been feeling kind of… mlehh about it. As in, not regret, precisely, but just a general grossness. The point I use the reference to make still stands, mind you. I just wish I’d used a different example.
At some point, in the next few days, I’ll transcribe the audio so those who need or would like to can read it.
[Edited June 7, 2020, 1030pm EDT: Transcript is available below the cut. Just Five years late.]
Hi there, everybody, Damien here. This is my first audio installment for A Future Worth Thinking About, and today we’re going to be talking about normalization.
This is the first time I’ve ever done like a “me talking to nobody but pretending to talk to an audience” kind of podcast thing, so, bear with me if it gets a little wonky.
“Normalization” is a word I’m going to end up using a lot—or if not the word itself then the concept and the ideas behind the concept is something that’s going to come up a lot in the course of this project. It’s a sociological theory that was first developed by Michel Foucault, and it refers to the process by which some idea becomes seen as primary or normal throughout the site.
Foucault was kind of a cynical guy, so he saw it primarily as a means of social control. The idea that the “perfect” way for somebody to hold a gun and fire in the context of the military, the “perfect” way for somebody to march down the street, the “perfect” way for somebody to be a member of a particular subset of society or society, in general, was then taken by that group and described in particular individual detail, and then talk to people who are supposed to be members of that group, police officers to soldiers, children in school, people in med school, all of these people, all of these groups, all of us have these extraordinarily rigidly defined roles that come from no true exemplar. They are…imaginary. The ideas themselves are constructed out of nothing. And then kind of refined and distilled down to this… Essence.
I guess I shouldn’t say constructed out of “nothing.” They are, in a sense, constructed out of the examples that we all have, of those things. So, you see a lot of soldiers, you see a lot of police officers, you see a lot of doctors, and the idea of normalization, for Foucault, is that you then take all the “best practices,” the “best” elements of those, and to then rigidly prescribe them, and say,” if you want to be a good doctor, you will perform these best practices, and if you don’t perform these best practices,” the flipside goes, “then you are a bad doctor.”
“If you don’t perform these best practices, you’re a bad soldier.”
“If you don’t stand right, you don’t talk correctly, you don’t engage the world properly… then you’re not Normal.”
This is the idea behind normalization: the idea that what “is normal” is constructed by society, but it’s done in such a way that it’s not seen as constructed. We think about what’s “normal” in terms of what’s there all the time, we think about what’s “normal” in terms of what’s “good.” We think about what’s “normal” in terms of what is “just the way of things.”
Normalization, for Foucault, was an attempt to highlight this process, was an attempt to shine a spotlight on the fact that we make these kinds of assumptions about what normal is—that we prescribe these rigid norms—without ever having seen someone be that perfect. We’ve never seen a perfect soldier. We’ve never seen a perfect doctor. We’ve never seen a perfect student. We’ve never seen a perfect member of society. We have seen people who display, more and less, the characteristics that we want to see replicated throughout society. We’ve seen people display, more or less, the attributes that we want to say, our “perfect” society, our “perfect” subset, our “perfect” culture, should have… but we’ve never actually met anyone who’s perfect.
There’s this strange dichotomy between what is “normal” and what is “right.” There’s this unthinking connection between “this is what more people do, and so it must be good.” And this is the idea that simply because it is “natural,” it must be “right.” Often, all of us subscribe to it in some way, shape or form, this idea that at some point in our lives, we see those people who are “normal,” those people who are in the majority, well, and we think to ourselves, “they must be doing something right. There are more of them than there are of me; so, what am I doing wrong? If I am not ‘normal,’ I must be, therefore, ‘bad.'”
“Normal” doesn’t mean “good.”
“Abnormal” doesn’t mean “bad.”
Normal means normal. It comes from a Latin word, “norm.” From it we get “normal,” we get “normalized,” we get “normative.” These are all words for “measuring stick.” They are words for “what more things are like.” A norm is not necessarily good. The normal rules—those things which are normal in our world—are not necessarily better than those things which are abnormal. It’s contextual. “Abnormal” simply means, “different from normal.” It’s not the same as what most things like this are like.
Abnormal can be bad. If you have an abnormal CAT scan, that’s a bad thing; if you have an abnormal tendency towards violence, that can definitely be a bad thing; if you have an abnormal ratio of bad cholesterol in your system: These are bad things. But abnormal is not necessarily going to be a bad thing. Abnormal could be…just different. Abnormal could just be “not normal.”
For Foucault, the idea of normalization was, again, one that was supposed to be about highlighting systems of control. He used it to talk to us about how it is we go about unconsciously replicating these rigid control systems throughout our lives. We make the ideal into something to strive for, without ever highlighting for ourselves the idea that it is an ideal. We turn this concept, this nebulous perfection, into something that we think of as attainable and true. And if we don’t attain it, if we do not realize it, then we have somehow failed. And if we fail to even strive for it, then we’re even worse off than if we tried and didn’t quite make it. For Foucault, the idea here is not that there is some normal out there, that there is some “true” guide, but that we make these guides up, we create these guides, but then we tell ourselves that they have always been thus; that they have always existed as they have been.
We back up this idea of normalcy with this threat of control, this disciplinary action; that is, “if you’re not normal, then you are out of line. If you’re not normal, then you are bad.” Again, there is no necessary badness here, there is no necessary “evil” in abnormality. It’s contextual, it is dependent upon the situation. If we are willing to seek out that which works in context and which does not work in context, then, for Foucault, the idea becomes that we can have something more robust than mere normalcy. We can have something less punishment-based than the threat that stands behind, “Well, you better be normal or else.” We can have a recognition of what it is that allows individuals to be individuals, and allow societies to be made up out of groups of individuals working together, combining in their attributes, to make something even better than they themselves are.
“Better” being of course, a subjective term (not one necessarily that Foucault himself would have used) but, in this sense, I mean better just in terms of more adaptable, more capable, less rigid.
I keep using the word “rigid.” I keep pointing towards the word “rigid” because that’s what this is, that’s what norms are. Norms are rigid. Norms are rulers—they are literally rulers. A Latin norm was a ruler as we would think about it. A measuring stick. They are rigid because they are supposed to be rigid. For their purposes or their uses. They are supposed to be guidelines; they are supposed to draw us in a particular direction, and point us the way.
However. A norm is not, in and of itself, the end all be all of how we get to where we are supposed to be. A norm points us in a way, it shows us roughly what it’s supposed to do. But, as we come to think about what’s “normal”— as we come to think about what’s more or less acceptable—we think—we can see—that the norm, the rule, can be deviated from. That there are times when deviations from the rule don’t harm us and in fact may help us. When the rule is… less than beneficial. When the rule harms us.
There are many times throughout history when that which has been the norm has been… detrimental, to the continuation of not just our own lives, not just individual lives, but to society; to humanity. Historical movements such as eugenics, which on its surface seems like it’s for the “good” of people. “We want to make people better. We want to make people healthier, we want to make people generally less prone to disease, and the elements, and we want to make the best possible person in the world.”
But eugenics is a system that removes choice. Eugenics is a system that takes our… Well, whatever amount of freedom we may or may not have, and that’s a question for a later conversation, but it takes our perception of our freedom. Our ability to say, “this part of my life is mine. These decisions about what I am, are mine. And I will determine them as I see fit so long as they don’t harm anyone.”
And [eugenics] says rigidly, narrowly, “well harm comes from deviation. Harm comes from the kinds of choices that you make. Harm comes from letting subhuman types breed. Harm comes from letting those who we deem subhuman”— that is those with “inferior intellects” (Note my scare quotes around “Inferior” “Intellects”—”those who have brain damage, those who have a predilection towards weak hearts, those who have a predilection towards congenital diseases, those who have a predilection towards diabetes, pancreatitis, cancer, these people cause harm to society, they cause harm to the human species as a whole; breed them out. Whether they want it or not. Prevent them from breeding. Sterilize them.”
Forced sterilization! This has happened. This is not a horror story, in the sense of “a fantasy that never came to be,” this is stuff that we’ve done. We’ve sterilized them. Human beings have forced the sterilization of other human beings whom they deemed to be “subhuman;” to be “a detriment to the gene pool.”
How dare we.
But at times, previous… these thoughts were “normal.” These thoughts were… the vast majority of thoughts. We think: “normalization; we are pushing ourselves towards something in line with each other, towards order, towards an understandable set of rules. But that’s not just what normalization is. Normalization, as we have seen, can be insidious, can be dangerous, can be harmful. For Foucault, it pretty much always was. Even the most benign aspects of normalization Foucault saw as a wresting of control from processes of our own understanding and placing them into the unconscious operations of those with power, over those without power.
But there are aspects of normalization that can be beneficial. There are aspects of normalization that can be… pleasant. That can help our society become something… better. Think about The Cosby Show.
The Cosby Show was one of the first times in televisual history that we could see, there on screen, an African American family who were doctors, who were lawyers, who were rich. An African American family who had family interactions that were dissimilar, in many ways, to the kinds of interactions that we would see elsewhere on TV. They weren’t the same kind of interactions as you would see on All in the Family. They weren’t the same kind of interaction, as you would see in The Brady Bunch.
But that was part of the point.
They were similar enough that you could see, “here is a family with five kids trying to put one of them through college, and two of them through college. Then a third one through college.” The Cosby Show lasted for nine years, so we saw several different evolutions of the children, in The Cosby Show; the ups and downs of a father and a mother, a husband and wife: a family, trying to relate to each other.
But it wasn’t completely sanitized. It wasn’t presented in such a way as to say, “Oh no, African American families are literally just like yours!” They made a point of the differences. They made a point of highlighting the African American experience, in the early 80s, though the early 90’s. And by seeing this on television, every week, for years upon years, we’re given a window into something a little bit… different. But similar enough that we can say,”Yeah, I get that. Yeah, I know what that’s like. Yeah, I understand that.”
And African American families are given a window into something… like themselves. We’re able to say, “That’s what my family’s like. That’s how my family talks to each other. These are the kinds of problems in our neighborhoods that we have to think about. These are the kinds of problems in our schools, that my family has to deal with.”
And it gave the West, America in specific, an opportunity to normalize perception of what an African American, upper middle class family could look like. What many upper middle class African American families across the country did look like. These ideas that many people, especially in the 80s, never could possibly conceive. That “this is what an African American family could be? This is what a Black family could be like, with each other? None of these kids is in a gang, none of these kids are on drugs, none of these kids are, y’know, runnin’ in the streets. I thought that’s what black America was!” In the 80s, that was the picture of Black America; it was crack and it was guns and it was gangs, and it was, later on, AIDS. But The Cosby Show gave a window into something different than that. And it helped give society the vocabulary to talk about something other than that. It gave them the toolkit to conceptualize a different kind of African American experience.
This is the other side of normalization.
Normalization comes when something that we have this concept of, this idealized, archetypal form of, then flows out into the world and gives us a way to talk about something that we couldn’t put words to previously gives us the tools to discuss these ideas that we never before had the ability to say. The process of normalization isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself. It is often subverted towards unpleasant ends. And at its worst, it is in fact a system of control. But when we turn towards it, and we make use of it, when we consciously recognize the process of normalization, we see that it has the potential to help society understand itself better, to become a better version of itself.
So what does this have to do with this project?
Other than a much broader process of making the world a better place that “A Future Worth Thinking About” really (arrogantly) implies, the idea of normalization can also be seen and is often discussed in the field of technology, specifically medical technology, assistive technologies. How technology gets integrated into a hospital setting, how it gets integrated into a primary care setting, the idea of how we make the use of a technology, the use of a new idea, the use of a new concept, “normal,” is by creating a culture wherein the use of it is normal. By creating the expectation of the use of it.
In a broader sense, we can see this at work in pretty much every aspect of our entire interaction with technology in the world. Pagers, cell phones, telephones in general— at some point, the idea of the use of this technology becomes the norm. The process of normalization is such that it becomes expected that in order to be a “good” member of this society, you will have and make use of this piece of technology, or this technological concept.
There is a thankfully brief moment when the use of Facebook was pretty much necessary to get a job. You needed to have a Facebook that your employers could look at. There were articles, and reports on CNN, and “helpful guides” and books written about how to make your Facebook profile clean enough for your potential employers— or, alternately, how to make a second Facebook profile that was the “clean” version of your profile that your employers would find. How to craft your Google hits so that when your employers do the inevitable Google search of your name, what they see is what you want them to see. And not that perhaps ill-conceived party from six years ago, and all of the pictures thereof.
These technologies have become so integrated into our lives, that we have to think about them, and we have to be on them; we have to engage them. Google wanted this to happen with Google Plus and it never did. It wanted to Make using Google Plus such a required aspect of being on the internet. They went so far as to make it necessary to have Google Plus in order to comment on YouTube videos.
It hasn’t worked.
Quit trying to make “fetch” happen, Google; it’s never going to happen.
The thing about normalization is, if we are too aware of it—that is, if those who are subject to it can see it being done to them, without their input as to how it’s being done—more likely than not, they’re going to rebel against it. Remember: it’s a system of control. And people don’t generally like being controlled. I mean, some people Some people love being controlled. But most people, when it seems like they’re being manipulated—and that’s what that feels like, that’s what systems of control are: they’re systems of manipulation. That’s literally what the word control and manipulation mean they’re synonyms for each other, to manipulate is “to move by hand,” to operate, to control—but people when they feel like they are being controlled, when they feel like they’re being manipulated, when they feel like they have been controlled and manipulated, they push back. They rebel.
Unless: They are so entrenched in the system that has controlled and manipulated them, to that point, that the ability to rebel seems out of their reach; that the “hassle” of rebelling is far greater than the potential upside of what might happen after that rebellion. At that point, the normalization is complete. The system itself is normal now, and no other operation is conceivable for the people who are subject to it.
We recently found out that Facebook ran a multi-level manipulation on all of its users, wherein it changed what people were able to see on their feeds, based upon time of day, and mood, and content of story. Facebook manipulated this. Facebook changed this. They set up algorithms to directly manipulate the emotional content of people’s Facebook feeds. And they did this for an experiment. They did this to see how people would react. They informed no one. They told no Facebook user that they were going to be subject to this experiment.
It’s been pointed out since this has come to light, the research board that governs the interviewing and testing, surveying of subjects for academia, for the academic system as a whole—scientists are subject to it; philosophers are subject to it; if you want to interview somebody and use that interview in a thesis, you have to talk to them; this is the IRB—they would never have approved something this. The IRB would never, ever have looked at Facebook’s proposed model and said, “yeah, that seems good. Use that. Let’s see what happens.” The ethical implications of this are staggering. Because it proves in no uncertain terms, that Facebook is willing to manipulate you at the drop of a hat, if they think they’ll get saleable data out of it. If they think they can get information from their manipulations of you, that will allow them to better target ads to you, to better sell that ad targeting algorithm to their advertisers, they’ll do it. This is blatantly, obviously clear to people, now.
You know anybody who’s left Facebook, yet, because of this?
Do you know anybody who’s said, “Man, that’s the last straw. I’m off of Facebook forever.”
(I was actually… just on Facebook.)
I’m not exactly a betting man, but I’d wager that this is not going to have a huge impact on the over a billion users that Facebook has. And that’s because Facebook has been normalized. You use Facebook all the time. Maybe you don’t specifically; we do, collectively, as a society; as one seventh of the population of the planet. We use Facebook all the time.
We use it to talk to people we haven’t talked to in years. We use it to cursorily glance over the lives of people we knew when we were in elementary school and we say, “Oh, good, that person’s not dead yet.” We look at our family members, pictures and photo albums. We look at our friends, updates of their babies and their weddings and their breakups in their happy or unhappy lives, their events, their various bits and pieces of what it is that they do with their everyday lives. And people look at ours. We know that we are more or less okay. And we use Facebook to do that.
Facebook has integrated itself into literally every aspect of the internet. Facebook is connected to everything online in some way, shape, or form. For 1.1 billion people, Facebook is a large part of what they think when asked, “What do you think about the internet?” Facebook is “normal.” The amount of disruption, the amount of pain, the amount of hassle, the amount of exposed manipulation and control that Facebook will have to be shown to be guilty of, before those people, en masse, leave Facebook is much more than this.
Normalization is a gradual process. The breaking of normalization has to be sudden and all at once. The drive to subvert normalization, to take the process of normalization and turn it to your ends, has to be… somewhat gradual. When you break a normalized thing, when you break out of the idea of this thing that is “normal” being “good,” when you say, “Yes, this may be everywhere, but that doesn’t make it right” —that moment, that point at which you make that decision, you make that conscious drive to change, has to be big. It has to be major. Otherwise you have to embark on a slow and subtle process of showing… but not showing. Of changing what it is that we think of as “normal,” therefore changing what it is we think of as “good.”
I said before that “normal” and “good” are not necessarily connected. They’re not necessarily the same thing. But so many of us unconsciously connect the two. Carl Jung’s Psychology and the Occult, he talks about the idea of “abnormal” psychological states, and he makes it very clear that an “abnormal psychological state” is only bad insofar as it hampers your ability to engage with the rest of the world. And that’s only bad in so far as your engagement with the rest of the world is desirable. If the world’s “normal” is not a normal that you, yourself, feel that you can live with, then your “abnormality” may be preferable to you. It may be greater to you than the “normalcy” you see around.
But for everyone else who has become accustomed to the way of the world, who thinks that the way of the world simply is the way of the world, thinks that there is no other way the world can be, “this is normal, this is just what is,” then you’re gonna have to make some inroads. We’re going to have to take the time, a better way, a different way. We’re going to have to make the effort to make something… more, something other than “what is,” apparent to people. To show people that there is something else that could be; that “what is” is not simply the way of things because “that’s always the way it’s been forever and ever, ab aeterno, Amen.”
It was made this way, either consciously or unconsciously, by people, groups of people, ways of thinking, things that accreted, that piled on to each other, ways of conceptualizing the world that lead to decisions that lead to actions that lead to different ways of conceptualizing the world and different decisions and different actions. Until we look around us and all we see is this particular set of ways of conceptualizing the world. We don’t see the decisions, we don’t see the actions, we don’t see the assumptions, that underlie them. We don’t see the many, many choices, the many, many built-upon concepts that have been normalized over time.
Normalization will not always be discussed as a “bad” thing in our conversations. The process of normalization can be used to your ends. The process of normalization can be used to our ends. We can take what people expect, we can take what people think simply “is the way of things,” and we can subvert that. We can show a better way of things, for given value of “better.” For a co-determined value better. We can show them—us—more choices. We can show ourselves what it is that we have that is is constructed, that has been made. And in the process of that, we’ll see that that’s quite a lot of things. Most of the things that we think of as “normal,” “natural,” are built—they’re made—out something else.
And that’s okay.
I’m not here to sell you that construction is bad. There’s a whole segment of this project that’s gonna be about how construction is awesome; how building things is amazing; how building things out of other built things is one of the best things you can do with your time. But I am saying that being unconsciously subject to that construction—that being… built upon by somebody else, without your input, without your own intent—that’s no real way to live.
My goal is to make a world in which we all have some measure of input into what it is that we construct, into the systems of control that we put into place. Not just the unconscious input of “Assent,” or non-dissent (because those are different things), but actual, conscious agreement with those things that we put out into the world.
A mindful awareness of what we choose to put out into the world.
We can use the process of normalization to talk about what it is that we want to see from medical technology, from social groupings, from social behaviour. We can use the process of normalization to consciously engage what it is we hope will change about how we think about about… disability, artificial intelligence, human consciousness, human behaviour. We can use the process of normalization to make the world that we want to live in, that we choose to be a part of, rather than simply one that we happen to live in, because that’s “the way it’s always been; that’s just… normal.”
We can use normalization to think about what we mean when we talk about what’s “normal.”
We can use normalization to—and here’s the tagline—make a future worth thinking about.
That’s all I got for you this time. Talk to you later.