This is sentence – or something like it – is one I have repeated to about 16 different people since I heard it on a podcast a couple of weeks ago (ACFM, a podcast about the ‘weird’ Left, hosted by Novara Media).
I pounced on it. It crystallised what I feel a lot of the time, and what I consider to be one of the many causes for deep, individual misery that seems to define living within a society: that the ‘normal’ is a tyrant, an oppressor of thought and action. A hijacker of happiness.
What is considered allowed and acceptable is delineated within the realm of theory first and foremost (before they become the law). The ‘norm’ is not where people live and breathe. It’s a suffocating space which leaves most of us feeling inadequate and inept.
I want to make it clear, I am not talking about laws or modes of being that keep us safe, although many laws that pretend to maintain and protect civil society are built on prejudice and judgment (think: all the -isms). I am talking about the ways in which we are taught not to laugh too loud, not to love too hard nor embrace eccentricity as integral to being. The ways in which vulnerability and digression are considered deviant.
Working with addicts, I see shame as a constant companion. I see the ways in which shame ravages the body and the mind, a festering manifestation that feeds distrust and suspicion for the social community, the system and the self.
But shame does not discriminate, and this isn’t an article about the psychology of addicts. If I point out how shame leads to damaging coping mechanisms in people with addictions, I would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that these coping mechanisms do not run rampant amongst the rest of mainstream society. Aggression, manipulation, addiction, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression are a handful of symptoms that come to mind, and to throw in one more fact: one 23-year study asserts that “Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide”.
No, shame does not discriminate, shame is all-welcoming, all-giving; and this is an article about how social norms easily bleed from the constructive into the destructive. They lead to a deep separation from the self, a process awash with physiological metaphors: your gut is not to be trusted, your skin is not the home you should live in. Do not be yourself if your “self” does not conform.
Elspeth Probyn theorises that shame is the emotion we feel when we rupture with the social, that is, when our connection to others is broken. We become aware of ourselves as apart, as outside of, as alone and vulnerable. Shame is a failure to fulfil expectations; and there are so many, many expectations to fail at fulfilling.
Expectations emanate from the social circles that should be spheres of love and spaces of growth: family, friends, religious communities, school… However here the expectation to meet normality requires the extraordinary. Somehow, normality demands perfection.
The need to be extraordinary is a ‘normal’ one.
What is normal? What does it mean to eat normally, what is the normal amount of times to have sex as a couple, how often am I allowed to change jobs as a “normal” person, shouldn’t I be further along in my life at my age, normally?
The milestones we use to judge the value of our lives are arbitrary. Normally, I should have a house by now. Normally, I should be considering children, or already have children. Normal people drink wine. Normal people have a clear trajectory from school to a job. Normal people travel a lot. Normal people have money, not debts. Student debt is also normal.
A token to the chameleon quality of normal can be traced in the vocabulary of the normal: real women have curves. Real men don’t cry. Real humans are either male or female, and nothing in between.
Normality reinforces and propagates power dynamics. In my last article I said we are taught value by seeing what is rewarded. Homogeneity is often the winner, although funnily enough, homosexuality is not. Class, race/ethnicity and gender are big players in defining the normal. Failure to conform to the power-norm is painful, and too often is it considered individual failure rather than systematic inequality.
Nevertheless, expectations criss-cross society, and there is a norm wherever you exist, whether or not you are struggling to pay for your next meal or not. Privilege aside (perhaps the stuff of future writing), self-love and love of others should not be the process of meeting requirements. Love and acceptance should not be a question of “if”.
When I argue for accepting our inherent idiosyncrasy, I am not promoting excessive individualism at the expense of social unity. I am arguing for a more flexible approach to mutual interdependency where we recognise the value of difference. Less life-as-product, life-as-commodity, “buy your self to be your self” or fighting your own corner without considering the room, much less the house you live in.
Somewhere there is a balance. There is a path that emphasises self-love without sacrificing love for a community, or where love for a community does not demand self-sacrifice.
You don’t have to go to university and rack up a debt of £27,000 to be normal. You don’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way. You don’t have to live without mistakes. You don’t have to earn your value to live a valuable life. You don’t have to earn your love.
It is when we do not feel deserving of love that we find it harder to love others. It is living without empathy and compassion that makes space for hate and intolerance. If you do not have the energy to fight your own corner it will be difficult to fight for others, and blame feeds off of fear.
So I am advocating for a questioning of norms and normality. I am asking for you to lay down your expectations of what it means to live life “right” and to find ways to feed yourself and your community (culturally, spiritually, mentally, all the ally-s). Keep an eye on the macro while loving your micro. Hold yourself and others to account without suffocating innovation and creativity.
Normality is boring anyway.