Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Tyranny of Normality

Just the other day a very large worldwide study showed that Australians are the world leaders in self-delusion when it comes to being overweight and obese.  About a third of the population believes they fall into these categories, when in fact over 60% of us are overweight or obese.  Australians are far from alone in the self-delusion stakes here, it's just that we're the most shockingly out of touch with reality. To add to this, Aussies are just as delusional about how much exercise we believe and say we do compared to what we actually perform, ditto regards the health of our diets.  Of course, there are a plethora of reasons behind the phenomenon of mass fatness, but what lies beneath the self-deception?

It's never simple to nail these things down perfectly, but I think one mainspring of this mass delusion is the tyranny of normality.  It's the fact that we're just used to being, and seeing, big people now - familiarity breeds contempt, so it has been said - and we thus adjust our mental settings for a new normal.  We see a different societal body norm now from, say, 20 years ago.  Overweight is the new majority, thus, normal.

Humans want to be normal, largely (no pun intended there).  Sure, there is individual aspiration, the urge for fame and to stand out to one's peers or society, but more and more this is about succeeding in achieving some grand form of normalcy.  Everyone's 'plating up' food now, where just a couple of years BMC (Before MasterChef) we simply served, or just ate it.  Foodie aspirations, experimentation with and chattery, competitive talk about food are normal today too - see also above, 'obesity'.  But what we want at heart as a communal animal is to sit comfortably in a place in the herd, engage with or at least not fail in the ubiquitous struggle to rise in the pecking order; to relate to our peers and preferably excel within the 'rules'.  Think about so-called "Reality TV", and the rise of the 'normal person' celebrity.  That's where the normalcy comes into play, and once the majority of people are porky, then.......well, a couple of things might happen.  Firstly, when you see your chubby self in the mirror you might not see a problem at all.  You're just large-framed, or you compare internally with your peers, finding 'worse' examples, and feel contented that you are quite normal.  (No surprise by the way that men are far less likely to see themselves as overweight or obese than women, and this applies globally). Secondly, it just may be that there is a subliminal urge to maintain (even gain??) one's size.  After all, aren't those skinny, eat-nothing health freak folk outliers now?  Or thirdly, you might just not see a health problem there at all.  After all, you look, well, 'normal'.  And the ubiquity of weight-loss advertising and awareness campaigns simply in the end highlights the normality of being overly large.

The weight issue is but one example among so many we could point to when it comes to the tyranny of normality.  And it's not like it's a novel idea; we've been a social, normatized animal since forever really, but I think we're at some sort of unprecedented peak here.  Perhaps that as our recent history has been one where the only seeming constant is constant change, we need to put so much more constant and persistent effort on keeping up with what 'normal' is, and thus unconsciously are getting better and better at adjusting ourselves to fit the 'now' normal as we go.  A sort of eternal feedback loop that works towards greater and greater homologation in society. Reminds me of the Borg, now I think about it.

As has been commented upon recently in the meta-mediasphere, advertising right across the modern media spectrum is not only becoming increasingly dumbed-down and preachy in its messages, with edginess and risk-taking as strategies on the wane, it is more and more careful in its elicitation of the 'normal' person it is portraying and speaking to/of/for.  The "busy mother", the "working family", the "young couple", the "average man" and so on.  I cannot recall before seeing quite so many advertising actors and spokespeople so carefully cast in that thin space between being 'attractive' in a model-like, idealised modern beauty sense, and non-threateningly average.  You know, good-looking enough to be pleasant on the eye and acceptable to the base hind-brain judgement that sexually they could be an attractive mate yet not so 'perfect' that they're in any way threatening to their own gender compatriots. Many are just a little overweight.  (Combine the two, advertising and the normatization of heftiness and you get the third spoke of the wheel - chunky Reality TV 'contestants' and weight-loss shows).  Normal is indeed the new thing to aspire to, even and maybe even especially in the consumer space.  Again, this is not exactly new, but its pervasiveness and the seemingly overwhelming primacy of this technique and zeitgeist for advertising - arguably the force in our world that does the most to influence individuals' self-perceptions and self-image - has attained some hitherto unknown level.

One could make several good arguments about why this new depth of normal-as-desirable thing could be a positive, perhaps.  Or at least have some slivers of silver lining.  But I'm struggling to find any for this level of extremity.  Just having normative values is the cohesive stuff of any society after all - without a shared consensus on some norms we could not function as a community - however once it gets to the stage that we've reached a sort of strangling takes place right across society. There forms a subtle erosive force upon the sense of 'us' we recreate by all the little things we do and say and think and see each day that contrive to tell us we are not each (all) alone, isolated, disconnected.  That we are a 'we'.

Consider for example the normatization of our society as being in a permanent state of conflict, and the ramifications of this.  If we look to America for the cultural lead for a moment, depending on how you want to figure it there's been a constant state of was since the start of WW2, or perhaps even earlier.  More concerning still is the new norm of the 'War On Terror', a truly insidious term that builds on all the 'Wars On (insert any example here)' campaigns trotted out by leader figures this last couple of generations.  Think for a moment if you can of how it feels right now to be a Palestinian or Israeli; both peoples who well and truly feel themselves to have experienced personally generations of constant war.  Trapped in an angry, self-righteous, defensive/aggressive mindset, they have totally lost it would seem any notion of the normality of peace.  Of harmonious conduct.  Young bright thinkers are positing peace-promoting ideas in these places as truly revolutionary concepts, as if the history of humanity is not one largely made of just getting along fairly nicely, thanks.  Thus, having to pretty much reinvent the wheel of progress towards an inclusive, unafraid society without martialism at its core.

And that's the thing about history, and our reading of it in the flash-information age.  Everything gets condensed into its newsiness, to appeal to our enjoyment, to retain the reader/viewer, and that means the action scenes.  We view history - and thus are doomed to have a default view of our present - as an overarching series of dates and instances of war and turmoil, scandal and calamity.  Which is, frankly, so much BS.  Most people in most of time have mostly just......gotten on with life, in a more-or-less peaceful way, and this is what constitutes our real history.

Think again of your Israeli or Palestinian (yes I'm generalizing and appealing to stereotype; hang in there, there's a reason for it) and project that now onto the face of your everyday American, living under the spell of terrorist enemies and a defensive martial mindset.  Children who have only known this, for whom it is unquestionably normal.  They will soon be our adults, in fact the first few are coming of age as I write.  It's not just an American-led cultural meme though, this is globally pervasive.  And I'd venture to suggest that there is more, and more highly politicized, normatized conflict occurring across the globe now than ever before.

It's not just war - that's merely an extremely newsy manifestation.  Think of the dynamic political tensions gripping the major democracies of the world at present.  Those societies which have largely driven the industrial and technological revolutions, responsible for enabling the population boom, the massive inequality of wealth, the amazing increase in health and longevity and also the mass destruction and deformation of the environment at large.  The nations that were early adopters of the ground-breaking adaptation of the 'least worst' system of governance and social inclusion and spread the ideas of capitalism and individual freedom ironically through conquest across the world.  The Australian parliamentary reality of two major parties so close to each other on policy (and oddly out of touch with so much of the general public's real sentiment) yet divided by an implacable enmity that disables any chance currently of compromise or bipartisan agreement.  The same is clearly evident in the US.  Modern capitalist democracy everywhere seems stuck in a bind between two irreconcilable sides of some distracting argument.  Some theoretical debate.  A red herring diverting our energies away from the more pressing issues of our continued planetary survival.

The more normal the state of conflict is, the more people are taking sides; it's a feedback loop.  When there is such a conflict, when ideas and notions on governance, polity, and the 'right' way to run a society (all ciphers for "how can we survive this dire state of the world we cannot bear to look at squarely") the more we need to find a solid 'normal' to sit with, to belong to.  And it's always been a quirk of the human intellect and experience that it's easier to define what one is by what one isn't; what one is against.  One sees the other as the abnormal, and one's self as normal.  The more we are able to define each side - us and them - by our differences, the more we are in essence trying to strengthen our own case for normality.  Thus the groups form and split, yet share at their core two fundamental, indivisible realities - they're in conflict, and they're in thrall to the same inescapable environmental reality.  This largely explains the desperation the conflict is attaining; the deterioration at every point of the environment around us.  Whether you see that environment as primarily natural, economic, political, cultural.....or any combination of ways, it looks essentially the same - in danger.

In danger, because this tyranny of normalization, this seeking of identity in sameness in the face of constancy of change, is so obviously a doomed way of being and a false hope for contentment.  It's powerfully anti-logical, and yet it's such an intuitive thing we do.  It stops us from remembering what 'normal' in the sense of healthy, holistically sound, sustainable and life-affirming actually feels and looks like.

This constancy of conflict is not normal.  Patently unhealthy self-image is tellingly not normal.  We are not, in a grand irony, behaving normally at all.

Yes, there have always been crises.  And this same phenomenon has happened before, perhaps.  Maybe it's part of a cycle, but this tyranny of normality is stifling us all the same.  A threshold has been crossed; the regular old ways of social cohesion and normatization have been left behind in the wake of our perversions; this acceptance of eternal conflict, of negative and unhealthy self-image, of unquestioningness.  Yes, that's another great irony.  We now have the tools to facilitate great individual questioning of exactly how we live together, and I see more and more people doing just that, every day, yet at the same time there is undeniably the most powerful and omniscient push I can think of in all of global history towards accepting as normal these perversions of what it is to be human.  A really shitty definition of 'the human condition'.

Perhaps I'm just describing a point in the ancient pendulum swing between conservatism ("let's only change slowly, cautiously, with greatest emphasis on maintaining existing tradition") and progressivism ("let's enact social change by fiat based on the best available theory that isn't what we're doing now").  Certainly there's evidence enough of this.  Just look at all of those of us essentially doing what we can to opt out of the conflict duality.  To express compassion, to detangle the arguments with reason and heart both, to transcend the fear that drives the spiral.  But the more I consider it, the more I see that we're almost playing the normalization game on a new, massive global level, and the normals that we're reinforcing just aren't the ones we need, nor is more of the same way we've been going.

It's just that I wish there were more of us doing it more often - the opting out of the conflict and living more via compassion and instinct than analysis I mean. My guess is that at some stage a tipping point is actually reached, where there can be rapid and meaningful change, that steps outside of the reformist/conservatist paradigm, that engenders a whole new model.

Where the definition of normal is reclaimed from the intellectual - whose endpoint always seems to lead via conflict to nihilism - back to the experience of heart and spirit.  The truly numinous as everyday life.

Utopian?  Certainly.  But I ask you with all seriousness - is that wish not, in fact, normal?

END NOTE: On the subject of normal everyday things we don't pay attention to, friends have been reminding me to post a link to my Natural Burial fund on my blog.  I set it up because many people asked how they might usefully help, and I eventually got humble enough to let people give to me in this way.  I still need further help to cover the cost of my impending interrment (unless the satellite company's insurance covers my death via hurtling space junk, which is still Option A for me) and trust it will work out well in good time.  You can go here if you wish to donate, thank you.


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