On Normalcy

What exactly is normal? So much of our lives are governed by what is considered to be normal: a certain standard of vision, a certain view of the world, a certain level of basic understanding and comprehension. But, does anyone ever define the exact level of normal? How would one make that definition? Is “normal” even a constant or is it in fact a moving target? Better yet, how do we know?

It seems that almost everyone has some idea what “normal” is. Ask anyone if a given person is normal and you will almost always get a definite yes or no. As an added bonus, different people will agree on what is normal in most cases. It is, however, the differences in their individual opinions that are telling. In a sufficiently large population, every individual will be considered abnormal by at least one other individual in the that same population. This is what makes it difficult to define “normal”.

An even better question to ask individuals in a population is what they mean by “normal”. Some people will say something along the lines of “I know it when I see it”. Others will say something similar to “Anything that is not different” but will fail to define what is “different”. A remarkably large number will fail to even define it, but will not have a problem with identifying it.

Suppose we were to take the “not different” definition. After all, not different implies being the same and normal can be equated with sameness. Then we can take that defintion and say that anyone who is different is not normal. This sounds rather simple, doesn’t it? (The astute among you are probably thinking that if it were that simple, there would be no point to rambling on like this, and you would be correct.)

Now, consider a group of people. No two people are identical; if they were, it would not be possible to identify individuals in the group. Suddenly we have a problem. How can we apply our definition of normal to this group? It seems that most will use a “degree of normalcy” to determine when one is normal or not. That is, we appraise each person based on how many dissimilarities they have and with how many people we have seen. If we conclude they have more differences than most people, we consider them abnormal. So, basically, the more different a person is, the less normal that person is, and when the normal level gets too low, we decide that that person is not normal. The problem with this is that no two people have exactly the same normal threshhold.

The astute amoung you have probably arrived at the conclusion that noramlcy is a fallacy since it requires that all people be the same. Based on this conclusion, we can now examine how some types of societies deal with this issue. We will examine two types of societies: those who promote conformity and those who promote individualism.

First, the case of conformism. These societies attempt, through education, propaganda, law, and religion to make all people think and act the same. To some degree they can be successful with that, but there will always be a noncomformist somewhere. In this case, the nonconformist is abnormal; that is, more different than the rest. In point of fact, most real societies operate based on some minimum level of conformism. However, conformism can be taken to extremes where one race is to be considered normal and all others must be exterminated. Here, we will define race as a group of people who share a considerable number of physical traits and that pass the normal test above for most of the members of that group. Basically, the extreme of this is racial purging and eugenics. Exercising a little imagination should allow most of you to follow this situation to its logical conclusion.

There is also the case of individualism. Ironically, individualism is a form of conformism; it is a system where individual differences are considered normal. That is, everyone in the society thinks that individuality is a good thing and the differences are normal. There will, however, always be those who wish everyone to be the same. Ironically, a truly individualistic society will allow these conformists to spread their beliefs, and, ultimately, create a society as described above.

In actual fact, true individualism, while seeming ideal, is anarchy. That is, it is the total lack of societal restrictions on individual freedoms. Similarly, conformism is Nazi Germany. Most societies that are reasonably stable over long periods of time will have found a balance between the two extremes and will have defined a certain standard of normal and will have defined a normal threshhold.

With that, I will leave you to think about how you define normal and how you determine if someone is normal or not. You might do this by playing a game: “Normal, or not.” Figuring out how the game works is left as an exercise for the reader.

William Astle
December 15-18, 1999 CE… UTC

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