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The Trouble with Normal

Diversity vs. Norm

The university I work for — a large, renowned, London-based, and part of the prestigious Russell Group — prides itself on being "one of the most diverse institutions in the world". With students from over 170 nationalities, it’s hard to call that an exaggeration.

In my non-academic role, I am involved in helping academic colleagues "diversify" and "decolonise" the curricula, which means making the programmes more "inclusive of the experiences and histories of those with protected characteristics" and "erase systemic barriers in our society through fairer and more equitable distribution of curriculum content" (I borrowed the definition from Diverse Educators).

Nowadays, attention to diversity is of paramount importance within, and without, the higher education system — and for so many good reasons that it would take the whole article to list them all. Sensitivity for the issues surrounding diversity is in fact so deep-rooted in our culture that it may seem the norm.

This, of course, creates an interesting conundrum, because "diverse" is exactly what doesn’t fit in the (claustrophobic, we feel, and perhaps even politically problematic) idea of a "norm". And yet, although we may not like the concept, our societies still rely heavily on the idea of "normality" to function.

Where does this idea come from? Why do we find it so problematic? And where does the history and practice of psychology sit in all this? Two books published in 2022 help us answer these questions.

What is normal?

What do we talk about when we talk about normal? In Am I Normal? historian Sarah Chaney rightly points out that the term is ambiguous, as when we ask ourselves if we are normal "sometimes we’re considering if we’re more or less average", whilst "on other occasions, we’re wondering if we’re healthy", or just "wondering if we’re like other people".

These three overlapping levels (normality as average, normality as physical or mental health, and normality as a practical tool to compare ourselves to others) are exactly what makes the idea of a norm, and of normality itself, so problematic.

In her book, Chaney reflects on the fact that before the 19th century the term "normal" was only applied to mathematics: as Jonathan Mooney writes, "'normal' comes from the Latin word 'norma' which refers to a carpenter’s square, or T-square", and therefore "building off the Latin, 'normal' first meant 'perpendicular' or 'at right angles'". It was only when the Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet published his Sur l'homme et le développement de ses facultés in 1835, giving birth to the concept of social physics, that the mathematical notion of normality was applied for the first time to human beings.

"Driven by the rapid rise of statistics", continues Chaney, in the second half of the 19th and the 20th century "normality became bound up in our laws, our social structures, and our ideas of health", with a number of troubling consequences: first of all the fact that "the scientists, doctors and scholars who attempted to measure and standardise humanity were overwhelmingly white, wealthy, Western men, who were exclusively heterosexual (at least in public)", and that "they tended to support the status quo (...) and marginalise other groups in the process".

As the Harvard evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich showed, however, what he calls "the WEIRD people" (that is, Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) constitute only 12% of the population and yet write 96% of the subject studies in psychology and 80% in medicine. The norm is normal for a tiny minority.

Is the norm always bad?

We shouldn’t however fall into the mistake of thinking that "norm" was always a bad word: as for many other things, the idea of normality applied to human societies was born with positive, even utopian intentions.

In The Information Society, for example, Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart demonstrates convincingly how the idea of social normality grew among the Enlightenment philosophers as a way to fight the privileges of the rich: for example, by setting the "normal price" for a kilogram of wheat.

The standardisation of society, Mattelart continues, is what made it possible to manage a world of growing complexity, and for medicine to find cures that apply to the majority of the population: statistics, the evolution of science and technology, and the development of the idea the "average man" (l’homme moyen theorised by Quetelet), all contributed to the creation of societies where minimum living standards could be applied.

The price to pay, however, was a society more interested in the average man than in the actual, living human being, and a social environment where being different from the norm became more and more suspicious.

The dangers of the normal

A third and probably more insidious danger of the idea of normality is discussed by Canadian-Hungarian physician and author Gabor Maté in his latest book, The Myth of the Normal. The book opens with a quote from Erich From: "The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues (...), and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane".

Maté moves his argument from a question: How is it possible that "in our modern world, at the pinnacle of medical ingenuity and sophistication, we are seeing more and more chronic physical disease as well as afflictions such as mental illness and addiction?" What if "chronic illness — mental or physical" was "a function or feature of the way things are and not a glitch", "a consequence of how we live" and "not a mysterious aberration"?

It’s a valid point and, I think, a very important one, that strongly resonates with the 1960s critics of psychiatry such as R.D. Laing and Franco Basaglia: what if illness, be it physical or mental, was nothing but a normal reaction to an utterly abnormal society? Would it be fair, in that case, to "cure" the individual of an illness brought upon him by his or her social environment? Or would that "cure" be an intrinsically reactionary act — an act, that is, that imposes an abnormal normality upon the normal abnormality of the human being?

Especially because, as Matè writes, "for better or worse, (...) humans have a genius for getting used to things, especially when the changes are incremental". This is exactly what normalising means: make something normal, even if it wasn’t normal in the first place.

Psychological practice and normalisation

Psychology and psychiatry have always played a crucial, and somewhat controversial, role in this process. If, on one hand, it’s indubitably true that, as Chaney writes, "for Freud, we are all neurotic, right down to the very fringes of the normal curve", it’s also true that early psychoanalysis contributed massively to the definition of what is considered "normal" and "abnormal" in the life of the mind, often drawing clear lines where boundaries had been traditionally blurred (think, just to name an example, about rites of possession).

On the other hand, once again, it was the very definition of normality, of a "standard mind", or an "average mind", that made the development of the mental health professions possible at all — and with it, the possibility to alleviate the pain of real, flesh-and-bone people.

Despite the (justified!) suspicions we may have today about the whole idea of a "norm" and "normality", especially when it comes to mental health, we should never forget that we are walking a fine line when we discuss the subject.

Normal people may not exist in reality, as Chaney says, but they may be a useful abstraction. Unless, of course, we don’t follow the trap of believing that abstraction is the reality and that everything we live through is normal just because it’s familiar.

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