What is Normal?

See the source image

My local writing group, the Northern Colorado Writers, announced that the theme for its 2023 Anthology is ‘An Exploration of Normal.’ They asked for poems, stories and essays about what normal looks like? And do we need to return to the status quo?

In preparation for writing my story about the Canaries (women munition workers in WW1), I’ve been thinking about what is normal and how you know what it is?

Dictionaries define normal as conforming to a standard or the typical state or condition. In other words, normal is based on some arbitrary reference point.

In my doctoral dissertation on prospect theory, I spent a lot of time on reference points and how they affect risk acceptance and decision making. Although there is a status quo bias, prospect theory shows that the reference point is not fixed and can shift based on how the issue is framed. BTW, this took me two years and twenty mathematical propositions to prove the microeconomic basis of this statement.

Which brings me back to the belief that the idea of ‘normal’ is arbitrary. Without going full-on situational, the diversity and fluidity of normality are proof that defining normal is a losing proposition. If you have traveled, you know that what may be acceptable in one country/culture is abnormal in others. You can see this in a critical scene in the Inglorious Bastards where the Americans are detected because of the way they ordered drinks in a bar. (If you haven’t seen it or have never been to Europe, it has to do with whether you include the thumb when signaling for a drink).

There is, of course, a whole side discussion of defining normal as a method of social control. When a politician says, ‘That’s not us’ or ‘We don’t act that way’ they have established that any disagreement is deviance with the implication of immorality and criminality.

So, coming out of the pandemic, we have a new normal where you don’t shake hands (or if you do, it is a political statement) and wearing masks is accepted without comment. This status change only took two years which shows how quickly normal changes.

Which brings me back to the title question – What is Normal?

Of course, I cannot discuss normality without talking about Abby Normal.

The End of Rationality

See the source image

One of my recent reads was Fukuyama’s Liberalism and its Discontents. He is best remembered for The End of History and The Last Man. Published in 1992, he asserted that the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was evidence that liberal democracy was the new norm because there were no better ideas.

Liberalism and its Discontents is him saying he had it wrong. That liberalism faced challenges from identity politics by progressives and nationalism from conservatives. However, that is not what I want to talk about (unless you would like to pay my standard speaking fee).

What got my attention was the chapter on rationality. Rationality has many definitions. In game theory, rationality is an actor’s pursuit of a specific goal. However, common usage is thinking sensibly or being endowed with reason. More simply, it is acting based on facts and reality. He argues that politics (who gets what, when and how) and policy (government distribution of resources) have lost their anchor. They are now the result of whims and emotion. Policy is now a speech act. Expressing an action is the same as its performance. So, if a politician says that something is true, it is therefore true.

“So, what is the point? I thought this blog was not political.” It’s not. It is, however, about the way we see and think about the world.

In previous posts (“Words, Words, Words,” “Free Speech?!”), I talked about how words have the power to define and how acceptable speech is used to halt speech. For example, a statement such as ‘The science is settled’ (a comment no real scientist would make) shuts down any further conversation.

Fukuyama has taken this one step further. The words are focused on emotions and not facts. Facts may get in the way because they negate the truthfulness of the statement. The American comedian, Stephen Colbert, coined ‘truthiness’ to describe the belief that information is true based on perception without evidence.

We do not have the end of history because liberal democracy is the ultimate political-economic system. Instead, we have each individual creating their own reality, which is the end of constructivism; people actively make their own knowledge.

What hope is there for making progress if there is no agreement about the status quo?

What hope for writers when everyone is already creating their own world?