A few things have transpired since I took this photo in early May. The virus has wreaked havoc with our lives, bringing us and “normal” to our knees. Jobs don’t look and feel like they once did. Schools are operating wild west, frontier style. A little over a week ago, insurrectionists stormed our nation’s capital in an attempted coup stamped with presidential approval. Definitely not normal, at least not in modern America. Life has a Vegas meets Mardi Gras meets high school graduation rager kind of vibe to it where the unexpected, bizarre, and absurd hang out. I get the feeling that “normal” has always been a cover story, an alias, a shell corporation used as a front for the truth that reality is a hot mess.
I traced the quote back to a man named Dave Hollis. Hollis is a former Disney executive turned writer and speaker. He had shared this notion in a Facebook post dated March 25. That seemed about right. In America, the nation-wide lock down went into effect on March 13. In less time than it takes for a Taylor Swift album to drop, we were itching to wish away our new weird and terrifying in exchange for our good, old fashioned “normal.” I get it.
I didn’t want to watch the death toll climb like a telethon tally from hell. I didn’t want to keep reading stories of artists struggling to pay the bills because theaters and clubs were closed and festivals were cancelled. I didn’t want to go to the grocery store like I had just rolled the dice in a game of Jumanji, racing to the paper goods aisle to get the last sacred package of toilet paper. I probably would have sold whatever remaining eggs I have left for the simple pleasure of hanging out in a café with a couple of friends complaining about our privileged problems for even an hour. But I know better. Familiar and comfortable are not the same as well, as healthy, or as just and humane.
My PhD research focused on representations of physical disability in American culture and the meanings we assign to all kinds of bodies, but especially those marked different or “abnormal.” The root of the word “normal” is Latin, first used in relation to geometry: “made according to a carpenter’s square,” something fashioned in perfect proportions. Ideal, perfection—these ideas came into play later on in the 1800s when “normal” meant conforming to a preferred, cultural, racial, physical, economical set of standards.
The Victorians made categorizing various types of people into an Olympic-level sport. They used physiognomy—a pseudoscience involving using the study of facial features to determine one’s character and personality—to create distinctions around people considered “normal” (read: morally superior) and those judged as abnormal (read: ethically deviant, bad, criminal, all together not desirable in any way shape or form). Three guess as to which race and class of people this benefited and one guess as to which it did not.
In grad school I wrote a lot of elegant theories about how so many elements—class, race, politics, media, science and medicine—coalesce to influence constantly shifting notions of physical disability. But I could have just as easily written one sentence over and over again like Jack Torrance from The Shining: Normal is a construct that can fuck right the fuck off. My advisor would have, as they say, “found this phrasing problematic.”
But it’s the truth.
If it wasn’t apparent in March or April or even August, it’s pretty obvious now that not only is “normal” a myth, it’s a dangerous idea. It’s designed to widen the gulf between one another, to stoke conflict and alienation. It seduces us into accepting things that are, in actuality, unacceptable and untenable. I’m not in a rush to get back to oppressing and victimizing people with a different color skin than mine. I’m not in a hurry to feed the machines of capitalism and welfare inequality. I’m not eager to sink deeper into the quicksand of social media, colonizing my brain a little more with every click and “like.” I’ll take my chances trying to make something meaningful out of this new now rather than trying to resurrect a needless “normal.”