You In or Out?
This article was originally published in Adbusters No.41 MAY/JUN 2002
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re talking to an acquaintance, and out of the blue she remarks that sometimes she forgets you’re in a wheelchair or you’re manic-depressive or you’re dying of cancer or whatever it is. As if amazed by this lapse in her memory, she presents this to you as if it were flowers, candy, a compliment.
Your line is, Why, thank you! To this person, your abnormality has taken on, for a moment, a flickering in-out character while you – the essential you – remain visible and constant. You have just crossed into the Normal Zone. For all I know, you live there. For all I know, you’re the person who’s collecting all those thank-yous.
Comfortable anonymity, the absence of remarkable features, unnoticeableness, is as precious and necessary to the human organism as oxygen. Like oxygen, you don’t hear folks rave about it a whole lot. But it’s precious. I’ll bet there are great holding tanks of surplus anonymity out there somewhere, maybe up by Fort Knox. It’s that good. When your supply runs short, the pain of separation slams down, the guillotine.
Society would have you believe that a great gulf divides the Normal and Abnormal. Not so. In my files there’s a paper where an urban planner explains that the environment “is designed for the average person plus or minus one-half a standard deviation.” Deviation from the norm. Your deviation exceeds the one-half limit? Sorry, Charlie.
You may have noticed this effect yourself: every time some new syndrome – social anxiety disorder, sudden wealth syndrome – makes it into the pop-diagnostic lexicon, the norm shrinks. Before long there won’t be a ledge of normalcy left to stand on.
Abnormalities are often hidden or modified, but labels for them are not “just a piece of paper.” They are applied with the social equivalent of a branding iron. Alcoholics, for instance, know there’s no return to normal.
They can morph into recovering alcoholics, but unless they’re in the program, they’re nothing better than dry drunks.
Normalcy – the state of being not-it – sets the it apart (often literally) through five millennia of human history. Caught squarely in the sights of normalcy’s heavy artillery, the abnormal it rarely survives the first cut, that life and death cut. Reference prenatal screening.
Normalcy is relative to place and time, so there’s no universal, absolute, Norm of All Norms. Good thing, too. But no matter what the specs, normality is always and everywhere stringently enforced.
Our culture’s so-called “celebration of diversity”? Don’t go buying a special party dress for the occasion.
So who sets the specs? Where did normalcy come from? How did it get to be bigger than God? Believe it or not, “the norm” used to be the term for a carpenter’s t-square. It wasn’t until the 1840s and the dawn of Statistics that the word took on a much heavier meaning. The norm as we know it is a statistical invention, brainchild of Charles Darwin’s nephew, Francis Galton – later knighted for not one but two major contributions to the British Empire: the founding of the Royal Statistical Society and the International Eugenics Society. The two are of course inseparable. Eugenics lost some of its progressive glow, temporarily, when it hopped a freight to the Final Solution. Meanwhile, Galton’s currently ubiquitous contribution, normalcy, is omnipresent, eternal yet ever-changing, and perfectly invisible. We can catch a glimpse of Normal only when we cast off the Abnormal and see who’s left.
Here come the elimination rounds:
Men are more normal than women,
white skin more normal than off-color,
young but not too young more normal than old.
You don’t have to go another mile down that road before the norm is already in the minority. Meanwhile, there’s still plenty of otherness still to cast off. Normal is tall not short, strong not weak, comfortably-off not poor, blonde not brunette – and all of its children are above average.
Get this straight: although the two concepts are invariably confused, being normal is not about being average. Normalcy is the dream. If not God, it is next to godliness and, like progress, reaches ever upward toward unreachable perfection. Each and every civilized man, alone, and each and every civilized woman, alone, carries the entire and crushing burden of normalcy.
You hide it, I hide it, we all hide it in that secret place where its squealing subsonic monologues measure us, berate us, obsessing over the possible escape of vapors, voices, gestures, postures, odors and opinions from those abnormal places under our clothes.
Normalcy is the god of shame.
Despite all that, abnormality is the standard-issue human tragedy. Abnormality is inescapable and we’ve all been there. Adolescence is abnormality, the painful onset of our interminable, insatiable yearning to be wiser, more beautiful, more purely perfect. What would it take to get there? Dr. Harry M. Haiselden, a 20th-century missionary for normalcy, had an answer: “A few generations of thoroughgoing eugenic measures should suffice to purify humanity forever.”
Even a physician might end up in prison for killing a normal infant, right? Haiselden, however, “purified” only imperfect newborns. He began his heavily publicized serial killings in Chicago in 1915. Soon, droves of parents and right-thinking physicians called him in to kill babies with mental disorders, skulls too huge or tiny, an abundance of fingers, any inconvenient anomaly. The title of his 1916 film The Black Stork refers to the bad bird who drops bouncing baby defectives onto innocent families. Haiselden knew that if we didn’t snuff them on sight, we’d soon be swamped by their abnormal offspring. Haiselden was a celebrity, applauded by the press and by every political party. His film, in which he starred as himself, reached millions in movie theaters, ywcas, and Kiwanis Clubs in North America and Europe from 1916 all the way through 1942. Before you thank the Lord that things have changed, remind yourself that (a) doctors, even today, are not jailed for killing what the black stork brings, and (b) Jack Kevorkian may be the best-known doctor in the modern world.
Michel Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish that the norm is a principle of coercion. Give him a high five for that. The norm, then, is not a state of being, but a force. I call it compulsory normalcy.
Normalcy, Foucault said, turns individuals into what he termed “meaningful subjects and docile objects.” Let’s test-drive that idea. You become a “meaningful subject” when you are examined (reference the pre-employment drug test or depression screening, the irs audit). You become a “docile object” when you adopt normalcy’s standards as your own (reference the adolescent girl, watching her growing breasts for any deviation from the Vogue magazine gold standard).
Here in the free world, the examination is most often self administered.
Do I look okay? But not far from where you sit lies another world, a world inhabited by docile objects and their keepers. The docile objects are created by dis-labeling (Paul Verdeber’s term), disabilitation (Marie French’s), enfreakment (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s). Should these dis-labeled people be seen to require assistance in order to live independently, they become consumer objects, imprisoned in a netherworld of full-time consumerism.
No, really. “Consumer” is a term enshrined in law by the human services to denote a person who, presumably, gets more than he gives (reference “mental health consumers”). One day a year this person may be Jerry’s Kid, trotted out at the telethon to pass the hat for his keepers. For the remaining 364, the keepers supervise and “normalize” – another legal term – this useless eater, this barnacle on society’s hull. I know. I have lived among them.
Here’s the deal: I was on my way out one evening and bam, struck by a drunk driver. I woke up in a nursing home. Absent my consciousness, I’d been labeled Severely Brain Damaged, presumed to be dangerous, and deported without due process or any other silly legal fanfare from the free world to one where human rights are, suddenly, privileges to be earned with what is termed “compliance.” I was surrounded in the home not by tottering old grannies but by teen boys and other casualties of recreational violence.
I had a front row seat as normalcy’s coercive nature went into overdrive. Having earned my living as a writer for 20 years, I was refused the use of a pen or notebook. (I traded a blow job for those items and a postage stamp.) As a result of the letter I was able to mail, I escaped from the home and from consumer status. Most do not.
A fellow who holds a job with the title Consumer Crisis Specialist once told me he is called in when consumers are “at risk.” Come again? He translated: “People whose situations meet the state criteria for crisis, people perceived as difficult because they won’t do what is thought best for them.” Labeled and deported, some few will refuse to be docile objects. I like to think you would refuse. Most don’t, though.
Out here in the free world, a less blatant form of compulsory normalcy comes bearing down on all of us. Did I say that right?
In this war, Buster, you don’t have to be a freak, a monster, or a maniac to be it. You don’t even have to be guilty of nonconformity – just the appearance of, the rumor of, or familial relationship to nonconformity will put you under the gun. Being old or a Jew or a felon, having obsessive-compulsion or a same-sex partner, hailing from a land where English is a second language, all these and many other infractions mark you it from the getgo. Can a minor abnormality perhaps be cured? Unlikely.
Count the number of Jews for Jesus, dark-skinned Republicans, formerly-gay-born-again-Baptist Boy Scouts. With the epidemic in labeling – which I guarantee you won’t stop until either capitalism or the human service economy goes belly up – each of us is bound to be, at a minimum, dually diagnosed before our lives let out for recess. The forces of compulsory normalcy demand their pound of flesh.
You’re right. It couldn’t happen to you. Even so.
Lucy Gwin is the editor of Mouth Magazine, <mouthmag.com>.
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