What Is Normal?

Today more than ever we hear about the need to return to “normal” or the even more choice phrase “new normal”. The philosophically minded when presented with such statements must ask: what is normal? What was normality?

To avoid banal generalities I am going to try and stick to what I know which is the situation in the UK. Although I may at times refer to “The West” for stylistic reasons what I am really talking about is the UK.

The relationship of the citizen to the government has taken on more and more of the characteristics of the master-slave relationship set forth by Hegel. The master and the slave both depend on each other for mutual recognition of the other’s self consciousness. The government finds meaning in imposing it’s will on the citizens, the citizens find significance through following the directives of the government. This dynamic has always been present in British society but has reached unprecedented levels currently. As far as I am aware it is now a item of law whether one is allowed to meet another person outside of one’s household. A undeniable and important component of any return to normality will be a retreat of government from people’s private life. Whilst there must be pressure on them to do this as soon as possible, I fear that there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. That as the state spends more and more money that it is not recuperating via taxation it may have to seek more rapacious means of maintaining it’s existence. Also, there is the practical point that long after the virus has been vanquished the fear surrounding it and the possibility of a new variant or some other disease taking hold can be used as a political carte blanche to enforce whatever measures it wants. To be clear, I am not passing judgement on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of such fears. What I am commenting on is how they will likely be used by unscrupulous leadership. If the past is any indicator of future behavior it seems that people will broadly speaking comply with whatever deprivations are imposed on them. On this front, I see no return to normality any time soon.

Speaking about the cultural sphere in The West in the broadest sense it appears that all discourse outside of a few isolated channels and dissenting voices is dominated by left-wing or progressive thinking. As these ideas gain more and more dominance and are often spread in very intolerant and unquestioning way. An example, of this are the recent move of all major brands to embrace some idea of social justice or racial equality for obviously cynical reasons. Very little real progress (by the standards of those who hold progressive beliefs) will be achieved. When people who diverge to whatever extent from these beliefs feel threatened they may be sparked in a counter reaction which creates further polarization. Alternatively, people will simply express publicly all the right opinions, whilst in private they sharpen their knives. This duplicity will mean that the appearance of an increasingly “progressive” society will continue a pace, whist underneath the surface little or substance will change. To be clear, I am not against a more equal or fairer society in principle. What I object to are the coercive means that are deployed to achieve it that are ultimately counter productive.

Despite the spate of censorship by internet platforms it is still the case that you are far more free to think what you want in the relatively anarchic internet than you will ever be in “real” world. I should qualify this statement by saying that certain views although controversial are too obscure to attract the sort of critical mass of attention that is required for something to be frowned upon in the first place. An example of this being those who think that both the mainstream left and right in this country are intellectually bankrupt. Such an opinion is so far out of the norm and has so few adherents that it can be safely ignored by the powers that be. Especially, when this distention is not combined with an “extremist” ideology, I use scare quotes because every original idea that has ever been proposed was at some point labelled as “extreme” by those with vested interest against change. The printing press was not a welcome development in the eyes of many in Europe that the censorship mechanism that was the original copyright laws were put in place in England to control it. The thought that women deserved to treated the same as men was also a once a radical idea.

On the fringe of what is acceptable today you may see the orthodoxy of tomorrow. I remember laughing at tourists from Asia because they were wearing face masks. How ridiculous they looked, I laughed at their obviously unfounded paranoia. Now the rest of the world has adopted what was previously viewed by as lunacy. I do not mean this in a snobbish way but if you look at the history of ideas you see again and again an intransigent and ideologically committed minority leading the passive majority. We see this the rise of fascism, Marxism and now socialism (perhaps the most widespread and enduring of “isms”). Observing this pattern can make one cynical as to the prospect of any real progress or meaningful change. Are not the vast majority of us asleep? Are we not largely guided by subtle currents of influence and brainwashed by advertising? Are we not lost in a sea of media (mainstream or otherwise) and content that is impossible to process?

Today many seem to care about the environment, I am broadly in favor of this. But the question must be asked, why do they care? Is it through a project of individual research or discovery? Or is it simply that they care because they have been told to care incessantly from every imaginable source. The outcome of such messaging is not as distressing as the effectiveness of this light brain washing. For surely if it can be used for fairly vanilla purposes it can also be used for darker ones too. So to return to original question: what is normal? Normal can be whatever you are told repeatedly and asked to adopt unquestioningly. Beliefs that are truly a matter of choice cannot be categorized as “normal”ยท For example, in the UK we are free to believe in whatever religion or lack thereof we choose. In light of this being religious cannot be described as “normal”. It is a item of choice. Following UK lock down restrictions is not an item of choice, paying taxes is not an item of choice. Normality is very valuable to those who need it to justify their existence and it must be maintained at all costs. This said, I do not want be seen to be sliding here into a fashionable and toothless anarchism. Talk is cheap. What I would offer is this advice: if you are told to do something repeatedly by those who have no skin in the game question it1.

Normality is also a great comfort and a necessary one in cruel and uncertain world we live in. The absence of normality is often accompanied by poverty, deprivation and unease. From the security of normality people can make plans, start a business, a family and take risks. The normal development of children is entirely dependent on the strength of the mother-child relationship. In its absence psychological and physical disorders of all kinds are inflicted on the child. In light of this positive aspect of normal it is easy to understand why it is so dogmatically enforced and how under the canopy of its virtues so much that is pernicious is smuggled in. Fundamentally almost all people desire some basic level of comfort and provision for the necessities of life. Without these we are so caught up in the struggle for survival that we can never grow or try anything new. In my own case, I was so busy last year trying to survive economically that a mild unease underpinned many of the things I did. However, is there not a element of normality that has the effect of a sedative? For when everything is following a trajectory that we feel in control of our desire to question and interrogate our experience pacified. The necessity of criticism and inquiry is obvious when something has gone wrong. The need is far less obvious, and seen by some as pathology, when all is well.

Our society is becoming increasingly autistic the ubiquity of smartphones has lead to a atrophy of our social abilities. The post pandemic world that we inhabit seems to the logical conclusion of a trend that has been occurring for years. There is something very Hegelian about the way the agenda our society is becoming more and more anti-social. We are in the midst of a great social experiment, will the eventual lifting of restrictions lead to change of course in human relations where we finally realize that we need to wean ourselves off our addiction to social media? Alternatively, the trajectory we are on may remain stubbornly unaltered as people are drawn inexorably under the spell of big tech. I say these things as a nerd who makes living in IT and has learnt immeasurable amounts from internet (this blog could not exist without it). It is not technology I am opposed to without it I would be greatly impoverished: financially, intellectually, artistically and emotionally. What I am against is the how discourse online is increasingly controlled by a cabal of companies that can remove and censor user content at whim. Of course, if the user base makes a decisive move away from them they are in trouble, so to some extent we get the internet we deserve. Hopefully recent events online will be wake up call to many that we are too dependent on a few businesses to provide all of our services on the internet. A more diverse ecosystem must replace this.

The break with normality that be caused by the pandemic has clearly been seen by many as ideological opportunity the somewhat sinister phrase “build back better” has somehow entered currency. The questions must be raised as to who will be doing the building and who will be directing it? For if it primarily guided by existing power structures I fear we will get the same again and worse.

In conclusion, a simple recommendation or condemnation of normality is simply no intellectually viable. The associations it contains are complex and also to a great extent relative. In light of this it defies simple analysis. I have done my best to shed some light on the issue but must admit there is so much more that could be said. I will revisit this topic at a later date to see what has changed and what is merely the familiar disguised as novelty. I want to be an optimist but I fear such a outlook may be delusional. This crisis will undoubtedly serve as a great distraction; whilst we are living in fear and struggling those highly placed have license to do things they would not normally get away with. The idea of a vaccine passport would have been unthinkable before, now it is openly discussed. It is short hop from this to a bio metric passport. The invasion of personal freedom shows no signs of slowing down.

Footnotes

  1. Here I am indebted to Nassim Taleb

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