Professor Michael Benton
16 October 2019
Normality is a Modern Fallacy
“...if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal, then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing”
― Michel Foucault
Trying to define normal or normality, may seem a simple enough task. The Webster dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” or “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle” (“Normal”). However, upon further inspection of the word, it becomes clear just how vague this definition really is. That’s just speaking in terms of the dictionary definition of normal, but society also has a definition of what normal is. Picture the ideal American life; heterosexuality, college education, a neurotypical mind, able-bodied, marriage, Judeo Christianity, kids, a nine to five job, and most likely being white is thrown in there as well. Seems like this is the most often portrayal of normal, as proposed by the media and society at least. Then where does that leave everyone else, everyone else who for one reason or another doesn’t tick the box on one or maybe even all of these societal concepts of normal. In fact, the argument could be made that the vast majority of Americans, don’t fit this model of normal at all. Thus, causing the majority of people to be considered, in some way at least, abnormal. By that ideology then, what society presses as normal is actually abnormal, or so it would seem. To better understand normal though, it’s important to look at and understand where the concept itself truly comes from and how American society has come to perceive normal as it now does. In Peter Cryle and Elizabeth Stephens book Normality: A Critical Genealogy, the authors do just that, by exploring the origin of the term normal and its transformation from its initial emergence in society as a scientific term to what the modern-day conception of the term means and how it has come to be used. It is also important to understand just how harmful the idea of normal can be to the modern-day person. By examining where the term normal comes from, understanding that normal means something different for everyone, addressing the outdated use of the term normal and its negative effects on people, realizing that most people aren’t normal by society's standards, and showcasing that if people did not deviate from the norm we wouldn’t have a progression of society, then one can deduce how the concept of normality is a modern-day fallacy.
The history of the term normal, although not a very long history, is an interesting one. Though this is not the focus of the argument being presented, it is important to take a look at and to understand where exactly this term normal comes from. The origins of the term normal and it’s first emergence can be found in the mid-eighteenth century as a mathematical term used solely in geometry (Cryle and Stephens 3). It is important to remember, that this use of the word normal, has no connection to how the term is used in the modern-day. Even at this point, the term normal was only used as a not so common alternative expression for a perpendicular line (Cryle and Stephens 3). Somewhere around a hundred years after its initial emergence, the term normal begins to surface again, but this time in the world of science. This next place of emergence is seen around 1820 in French anatomy, around this time the term normal somewhat begins to take on its more modern-day meaning (Cryle and Stephens 3). Roughly ten years later the term normal begins to emerge in the field of physiology as well, and we see the use of the term normal state (Cryle and Stephens 26). It’s important to understand that, although the term normal is coming into use during this time, it is still not considered a commonplace term, it’s usage is very much confined to the scientific fields and not until 1848 is the term normal even added to the Oxford English Dictionary (Cryle and Stephens 4). As Cryle and Stephens further explore the history surrounding the term normal through the fields of science, a change begins to occur in how the term is used and its commonality. There comes an important moment in the history of normal where the shift from the use of normal, or normality, as a specifically scientific term makes its way into the social world. Francis Galton, the founder of the study of eugenics, used his statistical findings to apply the idea of normal, not only to the biological but also to the social (Mooney). This shift gave way to the more modern-day concept we have of what it means to be normal, as this, more socially focused concept of what it means to be normal came about in the twentieth century. Now that a brief history of where society even got its concept of normal has been touched on, the focus can now turn to the effects it has had on society.
Even as society began to cultivate its ideas about what it meant to be normal, there was still evidence that even those who may be perceived as normal, weren’t as normal as they seemed. As studies of human sexuality began to emerge and hold a place in society, it became very apparent that sexual deviance was more commonplace than many may have been willing to admit. Sigmund Freud highlighted this point in his research on sexology and even himself pointed out that it really wasn’t possible for anyone to be completely normal (Cryle and Stephens 275). “The Typical American: Male and Female” created by the artist Henry Kitson and Theodora Ruggles in 1893, based on taking the average measurements of physical dimensions from the general population thus generating this “ideal” male and female form (Cryle and Stephens 294). These statues which were meant to exemplify what the ideal human body should be wasn’t even universally accepted as ideal. Not to mention, these figures presented the ideal as a white male and female, excluding the very real and present demographic of Americans that were not white. This idea of excluding nonwhite Americans from the studies of what was normal isn’t a radical proposition and in fact, something that many twentieth-century cultural researchers purposefully excluded, as many researchers felt including nonwhite Americans would muddy the outcomes of their findings (Cryle and Stephens 306). It is apparent that even in its early stages of conceptual development, that the idea of normal can be argued against. There is no possible way that a society can hold an idea of normal for its population when the idea itself isn’t even achievable. When normality became the “ideal”, whether that be for the physical, mental, or social standard people were being held to, it seems society forgot that the ideal wasn’t anything humans were capable of achieving. These ideas of normal that began to sink their teeth into everyday life and arguably began to have lasting negative effects on those who did not conform to its ideals.
Throughout the history of the term normal and its eventual presence in modern culture, the negative effects it has had on people can be seen. As previously, discussed the erasure of nonwhite groups from cultural studies and presenting an ideal body that wasn’t even achievable are just a few instances of the ways these present ideas have harmed people. To understand that more, it’s necessary to look at the rise of Galton’s study of eugenics, of which the goal is to eradicate any abnormalities within the human race and ultimately create the ideal person. These ideas were targeted at anyone who was not mentally, physically or ethically sound by the standards of those who believed they knew what normal or the ideal really was (Cryle and Stephens 312). Now, this point is not meant to say that every person who believes in the idea of normality wants to do away with anyone who doesn’t fit this ideal person, but it is important to understand how it plays a role in what society believes to be normal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, NIH, roughly 4.6 million adults in America lived with a form of mental illness in the year 2017 (“Mental Health”). That isn’t even factoring in the number of Americans that live with some form of a physical disability, which according to The United States Census Bureau, roughly 56.7 million people suffered from some form of disability in 2010 (US Census Bureau). That then brings up the idea of what it means to be ethically sound, or morally sound, in the context of eugenics this would most likely refer to an old belief that criminal traits are inherently biological and can be passed down genetically from parents to children (Cryle and Stephens 312). Roughly 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated in the United States and about 3.6 million are on probation according to Prison Policy (Sawyer and Wagner). When you add all the numbers up of the people who are mentally ill, physically disabled, and have "deviant" criminal behaviors that gives you roughly 67.2 million Americans that according to eugenics, are unfit for society and in a sense should be eradicated. It’s easy to see how damaging this idea of normal, as proposed by eugenics, has affected American society as a whole. In order to create the ideal race, people must be done away with or hidden in the shadows out of the public eye. In fact, it was in the 1920’s that the Supreme Court ruled to allow people to forcibly be sterilized against their will if they had been deemed unfit by either their caregivers or the institution they were held at, a ruling which to this day has not been overturned by the Supreme Court (Kielty et al). The argument can be made that some people do not have the capacity to take care of themselves and therefore do not have the capacity to take care of a child, and that argument has some standing in truth, however, what a slippery slope it is, because for some their fear isn’t that people are incapable, rather, it is a fear that if they procreate, it will bring more people like them into the world. It becomes clear how the introduction of eugenics into society has helped shape the idea of what we consider to be normal, and just how damaging and harmful that idea can be for the people who for one reason or another do not fit into the concept of normal.
While many eugenicists took their inspiration from Charles Darwin, who was Francis Galton’s cousin, it seems many of them missed one of Darwin’s major points in his "theory of evolution." That the beauty of humanity and human evolution lies within the variation of the species (Kielty et al). When society attempts to put everyone into a small confined box and exclude the people it doesn’t deem good enough, it begins eliminating the idea of variation. Imagine life if everyone you met was the exact same, no differentiation in physical appearance between male and female, all from the exact same background, no difference in sexuality and no difference in opinion or world view. Society at that point would be at a standstill, there would be no moving forward and no emergence of new ideas or thought processes. What a miserable existence that would be. Societal ideas of normality, even from their beginnings have been outdated and aren’t applicable to what humanity is truly made of.
Ultimately, this idea of normality that has become so commonplace in the day to day lives of many people in American society, isn’t even an idea that has much foundation to stand upon. From its initial conception in the realm of geometry to its progression into the realms of science and later into society, the concept of normal has been questioned and argued against. Being normal isn’t something humans were meant to be and its not even a thing we can achieve. By adopting these ideas of normal and accepting them as gospel truths, society starts out casting and alienating people from the one thing every human belongs to, humanity. Variety and abnormality are what gives people their humanness, and to presume that these are inherently wrong traits based on an essential made-up concept, does nothing to promote human evolution and growth. Maybe some people do fit into this idea, and that isn’t inherently wrong, but society must rewire the way it sees normality and begin to understand that there truly is no such thing as a normal person, even if someone may appear so on the outside. All of these points help to conclude that the idea of normality, is, in fact, a modern-day fallacy.
Cryle, Peter Maxwell, et al. Normality: A Critical Genealogy. The University of Chicago Press, 2017
Foucault, Michel, (2004) 'Je suis un artificier'. In Roger-Pol Droit (ed.), Michel Foucault, entretiens. Paris: Odile Jacob, p. 95. (Interview conducted in 1975. This passage trans. Clare O'Farrell).
Kielty, Matt, et al. “Radiolab.” Radiolab, WNYC Studios, 17 July 2019, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/g-unfit.
“Mental Illness.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml.
Mooney, Jonathan. “How, Exactly, Did We Come Up with What Counts As 'Normal'?” Literary Hub, 12 Aug. 2019, https://lithub.com/how-exactly-did-we-come-up-with-what-counts-as-normal/.
“Normal.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/normal.
Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative, 19 Mar. 2019, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html.
US Census Bureau Public Information Office. “Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S." U.S. Census Bureau, 19 May 2016: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/miscellaneous/cb12-134.html