With Donald Trump now president-elect, many people are concerned that something truly precious and fundamental is under threat. Though Americans disagree about many things, we traditionally had a shared national sense of the bounds of normal behavior and a seemingly entrenched understanding that certain kinds of behavior fell completely outside those bounds. There is now a widespread fear that Trump’s recent actions will be ‘normalized’ and that our shared understanding of the normal will then be lost.

I think that this fear is getting at something of deep importance, and it is therefore worth taking a moment to think philosophically about what is at stake here. What exactly does it mean to see certain behavior as normal?

At least initially, the notion of normality may seem like a puzzling one. Indeed, it might seem that this notion could be understood in either of two ways and that neither of them helps us understand the present sense of crisis.

One view would be that the notion of normality is a purely statistical one. On this interpretation, when people say that it is important not to normalize Trump, what they mean is just that it is important that people not have the belief that actions like Trump’s are statistically frequent. But this interpretation seems to miss what is so deeply important here. It doesn’t give us any understanding of why people might think that something precious is in danger of being lost.

A second view would be that the notion of normality is a purely evaluative one. On this second interpretation, when people say that it is important not to normalize Trump, what they mean is that it is important to hold on to our sense that actions like Trump’s are very wrong. But again, this interpretation seems to miss the point. To illustrate, many people think that Bush’s tax cuts were very wrong, but such people still see Bush’s tax cuts as normal. When people say that we should not normalize Trump, they seem to be getting at something further. They mean that it is absolutely essential that we not think about Trump’s actions in the way we might think about Bush’s tax cuts.

Just in the past few years, there has been a surge of work investigating the notion of normality, and I think this work actually does a lot to help illuminate these issues. The key insights here are not due to any individual paper or any single researcher. Rather, they emerge collectively from the work of a number of philosophers and cognitive scientists working closely together, including Adam Bear, Paul Egré & Florian Cova, Joseph Halpern & Christopher Hitchcock, Jonathan Phillips, and Tomek Wysocki. Much of this work is quite technical, but I think it actually gives us exactly the tools we need to understand the crisis we face today.

In particular, this work provides evidence for two main conclusions:

First, people may be able to think about purely statistical questions or purely evaluative questions, but people also have a more basic mode of thought that blends these two sorts of questions together. The notion of normality is a clear example. It seems to involve an undifferentiated blend of the statistical and the evaluative.

To give just one example, a recent paper on normality explored people’s intuitions about the normal amount of TV to watch in a day. Some participants were asked to guess the average amount of TV people watch per day (a statistical judgment), while others were asked about the ideal amount of TV to watch per day (an evaluative judgment). Unsurprisingly, participants gave a quite high amount for the average and a much lower amount for the ideal. Participants in a third group were then asked about the normal amount of TV to watch in a day. The results showed that the perceived normal amount was intermediate between the average and the ideal. In other words, people’s notion of the normal seemed somehow to blend together the statistical and the evaluative. (This very same pattern arose across a wide variety of quantities, including everything from amounts of exercise for a person to do in a week to percentages of students to be bullied in a middle school.)

Second, when people regard a possibility as abnormal, they tend not to think about it all. Thus, when an agent is trying to decide what to do, she will tend to consider various different options, weighing the pros and cons of each. However, she will also tend not even to consider possible options that are completely abnormal. It is not that she rejects these possibilities on the grounds of their abnormality; it is that she takes them to be too absurd even to be part of her deliberations at all. (This second idea has been a key theme in the work of Jonathan Phillips.)

With all this in the background, perhaps we can get a better sense of what is at stake in this struggle to preserve our shared sense of the normal. When it comes to an issue like tax cuts, we might think that people should be actively thinking about which policies are right and which are wrong. People have a capacity for purely evaluative judgment, and we might think that they should be using that capacity to evaluate the various options at hand. But when it comes to some of Trump’s recent behaviors, we might not think that people should think about them in this same way. It is not that people should be thinking about these options and concluding, ‘To do that would be very wrong.’ Instead, it seems that there is some more fundamental mode of thought that should be blocking these possibilities before they even rise to the point of active consideration. The shared understanding that is so deeply precious here is the one we might express by dismissing such options with a sentence like, ‘That’s just not a way any normal person would behave.’

20 Replies to “What Does it Mean to ‘Normalize’ Trump?

  1. Thanks for outlining this research so clearly, Josh. The thought that when people regard a possibility as abnormal they tend to disregard it entirely reminds me of a line from the concluding chapter of Williams’s “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy,” where, in the course of discussing deliberative priorities, Williams says:

    “An effective way for actions to be ruled out is that they never come into thought at all, and this is often the best way. One does not feel easy with the man who in the course of a discussion of how to deal with political or business rivals says, “Of
    course, we could have them killed, but we should lay that aside right from the beginning.” It should never have come into his hands to be laid aside. It is characteristic of morality that it tends to overlook the possibility that some concerns are best embodied in this way, in deliberative silence.”

  2. Josh,

    Thank you for raising this important issue. There seems to me to be very good reason to worry about the effects of “normalizing” Trump’s comments and behavior. This is a place where philosophical reflection bears on immediate and pressing issues.

    I find what you say helpful and interesting. But I wonder if you know of any work that bears on the question of authority. After all, Trump has not been and is no longer just any old celebrity — during the campaign he was the nominee of one of the two major US political parties, and now he is the president-elect. Children look up to him in a different way than they do other figures in the news, and he represents the choice of millions of American voters as someone they think fit to represent our country to the world. Has there been investigation of how the words and behavior of authority figures factors into normalization? This seems to be a further factor, on top of the statistical and evaluative. And it would make sense to me if the words and deeds of authority figures were to carry more weight in influencing people’s intuitions about normality and their consideration of certain candidate courses of action. On the one hand, when it comes to the statistical issue, the fact that an authority figure acts in a certain way may count more than the fact than a regular person does. And on the other, the perceived endorsement of a certain course of action by an authority figure may have an outsized impact on one’s evaluation of it.

    I suspect that the issues here are likely much more complicated than my comments make them out to be. But in any case, there seems to me to be reason to think that authority figures factor into the issue of normality in a special way. But I would be very interested to learn of research (or even just your own thoughts) on this issue.

  3. Very Interesting, Josh! Thanks for drawing attention to this interesting literature!

    Here is a thought that might be behind people’s worries:

    When people are acting normally (according to current social norms), it is socially accepted to let them go about their business.

    This suggests that when some morally suspect type of behavior becomes newly “normalized”, there is no (or much less) social pressure to prevent it or disapprove of it. This will naturally embolden those who want to engage in the relevant behavior but who resisted because of feared consequences before normalization, and it may also lead people who see the behavior as problematic to engage in it when tempted (or pushed).

    More significantly, any likely victims of the relevant type of behavior will rightly feel more vulnerable as the forces of social pressure that have previously helped protect them have shrunk back and left them more exposed.

    Has any of the research you mention taken up the rough line I have suggested? If not, do you think it is plausible? I guess that seems to be what is worrying people, but I wonder if others agree

  4. Nathaniel,

    This is a very helpful point. Perhaps the impact of seeing certain behaviors as abnormal is In part that it shapes our deliberations in precisely the way Williams famously describes.


    What you say here seems exactly right. Existing research has not looked specifically at the impact of authority on normality judgments, but it does seem that these judgments are not simply shaped by raw statistical frequency. Rather, just as you suggest, individuals in positions of authority or prestige might have an outsized influence our people’s understanding of what is normal. This is part of what makes our present situation so terrifying.

  5. Hi Brad,

    This is a very helpful and interesting point, but I actually don’t quite agree. Let’s see if we can discuss it a little bit further and try to get to the bottom of this.

    In the way that I am thinking of it, people quite commonly disapprove of and try to prevent actions that they do not regard as at all abnormal. Liberals disapprove of the appointment of conservative justices. Conservatives disapprove of the appointment of liberal justices. Just about everyone disapproves of drunk driving and marital infidelity. Yet, though we might disapprove of these things and try to prevent them, We still recognize that all of them are relatively normal.

    What I was trying to suggest is that it is vitally important that the kinds of behaviors Trump is performing are not seen in this same way. People don’t want the things he is doing to be seen as similar to marital infidelity (something that is seen as very wrong but nonetheless a normal part of the way life goes). They want these things to be seen as fundamentally *abnormal*, i.e., as things that never even reach up to the level where we have to reject them on the grounds that they are wrong.

    Are you disagreeing with this? I would certainly be more than willing to reconsider my views on the topic in light of further arguments.

  6. Hi Josh,

    Thanks for fleshing that out. I do think we disagree about what people are worried about, but I’m not sure.

    First, I meant to be pushing a conditional that goes: If considered normal, then it is socially *permissible* to let them go ahead. So I can agree that normalized wrongdoing is still disproved of by some. My point was that when it is normalized this disapproval is socially optional. Roughly, there is no social pressure or presumption that you disapprove or try to prevent. This still seems right to me. You are right that many disapprove of infidelity and try to prevent it, but others today are more accepting of it and this is both run of the mill, and itself socially accepted. I think the presence and acceptance of people who let infidelity fly without harsh disapproval is what makes it normalized. I think people are worried that the same can happen with sexual assault. Right now even misogynists feel pressure to ape disapprove in most contexts (…but…trumps locker room…) but if it is normalized they can feel free to express acceptance or even approval of it without people batting an eye. Disapproval would be socially optional (but not, thankfully, eliminated).

    If that makes sense I can maybe point to our disagreement, such as it is. On my view normalization worries people because it involves weakening the degree of social pressure against something wrong or distasteful. As you point out it need not disappear. You seem to think people are worried because when normalized, they will now have to morally criticize something that was previously considered beyond the pale. Are these “social permission to accept” and “no longer beyond the pale” accounts in conflict? Well one could combine them I think.

    I guess my main thought is that people are mostly worried by social acceptance, when I think of the assault or harassment cases. I don’t think the main worry is that now we might have to morally criticize horrible behavior that we previously agreed was beyond the pale. I think the worry is about disapproval becoming socially optional. If it is, then it will be seen as no big deal that more and more people are ok with assault or even admire powerful people who prey on others when they can. This is bad because disapproval and commitment to prevention should be mandatory. Even in locker rooms.

    What do you think though?

  7. Brad and Josh,

    There does seem to be discussion of normalization in connection with the worries Brad is referring to. I discuss some of this in connection with Trump’s candidacy and the post-election climate and link to a couple of studies in a Psychology Today post here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-death-and-the-self/201611/shaun-king-s-timeline.

    The studies I link to (which I found through this piece by Jennifer Saul: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/581f1001e4b044f827a78e72?timestamp=1478432391696) are a bit older than the research Josh is discussing. And they don’t focus on the distinction between statistical and evaluative normality or the notion of unthinkability. But they do focus on the kinds of social acceptance worries I think Brad is pointing to. And it seems to me that there is room to fold these worries into the ones Josh is concerned with. The issues seem multi-layered and complex.

    I wonder what others think.

  8. Hi Brad,

    Thanks for this very thoughtful reply. It seems like our views are actually compatible, in that normalization might have these two independent effects (an effect on condemnation and prevention, an effect on whether people consider certain possibilities at all). With that thought in mind, maybe it would be helpful for me to provide two quick reasons to suspect that normalization would have an impact on the degree to which people consider certain possibilities at all.

    First, existing work on judgments of normality consistently finds that when a possibility is regarded as highly abnormal, people tend not even to consider it. Most of this work has no connection with political or moral issues per se. For example, a lot of it is aimed at developing an accurate theory of people’s ordinary causal judgments. Most such theories assume that people make causal judgments by considering certain counterfactual scenarios, but it seems that people do not consider all such scenarios equally. Rather, existing studies of causal judgment provide strong evidence that people simply ignore counterfactual scenarios that are sufficiently abnormal.

    The suggestion now is that this very general fact about human cognition is absolutely central to the case of Trump in particular. Quite generally, the mind seems to work in such a way that it ignores possibilities that are regarded as abnormal. Thus, if the Trump presidency leads us to regard as normal things that had previously been seen as completely abnormal, his presidency will have a direct impact on which possibilities people consider.

    Second, it seems clear that there is a profound difference between people’s reactions to Trump’s recent behavior and their reactions to what we have seen in previous administrations. Many liberals were opposed to the Iraq war and felt compelled to do what they could to prevent it. Similarly, many conservatives were opposed to the Affordable Care Act and felt compelled to do what they could to prevent it. But what we are seeing now is completely different. In both of those other cases, people clearly acknowledged that they were faced with a case in which they could be reasonably asked to provide evidence or argument. That is not how people feel about what is going on now. Rather, people seem to have a sense that these things should be completely off the table, not discussed, debated, or considered in any way.

  9. Hi Joshua,
    thank you for your post which got me thinking more about how Americans are using the term ‘normalize’ in this context.

    I think that you’ve omitted a sense of normalization that derives from Foucault’s work. For Foucault, normalization doesn’t have all and only redeeming qualities. He regards it as a central mechanism of modern power. It doesn’t point to something he thought we should cherish, so much as resist. On this understanding of normalization, the abnormal is not something that is ignored, but rather much considered, produced, elaborated, evaluated, classified, and so on, and thereby actually contributes significantly to the constitution of the normal itself. Any thoughts on this understanding of normality and normalizing?

    Incidentally, philosophers and theorists of disability have also had much to say about the normal, normality, and normalization. I hope that readers of your post will check out some of that material too!

  10. Surely Joshua’s and Brad’s points mesh. The research seems to show that Joshua is right about what normality means, namely it is the set of possibilities that people ordinarily consider. (In political science, the Overton window, approximately. And I agree with Shelley that this can certainly be intentionally moved around.) But that does not by itself explain protests in the streets—after all, if the President-elect were a Buddhist monk, that too would not be normal, but maybe in a good way. People are upset because Trump is abnormal in a bad way, and the set of possibilities we have to consider just got expanded in a very negative direction. And if things can now be thunk that before were unthinkable, then in a nation of 300 million people somebody will act on them, and that is bad.

    It occurs to me, though, that this concept of normality might explain some other things about this election. As the country gets more polarized, it is quite likely that Red America and Blue America have not only systematically different preferences, but different ideas of what is normal. Social media bubbles reinforce this. When a change of power occurs, half the country is going to be forced to think about things it had not been thinking about. This is going to be different from just not getting your preferred slate of normal possibilities.

    Also, left and right use ‘racism’ in different ways. Well-intentioned conservatives who think of racism as a more-or-less conscious state of mind would say that racism happens, but it is not a normal kind of character flaw. Well-intentioned progressives think of racism as a kind of pervasive social condition, hence bad but normal. In these frameworks, labelling a person or group ‘racist’ is going to have very different emotional overtones.

  11. Hi All,

    Very interesting points being raised. I think Heath is certainly right that part of the growing rift in society may be diverging conceptions of what is normal and this may be fueled by the “living in a bubble” effects that people continue to worry about. It is easy to write off those one considers abnormal and perhaps hard to talk to those with a different sense of what is normal. It seems like that last idea might fit with Josh’s points.

  12. These further comments are all extraordinarily helpful, and in light of all these suggestions, I am definitely thinking that there is real potential for important work here at the intersection of cognitive science and moral or social/political philosophy.

    A number of commenters pointed out that liberals and conservatives might have different conceptions of the normal. This has in fact been shown in unpublished research by Tomek Wysocki, and I think people are exactly right to suggest that this difference might have very important implications for the divisiveness we find in today’s society.

    I was also very struck by the suggestion that one might be able to bring together cognitive science-oriented work on normality with ideas from either political science or continental philosophy. This suggestion seems like one that has a great deal of potential to generate valuable further insights.

  13. Hi Josh, thanks for the lucid post. As much as I think the fear of normalizing Trump given what we take to be ‘our’ current shared standards is warranted, I think Shelley’s and Heath’s caveats are also important, especially in this context. Disability advocates know all too well how notions of normality or normalcy can be ambivalent and bias, in harmful ways, our perceptions of the lives of the disabled. When it comes to Trump–or even more so his entourage–such notions can play a nefarious role in defining the new standards of society. Take gender identity, sexual orientation, reproductive freedom, multicultural/ethnic communities, gender roles, etc. When the sort of conservatives surrounding and influencing Trump take a stance on these issues, they often tend to normalize them by (in some sense of the term) naturalizing them, thereby making the ‘unnatural’ abnormal. The abnormal is so because it is unnatural. But note that, in line with what you write, it doesn’t just mean it’s wrong. They mean it ought to be eliminated or corrected in order to restore a supposedly natural order. That is the sort of normal we don’t want to normalize, in addition to Trump’s until-recently-beyond-the-pale behaviors.

  14. These comments are truly fascinating and definitely take this issue in a direction I had not initially anticipated. First, let me make sure I understand the relevant point correctly. As I understand it, the claim is that (a) our ordinary tendency to regard certain things as abnormal might indeed have helped to prevent the kind of behavior we can now see in Trump but that (b) this same tendency has other effects that are deeply problematic. Thus, it might be a mistake to lament the loss of a sense of abnormality in this particular case, given that we would not generally want the tendency to regard things as abnormal to be guiding our judgments.

    Before I say anything further, I just want to make sure I am correctly grasping the key idea. Is this summary an accurate one?

  15. Josh, I did not understand Nicolas’s remarks in the way that you have summarized them. First, I think Nicolas has suggested that ideas about normality, the normal, abnormal, abnormality are neither objective nor value-neutral. Indeed, these notions are generated in ways that harm certain social groups. Therefore, second, there is no “ordinary tendency” to regard certain behaviours as abnormal. That allegedly natural inclination to regard certain things, practices, behaviours, and so on as “unnatural” and “abnormal” is manufactured, a product of social power; ways of seeing (normality and abnormality) are always directed, in particular ways, for particular reasons, and to achieve particular aims.

    I think people should be very worried about the incremental normalization and encroachment of Trump’s authoritarianism. But they should not, in order to articulate their opposition to him and show what is wrong with his techniques, appeal to notions of “normality” (and “abnormality”) or “normal” states of affairs (etc.). These terms, phrases, and their accomplices have sordid genealogies that trace the pathologization, disenfranchisement, exclusion, abuse, dehumanization, and so on of disabled people, black people and people of colour, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women (groups which, of course, are not mutually exclusive). Many of the practices that constitute these genealogies persist in the present. Hence, I think people should refrain from circulating the hashtag #NotNormal to tweet about Trump’s behaviour, nor should they formulate their arguments around claims according to which his actions simply are “not normal.” Doing so reinforces, while obscuring, the detrimental effects of these (medical, juridical, evaluative, social)classifications already visited upon members of certain social groups who ostensibly fail to approximate the designations of normal, regular, average, etc., putative failures that are (as Nicolas suggests) both naturalized and normalized by Trump and his entourage. To put the point another way, efforts to condemn Trump in this distinctive way effectively reinscribe discursive practices that medicalize and pathologize large sections of the public and have unintended harmful consequences for these people. In my view, the term normal should always be regarded as a disciplinary tool, never a desired ideal.

  16. Joshua,

    Upon reflection, I wonder whether your first and second claims about normality in the OP aren’t getting at different things. My reasoning is that if you were trying to figure out how much TV I watched, certainly the statistically average TV-watching number would figure within the range of possibilities you consider. But then you are considering “abnormal” (in sense 1) amounts of TV-watching for me. However the mere fact you are considering this number shows it is “normal” (in sense 2).

    When it comes to Trump, it seems the second sense—the normal as the range of possibilities one considers—is the important one. And I would guess that this is an evaluative notion, albeit not the same as “ideal”. Rather, perhaps the normal/ideal distinction is like the permissible/supererogatory distinction: the ideal is the best, but we will settle for normal. The abnormal is criticizable in a different way. (Bush tax cuts are “politics as usual” while consorting with white supremacists is not.) So now we are back to Brad’s point: the (or a) problem with normalizing Trump is that it changes the set of things that receive strong social opprobrium; with less opprobrium, they become thinkable.

    Michael Thompson discusses a similar bit of grammar about living things, e.g. “Bobcats give birth in the spring.” This need not be true of all actual bobcats, or even the statistical average of bobcats, nor is it a claim (necessarily) about ideal bobcats. Rather, it is a claim about normal bobcats: it is saying something about how bobcats “should” behave though it doesn’t rise as high as ideal bobcathood.

    Though I have no special expertise in the area of disability, something like this concept seems necessary to me to identify anyone as having a disability. It’s the fact that “[Normal] human beings walk on two legs” that identifies someone who gets around in a wheelchair as disabled, while people who cannot run marathons are not ipso facto disabled. And if we did not have some criterion like this, it would be really hard to write, say, laws that mandated equal treatment for disabled persons. So I don’t think I agree with Shelley (and Nicolas?) that normality-discourse is always oppressive.

    When it comes to the concept of normality in politics, I think I would put its function like this. I am willing to consider nearly any possibility in a philosophy seminar, where (i) we are not constrained by time, (ii) the good will and truth-seeking character of the participants is assumable, and (iii) we are not going to be making any publicly consequential decisions as a result of our discussions. As many have noted, philosophical discussions are not confined to normal possibilities. In the political arena, none of these conditions hold, and you have people with strong impure motives, under time and political pressure, making important decisions. So we can then try to constrain the possibilities under consideration by political actors to a set of reasonably good ones by either (1) logic and reasons, or (2) emotion and social opprobrium. Logic and reasons are more truth-sensitive, but emotion and opprobrium are more powerful. Hopefully the emotionally-powerful boundaries of the “normal” range of discourse can be backed up by reasons, in the seminar room, when someone asks (and if they cannot, it’s time to change the boundaries), but it would be a mistake to rely on seminar-room conditions in the arena of public discourse. Hence the danger of stretching, or even abandoning, the concept of the normal in politics.

  17. Hi Josh, and others –

    “our ordinary tendency to regard certain things as abnormal might indeed have helped to prevent the kind of behavior we can now see in Trump” but “we would not generally want the tendency to regard things as abnormal to be guiding our judgments.”

    Yes. The first sense of abnormal helps shape acceptable standards of behavior. Trump slipped through the cracks, but now the worry is part of his entourage has a pretty robust idea of normal/abnormal that could harm a lot of people if, indeed, it became normalized. The way I will put this is by distinguishing two orders of normality.

    We should be careful not to take normality to be a reliable standard across *all contexts* or without making clear we what we mean by it. It sounds like the attempt to not normalize Trump is meant to rule out such abnormal behavior precisely because it contravenes fundamental *norms* of behavior. It’s like second-order wrong. Not just the sort of thing open to normative disagreement (like Bush’s tax cuts), but the very kind of behavior that needs to be ruled out in order for reasonable normative disagreement to emerge and function properly. This understanding of normal I have no issue with, and pace Shelley, I don’t think it’s solely manufactured by social power, or if it is, not in a way that would straightforwardly undermine it. Rather, I take it as a bedrock, a prerequisite for continuously producing shared social norms. In that sense it is important not to normalize Trump since this would erode the bedrock.

    So my worry is based on context. In the present context, notions of normal are being used around and by Trump and Trumpers in such a way that ‘abnormal’ by itself is no longer sufficient to keep some behaviors outside the range of acceptability. First, Trump himself has weakened the importance and meaning of normal. Secondly, he has rallied people who clearly think norms of society should be based on a certain idea of the normal, which itself gets ugly or simply confused when you look further. A normal America, to them, is less brown, more Christian, more straight, more binary, you name it.

    That’s why we need a refined concept of abnormal, because some people actually interpret it in the first-order normative sense (e.g. homosexuality is wrong; racial equality is wrong) by conflating good, normal and natural. That’s where it gets dangerous.

    Again, not every naturalistic understanding of normal is incorrect (see Heath’s point about Thompson’s work on forms of life) and I would not generalize my point as Shelley suggests. There are objective, value-neutral ways to make sense of the normal/abnormal. Just not in every context and it’s tricky.

  18. Hi Josh and Everyone else,

    I find that historical/genealogical analyses are very good tools to use when we ask what and how our current ideas signify. In addition to Foucault’s work, Ian Hacking’s studies are crucial in this regard. They remind us of the evaluative and historically contingent character of ideas about normality, norms, and so on.

    In a number of contexts in my forthcoming book, in fact, I use the work of both of Foucault and Hacking (among others) to discuss normalization, the norm, normality, and their relation to disciplinary power. I thought it might be useful for this discussion if people considered what Hacking has said in one place about these ideas and their purposes; so, here is a relevant paragraph from my book:

    “Ian Hacking (1990) has noted that the first meaning of normal that any current English dictionary provides is something like “usual, regular, common, typical.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this usage became current after 1840, with the first citation of “normal, or typical” appearing in 1828. Hacking has noted that the modern sense of the word normal was not, however, furnished by education or cloistered study, but rather, by the study of life. Hacking explained that the word normal became indispensable because it provided a way to be objective about human beings, especially given the inseparability of the notion of normal from its opposite, namely, the pathological. The word normal, he wrote, “uses a power as old as Aristotle to bridge the fact/value distinction, whispering in your ear that what is normal is also all right” (160). He has asserted, furthermore, that the word normal bears the stamp of the nineteenth century just as the concept of human nature is the hallmark of the Enlightenment: whereas in the past we sought to discover what human nature is, we now concern ourselves with investigations that will tell us what is “normal” (161). Hacking has also pointed out that although the normal stands “indifferently for what is typical, the unenthusiastic objective average, it also stands for what has been, good health, and what shall be, our chosen destiny.” “That,” he has contended, “is why the benign and sterile-sounding word ‘normal’ has become one of the most powerful ideological tools of the twentieth century” (169). It is especially noteworthy for my argument that, as Hacking noted, our modern usage of the word normal evolved in a medical context.”

    I might have more to say later in response to some of the recent comments. But, I wanted to share these thoughts for now.

  19. Hi All,

    Shelly, thanks very much for drawing attention to the Hacking in addition to the Foucault. I am not as knowledgeable about the history of ‘normal’ and its use (individually or politically) as I would like to be and am interested to know more.

    It strikes me that many enlightenment philosophers emphasize originality and individuality in a way that would press against the assumption that normal is good and abnormal is bad. I am thinking of Mill in On Liberty, but also Herder and others influenced by German romanticism – e.g. Schliermacher and maybe DuBois. These thinkers push back against normatively laced claims about what is natural and I suspect they would, or maybe did, also appeal to the value or individuality/authenticity/originality in order to challenge the idea that normal is good and abnormal is bad. In addition, Herder inspired valorization of cultural difference seems to ground a second doubt about the value of being normal.

    More generally, I am not confident how widespread the “normal is good and abnormal is bad” assumption is or has been. Do you think that Romanticism has grounded a counter-current as I suggest? Do you agree that it might give us a good normative basis to question assumptions about the value of normality? Is this part of the history you or Hacking or Foucault trace?

  20. These recent comments are all extraordinarily helpful and really do a lot to take this inquiry in a deeper and, I believe, highly promising direction.

    In thinking about these issues, it seems helpful to distinguish between the basic idea of normality itself and more particular views that people happen to have about what is normal.

    At its core, the notion of normality seems to be something people use to pick out the possibilities that are worth considering. For example, suppose that I strike a match and thereby light a fire. In thinking about how things could have gone differently, you might think “What if he had not struck that match?” but you would be unlikely to think “What if there had been no oxygen in the atmosphere?” Existing research suggests that this sort of effect arises because people think it is normal not to strike a match, but that it is not normal for there to be no oxygen in the atmosphere.

    My suggestion was that research along these lines might help to explain the concern many people have about normalizing Trump’s recent behavior. This sort of behavior was traditionally regarded as something not even worth considering (like the possibility of all oxygen being removed from the atmosphere). People are justifiably concerned that recent events will create a lasting change.They will leave us thinking of these behaviors as possibilities that need to be considered during deliberation.

    A number of commenters here have expressed concern that people’s beliefs about normality are sometimes wrapped up with a conception of a “natural” state for human beings, understood in opposition to various states regarded as “deviant.” They have suggested that we have good reason to regard this conception as problematic. For this reason, they note, we might want to completely reject the idea of a natural state rather than simply rejecting one particular view about which state is natural.

    All of this seems very reasonable to me. I can definitely see why one might not want to cloak one’s political views in a problematic framework that involves a natural state for human beings, and I can see why one might want to do what one could to eliminate this framework from our way of making sense of the world.

    By contrast, the ordinary notion of normality — understood as a way of picking out possibilities that are worthy of consideration — does not seem like the kind of thing we could effectively fight against.

    Most work on the ordinary notion of normality is rather technical, but if you want to wade into some of the technicalities, you can take a look at:




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