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Reuters/ Jonathan Ernst
How do we make sense of what normal means?
LOSING ALL MEANING

Experts around the world are debating what “normal” even means any more

By Olivia Goldhill

2016 hasn’t felt very normal. A man who boasts about sexual assault has been elected United States president. The European Union is in total disarray over how to implement Britain’s self-inflicted exile. And populist far-right movements are rising around the world. So it’s hard to keep track of what “normal” even means.

The question of what “normalcy” has been formally studied for years in the field that examines all our underlying assumptions: philosophy. But as our real-world standards have shifted, the debate has entered other fields.

Last  week, the question was formally debated in the UK Supreme Court, which was hearing whether or not the Scottish government should be consulted before formal Brexit negotiations begin between the UK and EU. Part of the argument focused on a convention that states the UK will “not normally legislate” on devolution issues in Scotland without the consent of Scottish parliament.

The UK government’s Advocate General, Lord Keen, acknowledged that the word “normally” is important and suggests that there can be “a qualification or an exception.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, there’s widespread concern about normalizing Trump’s behavior. How do we protect society from starting to believe that his insults, racism, and petty tweeting are normal? But if the president-elect is doing it, maybe this behavior is already normal?

Joshua Knobe, a professor of philosophy, psychology and linguistics at Yale University, has conducted philosophical experiments on just what people mean when they talk about normalcy. His studies found that our conception of “normal” combines the ideal with the average. So, for example, when asked about the normal amount of TV to watch a day, people choose an number of hours lower than what they believe is the “average” amount but higher than what they perceive as the “ideal” amount.

“People’s ordinary way of making sense of the world doesn’t keep separate the notion of what people ordinarily do and what they ought to do,” explains Knobe. “People infer from each to the other. If they see someone doing something all the time, they think, ‘Oh, that must be a pretty ok thing to do.’”

That’s why we’re currently in such a disturbing and strange time for our conception of normalcy: This idea isn’t fixed, but shifts depending on the behavior we notice around us. And so in the US, Donald Trump’s presidency will change what’s normal. “If people see the president often does something, they’ll think maybe that’s a pretty reasonable thing to be doing,” says Knobe.

Terrifyingly, there’s only so much we can do to prevent this shifting interpretation of normalcy. Knobe points out that previous presidential candidates didn’t avoid insulting their opponents’ wives’ looks because they thought it was a bad idea, they simply didn’t consider it within the realms of possibility. That has now changed.

Previous research on normalization has found that they key way to prevent something from becoming normal isn’t to condemn it, but simply to avoid drawing attention to it. A prominent example of this was discovered in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, which posted signs telling guests not to steal the petrified wood. But, as psychology professor Robert Cialdini found, a sign reading, “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time,” actually increased vandalism. The sign gave guests the impression that many people were stealing the wood—and so that doing so was, in some way, normal.

Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t carry much weight in today’s political climate. “In the case where the president of the United States is performing these behaviors, there’s no possible way we can adopt this strategy,” says Knobe. “It’s not as though we can avoid normalizing the behaviors that Trump’s engaged in by not publicizing them.” It’s a problem the press has been grappling with throughout Trump’s candidacy: journalists cannot ignore genuinely important news, and Trump has now become an unavoidably important person in the US. But unfortunately, drawing attention to Trump’s outrageous behavior contributes to normalizing it.

It’s terrifying because “normalcy” isn’t just about statistical frequency, but a reflection of values and what’s considered acceptable. Our notions of what’s normal will change as the world shifts around us and, disturbingly, it’s impossible to insist on a permanent standard of normalcy.

That said, though there aren’t researched methods of how to prevent the normalization of someone unavoidably in the public eye, Knobe says there are techniques that we can at least try. Firstly, he suggests that we repeatedly emphasize just how radically different Trump’s behavior is compared to previous presidents.

For example, whereas Trump attacked a gold star family during his presidency, Knobe points out that George W. Bush responded very differently when he was strongly and repeatedly criticized by the parents of a slain US soldier. In 2005, he said:

I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. She feels strongly about her position, and she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has the right to her position. And I thought long and hard about her position—I’ve heard her position from others, which is ‘get out of Iraq now.’ And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so.

“Seeing this reminder of how a previous president dealt with criticism, I was really reminded in a visceral way that what we are seeing now is not just a normal part of American political debate,” adds Knobe.

Secondly, Knobe suggests we maintain our incredulity. “Often, when politicians do things that we regard as wrong, we condemn their actions in a way that recognizes that these actions are perfectly normal. We need to avoid gradually shifting toward a form of condemnation that feels like that. We need to hold on to the distinctive tone of shocked surprise that conveys not only that something is wrong or bad but also that it involves a radical departure from the way things are normally done,” he says.

Nearly every day, the US-president elect

behaves in a way

that’s worth of condemnation. But his behavior isn’t simply wrong, it’s also unprecedented. It’s important to remember that Trump’s misdeeds are not the new normal.

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