"The normal does not exist. The average does not exist. We know only a very large but probably finite phalanx of discrete space-time events encountered and endured."
Timothy F.X. Finnegan, First Axiom, 1986
"Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last 50 years."
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, 1967
Human societies are all about norms, correct ways to behave, standard ways to look, socially acceptable attitudes to all things. To be judged abnormal is to be rejected, to be regarded as faulty, in need of repair. Entire medical industries have grown up in a bid to put right those unfortunate members of society that are not normal - the deviants.
But it's all a myth ! There is not, nor ever was, such a thing as 'normality'. This invented idea is all about conformity, about averages, about absolute measures of reality - a concept that seen from the viewpoint of complexity thought is nonsensical. Here we will look at what it could mean to be normal and contrast it with the actual human condition of diversity. We shall see that many of society's problems stem from the mismatch between what we really are and the social myths that we have unwittingly adopted.
You know where you are with rocks. They never lie to you, never do the unexpected, don't fight back. The love of material things stems in part from their predictability, we can take action knowing full well what will happen. People of course are different, they are unpredictable. It is perhaps no surprise that we attempt to remove that unpredictability, to make the other members of our society behave in predictable ways, to treat them as if they were rocks.
Thus we invent the norm. When we meet we shake hands, men wear trousers and women skirts. Whatever the action we wish to have it all tied up, to know how to behave in any situation. This obviously makes some sense, we want space to think about important things and not to be distracted in trying to deal with a chaotic world. But we then go and take it much too far !
"The real picture consists of nothing
but exceptions to the rule."
Statistics are wonderful things, pure fantasy. If I'd said that the average family has 2 children you would probably have accepted it, assuming no doubt one boy, one girl. But the world average is (inconveniently) not an integer, so what is the 0.4 that is left ? There is really no such thing as an 'average' family - no family on Earth that actually has 2.4 children. Some have 0, some 1, some 2, some 3 and so on. Thus none of the families on the planet are 'normal' - if we mean by this 'average'.
And what else could we mean ? When we classify anything we group like objects together, but they are never the same (unless you are a physicist...). No two dogs are identical, no two cells are. All are what we can call statistically self-similar, they have a lot in common but much that is not. Minds are the same, no two people have the same experiences, so no two psychological profiles are the same.
To live in a society we must be able to work together, to agree about certain things. Every culture on the planet has a different set of such conventions, the rules by which we can communicate and know what the other person will do. This trust between us (and that is what it is) allows us to gain efficiency, by division of labour, by cooperation, by mutual benefit. So we have a contrast between social ideas that are constant and people that are not.
And now the tail starts to wag the dog. Given that the conventions we have agreed are just arbitrary (we could greet each other by kissing, or rubbing noses or punching each other - some do each of these !), we start to assume that what 'Society' says is 'right' and thus anyone who does anything different is 'wrong'. A complex meshing of behaviours is thus reduced to a dualist 'right' or 'wrong'.
We have thus objectified a behaviour which was designed to be contextual, we have created a myth or fantasy from what is just a subjective agreement, and one that is at the lowest common denominator - the minimum formality needed to conduct social intercourse between individuals. What is in our heads is 'real', not what we project out into a social 'virtual reality', whether we call this 'science' or not. Mathematical fantasies are not social realities.
This idea of an objective 'society', a fixed set of 'standards' to which all subjective individuals must conform is as big an error as the scientific idea of an objective world. What is real depends upon our values and these depend upon our psychological profile and our experience. If there is a mismatch between society and individual then who is right ?
We saw earlier that the real me resides not in the outer social shell but in the essence of our being. Can we say therefore that if our desires clash with those of society then we must change our desires ? The Psychotherapy industry would like to say so ! But the 'corrections' imposed only adjust the outer social shell, we are taught to 'behave' appropriately to the society of which we are a part, but the essence of the person is still the same, so we simply internalise a conflict - no wonder so many people suffer from 'anxiety' !
Discarding those few cases where there is a genuine medical problem (a detectable abnormality in the brain physiology), we must recognise that the majority of our psychological problems are not abnormalities with us, but are abnormalities of our created society - we have created a monster and it is devouring us ! Our metapathologies stem from this static objectification of what is an ongoing process, a diverse social life.
Paradox in our social lives is rife. We stress to endless degrees the economic efficiency of division of labour. Our institutions are specialised to excessive degree, whether in education, in business, in hobbies or elsewhere. Yet we simultaneously behave as if the people implementing this diversity must all be exactly the same ! Clearly if people do different things they will think in different ways (even on a deterministic view this must be the case). Thus psychological diversity is a fact of life - there is no such thing as a 'normal' person.
The greater this individual diversity the greater must be the allowed social diversity in our societies. This implies an increase in the number of variables applicable to our natures. To define a unique social being requires a very large array of different values (impossible to quantify accurately), thus the same must be true of the society that contains them all. We cannot specify a small number of fixed variables and call this a 'normal'.
Whether our behaviour fits into society depends more on context than on absolutes. Each of us has many different sets of social behaviours, many 'hats' we wear in different circumstances (at the office, in bed, in a bar, on holiday etc.). Thus we can only judge a behaviour with reference to a specific context, not in absolute terms. What is abnormal in one circumstance can be required behaviour in another - thus we are all abnormal normals, creatures with variable contextual behaviours !
Given this, we should now ask on whose authority do those who try to impose norms act ? As we form our society then the norms we wish to adopt at any particular time should relate to those that best meet our collective individual needs - and these vary from person to person. The stupidity of some 'fashion authority' claiming perhaps that 'beige' is the 'in' colour and expecting everyone to wear nothing else should be clear. Yet people follow these 'guru's slavishly, afraid to be 'different' to be 'abnormal'.
"When all the world would keep a matter hid,
Since Truth is seldom Friend to any crowd,
Men write in Fable, as old Aesop did,
Jesting at that which none will name aloud... "
Rudyard Kipling, The Fabulists, 1914-18
Many of our social norms are unspoken, we grow up without ever being taught what they are - let alone what they are based on (difficult...). These areas often include Law and Sex (strangely we are taught all we wish to know about violence - but never about love ;-). We find out that we have broken a 'norm' only when censored by others, a situation not conducive to either socially acceptable behaviour nor to our self-esteem and openness !
The unexamined life is not worth living, so we should challenge a destructive social system based on such deceit (suppressed information) and hate (disapproval). Without openness we cannot say if the standards of our society are reasonable or not. We cannot challenge what we do not know, and it is this idea of unchallengable 'truths' that is so pernicious about many of these (often trivial) social prejudices - which generally have no claim to accuracy and remain untested historical myths. To pretend to be what we are not is to betray ourselves and other people's trust in us, but trust is what maintains society and if we do not have that then what is left ?
Many aspects of our society suffer what can best perhaps be described as sociological pathologies, ways of behaving that are counterproductive for the members, yet which are so self-sustaining as to be inescapable attractors. These social dead ends constrain the individuals which make up the society, just as bodies constrain the cells that make them up. In complex systems thinking we can only change these emergent attractors by changes to the interconnections or rules that configure the parts - and that means changing our interactions with each other and/or our ways of thinking.
Psychotherapy attempts to change the parts, the individual's thought processes, and has largely been a failure - because simply we do not need to change ! The problem lies not in the parts but in the interconnections, the social relationships that form our social values. If we ask any dissatisfied individual what is wrong, we find that society doesn't meet their needs. But 'society' doesn't exist - it is just a emergent property of how we interact with each other, so changing our interactions is really the sociotherapy we need. We need to adjust our social world to fit our needs and not vice-versa.
Changing the world is of course a slow process, but by recognising that there is no such thing as a 'normal' then we can freely say what it is that we do want, and not just internalise our feelings in fear of being thought 'deviant'. We can of course get it all wrong, maybe what we want isn't really all that good and society is right after all - but it never has been before ! All progress in human society has come from change, from the social abnormals of the day, the discontents, the geniuses. This is an evolutionary world, a world of change. Good ideas improve it and bad make it worst, but unless we speak out and actively reject the bad and embrace the good we will be locked into the sub-optimal status quo.
The first against the wall in this new (peaceful) revolution must be the bureaucrats, those people obsessed with removing choice, with standardising people, options and societies. Cultural diversity is essential to achieve fitness and this needs a multidimensional viewpoint, not the one-dimensional reductions to standard 'sausages' or such perpetrated by self-serving elites. Next let us reject 'fame', the idea that any one person is 'better' than another, different is fine but 'better' again relies on a single dimensional assessment of a multidimensional person - and the other dimensions of the 'famous' are invariably decidedly dodgy !
Take a snapshot of yourself when you are looking your best. O.K. ? Static beauty, as captured by the photograph, again relates to one aspect of your total multidimensional person. The obsession with 'youth' in our cosmetics industry ignores the idea that as your looks change with age then other aspects of your nature change to compensate. The whole you is never static, never a 'norm', aspects of you grow and decline, are important or not in different contexts. You cannot stop nature, so don't try - just enjoy the variety !
All the ideas on which our social norms are based are abstract ones, they do not themselves exist in the material world - we create the ideas of beauty, of good or of worth collectively, and we can change them as we see fit. Currently 'money' is a top dog, previously it was land or power or knowledge or saintliness... Perhaps we have reached a point in our human development when it is time for ' wisdom' to take the stage ?
Understanding that we don't have to fit society but that it has to fit us removes the anxiety that pervades all our modern societies, the idea that we are not the 'perfect' people that social norms create. These myths of perfection relate to the Platonic world of forms, the perfect archetypes that the ancients thought lay behind all forms. But is a perfect imaginary 'circle' better than a real bent one ? Why ? Life is diversity not regularity, give me a fuzzy circle bursting with dynamic life over the 2000 year old static mathematical myth any day !
Freedom to be abnormal is essential to modern life, we don't need 'cures' - in fact we can no more be cured of being 'us' that we can be 'cured' of speaking ! We do need intelligence, understanding of why diversity exists and why it is valuable and is not a 'problem' to be fixed. Different isn't wrong. Bad is wrong. Different is as likely to be Good as Bad. We cannot say which it is in advance (that is what prejudice does) but must evaluate the fitness of each case on its merits and within an appropriate context. We must also evaluate the social contexts that we impose on people and decide if they themselves actually comprise the 'deviate pathologies' we project onto the people.
The craving to be normal is a craving to be average, to be a nonentity. A society of nonentities seems a strange group to worry about, but worry we do. We have seen that such a 'normal' doesn't in any case exist so we are all abnormals in most senses. Recognising this multidimensionality can release us from the social pressure to conform to static values and allow us to demand instead that our society conforms to our needs. This isn't a selfish demand but a commitment to dissolve the barrier between what we 'are' already as humans and the rather different social 'belief' that constitutes our norms.
Anxiety about our place in society can, if we so desire, be replaced by anxiety about our society's place in us. This moves our anxiety outside ourselves and places it firmly on the mythical social creations that we worship so unthinkingly. Society is our fantasy, we can remould it to fit our characters, and do not have to adopt new imaginary characters to conform to a stereotyped soap opera of ancient origin.