For anyone distressed by White House politics in 2017, it was necessary to resist behavior that seemed divisive, outrageous, insulting, crude, immoral, and destructive to the rule of law. In a word, those things shouldn’t be normalized. We heard the term buzzing around President Trump’s head like flies he casually swatted away. It’s not necessary to relive the moments of bizarre abnormality that emerged this past year — the pot is still boiling.
I find myself reflecting instead on how one of the most necessary traits in human psychology became a troubling quandary. To normalize basically means to turn the abnormal into the acceptable, and without this ability, we would all be isolated and frightened for much of our lives. Traumas like the first day of kindergarten, when a protected child is set loose among strangers without his mother, are rescued by turning school into a norm. Later in life, the potential crises of puberty, which is totally abnormal to a presexual child, or menopause must be faced and accepted in order for normal life to proceed.
We learn to normalize much bigger threats. Dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima brought unspeakable destruction into the fabric of everyday life, and so catastrophic were those events that the ensuing Cold War was never fully normalized. We simply learned to desensitize our dread as best we could. The thinness of returning to normal was recently revealed when North Korea forced the world to face the possibility of nuclear war once more, and we discovered that dread still lies just beneath the surface.
Because it is a two-edged sword, to normalize can also be the worst thing a person can do. Millions attempted to desensitize themselves to the horrors inflicted under Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, and those who succeeded lost things too precious to be lost: their conscience, dignity, freedom, and the bond of human sympathy. In 2017, it seemed unimaginable to find America in a similar if far less terrifying reality. It felt as if politics had crossed an invisible line no civilized society should cross. In response, one senator took the floor to declare that showing loyalty to the president was complicity, a case where loyalty lost its normal meaning and became a conspiracy of silence.
Quite a number of other candidates for word of the year carry the taint of abnormality: disruption, collusion, cyberbullying, opioid, troll. Suddenly the threat of the abnormal looms over much more than politics. A sizable percentage of the population shrugs off the brazen displays of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, enable a president who boasts “The only one who matters is me” when referring to the woefully understaffed State Department, and read fake news for entertainment or to stoke personal prejudice. Like the weather, everyone complains about the gross incivility of the blogosphere, but nobody does anything about it. Could they, anyway?
But the essence of what it means to normalize — to accept, adapt, and move on — doesn’t work when a county in West Virginia wakes up to the fact that 10 percent of its population is addicted to opioids or when a methodical sociopath kills dozens of people and wounds hundreds more in a burst of gunfire in Las Vegas.
Times of fear and division bring forth jeremiads, and last year the trouncing of norms inspired a major rise in doomsayers. The range of norms that were toppling — social, personal, national, international — was staggering, and people who are generally cool-headed and patient no longer waited for the pendulum to swing back. Trumpism might signal a permanent dislocation and paralysis in federal government, leading to the futility of total gridlock and blind factionalism. The signs all point in that direction, and it’s hard to disagree with historians who point out that the seeds of divisiveness were sown as far back as Nixon’s Southern strategy, but probably long before. Members of the current Congress still bear a grudge that Social Security and Medicare exist.
The theme of this series of posts is “words matter,” and unfortunately that’s the whole problem. When words get loaded with connotations, anything can happen. I recall reading in the 1970s that the Anti-Defamation League considered it potentially defaming for a non-Jew to use the word “Jew.” This makes sense when you consider that casual anti-Semitism is sometimes taken to be normal (as in medieval Europe, among the British aristocracy before World War II, and throughout Nazi Germany), and a simple declarative sentence — “He’s a Jew” — becomes a slur loaded with historical connotations.
Words are human constructs that create reality for both good and ill. Because we have a divided nature, good and ill are interwoven. No matter how alarmingly everything spins out of control, the urge to normalize has proved irresistible. “You can’t march every day.” “There’s a firehose of fake news. No one can keep up.” “Next week’s outrage buries the outrage of the week before.” Are these worthwhile excuses? In some ways, yes, obviously. The most normal of all social impulses is to live together in peace. Yet the peace movement in the Vietnam War era failed. The general public viewed a moral cause as not just unpatriotic, but disruptive of accepted norms.
The twisting of words shows, in the worst sense, how much words matter. Right now, even “matter” can incite irrational anger, as in “Black lives matter.” A simple declarative sentence, expressing a sentiment no moral person can disagree with, has acquired dangerous connotations.
So, what to do? First, preserve the norms of morality, civility, and tolerance in your own life. Join the resistance in ways you find necessary. Try to draw others into a milieu of acceptance and tolerance, especially when they are young people. Finally, when you feel drawn into the dirty whirlpool of current events, go inside and meditate upon what can never be destroyed at the source of human awareness: love, compassion, intelligence, creativity, and evolution. They are our purpose for being here.