Monday, September 16, 2013

A Variation on Normal

There is an on going debate about the definition of "normal" in society. Many special needs advocates complain that there is no such thing as normal, simply because normal should be defined by your existence and not someone else's. I find that reasoning rather devoid of any understanding of how society functions. What is a normal way of living for some does not mean that society taken as a whole finds it "normal." Normal means average. Does the average person live this way? How does the average person interact? How does the average person learn? What are the average social conventions?  There are markers and baseline understandings in life for everything.

Society needs to establish parameters. Furthermore, without an understanding of normal, society would have no compunction to find a way to create rules that help those that fall outside the normal understanding of functionality. Honestly I still don't understand what is so wrong with the word "normal." There are normal ways of being and there are abnormal ways of being. There are social conventions that need to be followed and there are taboos that need to be avoided and in some cases corralled and obliterated altogether.

By the way, I have never lived a "normal" existence. I have defined my life according to my own rules. I held my own beliefs and ideas. I did not look for society to accept what I needed to do nor did I flinch in my responsibility to my children. Yet at the same time I worked within the rules, aka  the norms. (Parents in my town were not happy when Mr.GS was brought back in district and placed in an inclusion setting. Societal norms here is to alienate those that do not fit the accepted mold. I could have removed my son and sought an alternative less best education for him. But I decided early on that I did not need the community's acceptance to do what was best for my children. I decided to live an unconventional life in a "normal" setting.)  Listen it is important to not conflate these two concepts....."normalcy" is needed for society to function but independence of thought or being unconventional, is essential to understand your own humanity and to grow as an individual and at times do what is best for those you love the most. In fact, it is the unconventional that change the world. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates come to mind.

Now for many the idea of "normal also indicates simply one type of development and one type of understanding. That is not necessarily so. There is an interesting medical term called "variation on normal." There is a recognition that normal does not mean one absolute. There is a length and breath of what normal happens to be. It is the average in society and it is how society bends to function within that range of what is accepted as normal.
Truly, there is nothing wrong with an idea of normal, or even the concept of variation on normal. Yes we do live our lives for what is normal for us. But normalcy is more than about how we personally live our lives. Normal is how society functions and what it expects from each member. A definition of normal also indicates when someone somewhere may need society's help. If there were no concept of normal then when would anyone need help?

Take for example the psych and education testing that the schools require. The largest level is the average or "normal" functioning parameters. This level goes from 25% to 75% of correct completion. Under this concept of normal, every child that falls within this percentage of testing is not considered in need of educational support under the IDEA. (The vastness of that level of normalcy is also a discussion for another time.)

There is a huge variation on normal when you look at those educational statistics. Do we think that someone who functions at a 75% completion ratio as opposed to a 25% completion ratio are equal in function and lack of need? Absolutely not. But society has determined that all these children fall within the concept of "normal." Hence there are those in society who actually need help that do not receive the support simply because they fall within the recognized parameters. This is when the concept of "normal" needs to be reevaluated. When "normal" allows for members of society to flounder than that is when there is something wrong with the concept of normal, not simply because the concept of normal exists.

"Normal" also includes creating laws and rules of functioning. It is the societal contract that is recognized between people on how they agree to live together. It is this concept of normal that imbues humankind with a desire to help those who fall without the boundaries of society and to support those who quite frankly are incapable of helping themselves. It is the proviso of the safety net for society. Without an understanding of "normal" there would be no understanding of the need for charity, goodness and obligation to your fellow humanbeings, all of which are based on helping the helpless and the needy.

Yes, over time certain aspects of society change. Yes, what was considered "normal", aka acceptable, hundreds of years ago is no longer acceptable today. Yes, society can and does redefine normal on a continual basis. In fact depending upon which nation you happen to be  living in, your definition of normal may be entirely different. But the idea is that there are baselines and accepted modes of behavior that dictate how a society functions and how people need to live within the parameters of that society.

Without this aspect of normalcy there would simply be anarchy, or the governing by the will of the strongest, the wealthiest or the most evil. Sure you could have government by the kindest or the most moral. But in truth, while our goal is heaven on Earth, that does not exist anywhere and is not, quite frankly, in the works anytime soon.

There is nothing wrong with defining normalcy, as long as that society makes room for the most vulnerable and finds a place for them as well. It is when this normalcy or variation thereof, is used to destroy and marginalize those that dare live outside the proverbial box, that it can and has become a dangerous issue. There are those societies that destroyed members that lived outside the norm. Homogeneous, racist, societies existed throughout human history and still exist today throughout the world. They are characterized by brutality and tyranny. This is when "normal" becomes a weapon of destruction instead of continuance. Hence, in truth,  normal alone cannot define society. There has to be a moral underpinning to the world when normal is discussed. Ethics and morals, an understanding of right and wrong, are essential in any society. Normal is only one aspect of the societal contract.

Within our world we always will have what are "variations on normal." There will always be rules that govern society and helps society function in the most efficient way possible. Society is not and cannot be a haphazard form of alliances existing merely until a better offer comes along. Society, even on an intentional scale, needs rules and modes of normalcy in order for the world to function. These goal posts cannot and should not be moved to accept the most egregious forms of barbarity even though to some  it is "normal" in their world. That is why there are human rights treaties, conventions of the use of weapons in war and intentional trade agreements.

Normal, "variation on normal," exists. For a society to be stable we need to learn to live within the bounds of normal and help those who fall without the variations of normal to join the world in which we live. Social conventions, the very normal human aspect of interactions, are essential for any society to survive.