There’s talk these days about the “new normal.” Which begs the question about what was the “old normal.” Which further suggests we ask if there is anything about our lives these days that is “normal" at all, especially against the dictionary definition of normal as "the usual, the average, the standard, the typical state or condition.”
Let me begin, however, with some thoughts about the “old normal.” Until embarrassingly recently I would try to tell Cathy that I was the very definition of “normal.” How much more “normal” could you be, after all, I would say, than being an all-American, straight, white male kid from small town, rural Ohio - from Rootstown (the real name), no less - from a Republican family who rode a crepe paper festooned bicycle in 4th of July parades and won lapel pins for church attendance. And therefore my genetic, religious, and geographical “normalcy” gave me the right to decide what was “normal” in comparison with everyone else. So I could argue, for example, based on my claim of “normalcy,” if someone was going faster or slower on the highway than I was going, they were going too fast or slow. Or if I didn’t like tattoos or long hair, I should be able to declare them beyond normal. Fortunately I limited this kind of banter to conversations with Cathy in what I thought was kind of fun and outrageous enough not to be taken seriously…….until…...
Until I discovered the term “white privilege.” The term jolted me and became very personal. My claim to “normalcy” wasn’t fun any more. I needed to own it and stop it. There was just enough of “attitude” in what I was saying, kidding aside, about my claiming a superior prerogative of “normalcy." And this attitude slides ever so easily into prejudice, bigotry and judgmentalism, or, in religious terms, the right to exclude anyone else who is not “the chosen.”
Somewhere in my attitude about a standard of normalcy is the basis for my homophobia, racism, classism, and any other, conscious or unconscious, prejudice I am holding. (I hope others can identify with my confession here, otherwise I feel pretty vulnerable.) And is this not also the basis for an unconscious, unexamined part of my psyche that can also be called “white supremacy” or 'white exceptionalism,” or I can compound it by the terms “male privilege” or “male chauvinism” or “America first.”
I’m not a particularly “bad” person if I am just unaware of my exclusionary and judgmental attitudes - which may truly be the case for many men and women my age. But I am a dangerous person if I don’t reckon with the harm I am doing, as difficult as that process may be. This is especially true if I use my culturally or socially defined “normalcy” status or political position of power to maintain my privilege against any who would challenge it. As long as my culture allows me to maintain my unchallenged “privileged” position I will remain in control and able to decide what is “normal” or not, often at the detriment of others not “like” me, or especially those in opposition to me. I may not be the extreme of Trump in this regard, but there are sobering similarities nonetheless.
In contrast, the “new normal” is being defined by the powerful voices of those who have not enjoyed the privileges of the “old normal.” The challenges of the “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too” movements are the front lines of challenging the “old normal” in each of us as well as issues of systemic injustice. And these include a long list, beginning with the rights of women that are still being challenged. (Let’s have a cheer, though, for the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote - won over decades and decades of opposition from the “normal” male establishment.) Minority voices, from people of color, indigenous, poor people, the LGBTQ communities, those with felony convictions, among others, are demanding equal voting and civil rights and economic opportunity. And I must add my deep concern for the poor and working class folks who erroneously believed Trump could offer them a “new normal” of protection and regained hopes for a more promising future. May they also join the others in calls for radical shifts in health care, income viability, welfare rights, and education that all the other groups are struggling to attain.
In spite of feeling so un-hinged during our current "Great Reckoning" there are some moral and ethical standards I want to name as “hinges" to maintain in the process of defining and discovering the “new normal.” Historically, our values, our norms, are expressed primarily as ideals. And the idealism of “equality” and “rights” and “justice for all” are grounded in a belief in the inherent potential goodness of people, in their desire for a trustworthy commons, in a desire that through mutual respect we can somehow maintain a sense of responsible union, not only within the U.S., but with all planetary people, creatures and environment.
But our idealism, like the wave's undertow, will always be subject to opposition, or, perhaps, worse, an acceptance of an “old normal” that hardens into oppression and established, unaccountable privilege and authoritarianism. In the next several months the ideals of democracy will be severely challenged, I’m afraid. The waves of the “new normal” need to be as strongly reinforced through nonviolence practices as possible, and each of us needs to part of what drives the crucially needed change from the “old” to the “new” normal during this exciting time.
I am reminded of the Quaker Lucretia Mott’s quote: “Any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.” Ah, yes.
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