What Do We Mean by "Normal"?

It is time to rethink "normal" and "abnormal."

Posted Nov 15, 2011

It is past time that we rethink what we mean by the words "normal" and "abnormal" as those words apply to the mental and emotional states and behaviors of human beings. Indeed, it is a real question as to whether those words can be sensibly used at all, given their tremendous baggage and built-in biases and the general confusion they create.

This is not an idle question without real-world consequences. The "treatment" of every single "mental disorder" that mental health professionals "diagnose," from "depression" and "attention deficit disorder" on through "schizophrenia," flows from how society construes "normal" and "abnormal." This matter affects tens of millions of people annually; and affects everyone, really, since a person's mental model of "what is normal?" is tremendously influenced by how society and its institutions define "normal."

The matter of what is "normal" in the sense that so many people use the word must not be a mere statistical nicety. It can't be and must not be "normal" to be a Christian just because 95% of your community is Christian. It can't be and must not be "normal" to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex just because 90% of the general population is heterosexual. It can't be and must not be "normal" to own slaves just because all the landowners in your state own slaves.

Nor can it mean "free of discomfort," as if "normal" were the equivalent of oblivious.

In this view "abnormal" is feeling or acting significantly distressed. Normal, in this view, is destroying a village in wartime and not experiencing anything afterward; abnormal is experiencing something, and for a long time thereafter. The consequences of conscience, reason, and awareness are labeled abnormal and robotic allegiance to wearing a pasted-on smiley face is designated normal. Is that what we really mean? Is that what we really want? Sadness, guilt, rage, disappointment, confusion, doubt, anxiety and other similar experiences and states are all expected and normal, given the nature and demands of life.

If "normal" mustn't be "what we see the most of" or "the absence of significant distress," how else might it be conceptualized or construed? Is there perhaps a way that the words "healthy" and "unhealthy" capture what we might like "normal" and "abnormal" to mean? Perhaps "normal" could equal "healthy" and "abnormal" could equal "unhealthy"? Unfortunately, that emperor is also naked.

Growing sad because you caught your mate cheating on you doesn't make you "unhealthy." Growing anxious because you can't pay your bills doesn't make you "unhealthy." Growing bored and restless because your job underutilizes you doesn't make you "unhealthy." If you leap from "I am distressed" to "I am unhealthy" you are leaping into the arms of the medical model, a place you do not want to plunge for no good reason.

Whole industries grossing billions of dollars are built on the words "normal" and "abnormal" and on the ideas of "well" and "disordered." It is therefore inconceivable that the right thing can be done and that the situation can change. Even right-minded and high-minded mental health professionals can't really conceive of doing away with the current idea of "mental disorder." If they did away with it, what would they have and where would they be? Given that even the best and the brightest in the field are attached to an illegitimate naming game, there is probably no hope for change.

But those changes are needed and I have some proposals to make. Please stay tuned!