Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Normal and Right

I was having a little chat about this on the subject of food but of course it covers pretty much everything.

As you know, I'm sure, I'm a foreigner:) I grew up in England, which may not exactly be Outer Mongolia or anything, but in some subtle and some glaring ways, it is different to the culture where I live now. Part of this is time, obviously. Things are not the same anywhere in the modern world compared to 50 years ago, and that has to be taken into account. But even though we share the same language, and have a shared history, my "culture" is different.

This is neither good nor bad, and one of the first things I discovered when moving to Canada, is that both cultures see themselves as normal - the default - and everyone else as different. Goes without saying, this is silly, and most people with a bit of open-mindedness, explanation, or travel if necessary, can get hold of the idea that there's no such thing as a default culture. Some people CAN'T. They grow up, travel, get an education, meet all sorts of different people and still think THEY are normal.

I'm not sure what we can do about it. It's a special type of stupid, equivalent to insisting the sky is not blue.

Over the years, I have looked at this and wondered about it. The most important thing to remember is that nobody is immune from occasionally - just a little bit - thinking their way is normal. Sometimes it's because of numbers, i.e. the majority of humans do X, so if they do X, well, at least they are some sort of mathematical normal.

Are normal and right the same thing? No. And they never were. Apart from anything else, it changes with time. Wife-beating, slavery, hanging for theft etc, were once normal, and now we rage against them, thankfully. So even if something is practiced by the majority, it doesn't necessarily make it right. But plenty of people think these ideas are synonymous.

In our enlightened times we are a bit more aware of how impossible normal is to define, and some of us have concluded that there is no such thing. Which brings problems of its own, as society thrives on certain expectations, which is why we have such things as fashion. It changes, but for a while there, it's something to use as a guide.

I think we all need something solid to hold on to. All of us. For some of us we have a deep sense of right and wrong, which, while it may not be agreed upon by all, works for our own consciences, those we care about, the circles we move in, and the places we go. We may have to adjust it a bit with a "When in Rome" attitude out of our usual zone, but it's something to refer back to.

So what exactly is the issue, with those who can't do this? Is it insecurity that causes them to cling to a set of behaviours and morals that are rigid, possibly out of step with the times?

The whole area is fascinating, especially at its most petty. And trust me, some of it is REALLY petty.

I'd like to offer hats as an example. Yeah, hats.

A hundred years ago, it was very unusual to see people outdoors without a hat. There is no real reason for this. In very cold weather, sure, it would be an insulating layer. In the very hot weather, sure, it could keep the sun off. But in Europe, and other places with very temperate climates, it actually served no practical purpose.

Some of it was fashion, obviously. But most of it was just habit, it was just what everybody did. You felt undressed without a hat, because everybody else was wearing one. This in itself is not problematic, it's amusing, but that's people for you. Fear of standing out.

However, in certain circumstances hats became an issue. If you failed to remove your hat when entering most buildings, or when greeting a superior, etc etc, it was a blunder of etiquette, and in extreme cases could get you in serious trouble.

Women who dared to go outdoors without a hat in some places at certain times were considered a bit "loose".

Some religions developed rules about head coverings. On or off as the case may be. Women had to cover their heads, men had to remove their hats in churches etc. To go against these rules was BIG trouble. Some religions (or to be accurate some movements within certain religions) required a head covering AT ALL TIMES.

So, to sum up, depending on where you were standing, your gender, and so on, having a thing on your head - or not - could become a serious problem.

The hat or not a hat, was deemed normal, and right, and woe betide anyone who broke the rules.

In more recent times some of these rules have been relaxed (others have been stepped up, obviously).

And my attitude, as a free-thinker is what a lot of fuss over nothing!

I've seen orang-utans in the zoo pick up a box and put in on their head, and quite frankly, that's how I see hats.

But this isn't about hats. That's just a convenient example. There are many, many other examples equivalent. Possibly thousands. People get so bent out of shape over things that really shouldn't matter, because they have decided it is normal. 

Decided. That's the thing. It suits them to think that it is the only way to be or to do something.

Free choice. Except - now they want others to follow them. This is where it becomes a problem. And if a group of people, with any kind of power at all, decide they are normal, and they ridicule, discriminate against or persecute those who are different, those petty things get totally out of hand.

If they have the backing of a religion (or their interpretation of it anyway) they might claim God as the arbiter of what's normal, by saying that anything else is wrong.

The funny thing is, sometimes they use a religion to further their cause even if they don't follow it. Maybe that's not funny. Maybe it's hypocritical and tragic, actually, but anyway, it happens. A lot.

There is still a power within social norms outside religion. You've all heard of the distortions of patriotism. You've all heard that something simply isn't "the American way", and I assure you this concept exists in all countries.

And yet, throughout human history we have managed to agree on some universals, such as cruelty being wrong. Why then, does this get over-ridden by silly, petty, temporary, local ideas of what is normal?


  1. They do the same thing with "natural" and "unnatural".

    1. They do, and they have no clue what they are talking about!