the imaginative conservative logo

The real test of normality is whether we consider the collective experience of human history to be more authentically normal than the current norms imposed by contemporary fads and fashions and the ascendant ideologies of which the fads and fashions are but the social expression…

It is intriguing that being normal is normally seen as being a good thing. Indeed, it is not only intriguing but odd. After all, some very bad things are very normal. Sin, for instance.

The implicit desirability of being normal is made even more manifest when we consider that the failure to be normal makes us abnormal. Nobody wants to be abnormal. Nobody wants to be considered an abnormality, which is only marginally better than being a pariah. It marginalizes us at best; it makes us an untouchable at worst.

Such psychological considerations are at the heart of peer-group pressure. People like to fit in. They like to be seen as being normal. They don’t want to be the odd one out. This is true of most people, and it is especially true of most young people. We might be reminded, perhaps, in this context, of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which Brian tells a huge crowd of would-be disciples that they don’t need to follow him or anyone else. “You are all individuals,” he tells them. “You are all different.” The crowd repeats, parrot-fashion, that they are indeed all individuals and that they are all different. In the deathly hush that follows the mindless mob’s mindless parroting of what they’ve been told, one lone voice speaks up to say that, unlike the rest, he is not different, nor is he an individual. The irony is obvious.

This is all very well and in itself possibly not all that noteworthy. The problem is, however, that there are two types of normality, each of which counteracts and contradicts the other. They are what might be called historical or normative normality and what might be called contemporary or fashionable normality. The first is what has been considered normal throughout the whole of history, which is to say throughout the whole of human experience; the second is what is currently considered normal because of whatever contemporary fads and fashions happen to be in the ascendant. Viewing this graphically we might see contemporary or fashionable normality as being represented by the x axis, whereas historical or normative normality is represented by the y axis. The x axis measures whatever is fashionable at any particular moment; the y axis extends that measurement throughout the centuries. Such a graph, in its measurement of normality, would show that some things have been normal in a perennial sense (vertical normality) whereas other things are normal only in a transient sense for short and short-lived periods of time (horizontal normality).

In terms of historical normality, and to take but one example of many which could be given, we can see that marriage between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation is perennially normal, whereas the contemporary or fashionable normality which states that marriage can be between anybody, regardless of gender, having nothing connecting it to procreation, is historically abnormal. The irony is that today’s normality would have been considered utterly abnormal in almost every preceding generation. The real test of normality is, therefore, whether we consider the collective experience of human history to be more authentically normal than the current norms imposed by contemporary fads and fashions and the ascendant ideologies of which the fads and fashions are but the social expression.

Regarding fads and fashions, we should perhaps remind ourselves of C.S. Lewis’s quip that fashions are always coming and going, but especially going. If something is up-to-date, it’s a sure sign that it will probably be out of date very soon. Thus, for instance, it was normal in the Soviet Union in the 1930s for the government to arrest millions of its own people for being “enemies of the people.” It was normal in the same decade in Germany for ordinary people to be anti-semitic and worrying about the “Jewish Problem.” Going further back in time, it was normal in Elizabethan England for Catholic priests to be tortured and then executed for the crime of being Catholic priests. For the people living in these particular cultures at these particular times, the arrests, the racism and the persecution were “normal.” It is only when we view this fashionable normality through the telescopic lens of history that we see that what was considered normal at certain times was in fact excruciatingly abnormal.

At the deepest level, it’s all about roots (appropriately enough!). The understanding of what constitutes normality is inextricably connected to what constitutes the very roots of human culture, and ultimately of human nature. It’s about two mutually incompatible forms of radicalism (radicalism taking its name etymologically from radix, the Latin for root.) One form of radicalism believes in taking care of the roots of culture in the knowledge that the trunk and the branches, and the blossom and the fruits, depend ultimately on the health of those roots. This form of radicalism might be called traditionalism. The other form of radicalism believes in uprooting the roots in the knowledge that the trunk and the branches, and the blossom and the fruits, cannot be destroyed unless the very roots of culture are destroyed first. It is for this reason that the latter form of radicalism is iconoclastic. It wants to uproot all that is sacred, and all that has always been considered normal.

To be fair to these iconoclastic radicals, they believe that the roots of their own ideas, the seeds of which were planted by the philosophy or relativism, will produce a healthier culture than the one that it will replace. The irony and the tragedy is that they are ignorant of the lessons of the past because they refuse to believe that the past, which they see as being the disease that they are trying to cure, has anything to teach them. Such ignorance, and the arrogance which is its cause, is doomed once again, if it succeeds, to play itself out in the same tyrannous bloodshed that was ushered in by previous manifestations of iconoclastic radicalism, such as the French, Russian, Chinese, and Cambodian Revolutions.

The good form of radicalism, which connects tradition with normality, was encapsulated with succinct lucidity by G.K. Chesterton:

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time…. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death…. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.

Although Chesterton speaks of tradition and “democracy,” we can see his words, in the context of the present discussion, as making the connection between tradition and that which is truly normal, i.e. what most people have believed and acted upon throughout history. We share the same roots as those in the past who have shared the same culture as us and who have handed it down to us. Those common roots and that common culture find common expression in all that constitutes authentic normality.

And yet, the enemies of tradition might say, this historical normality is merely relative and, in consequence, is not any more authentic or real than a new normality which a new generation may wish to practice or impose. In response, we might counter that the normality that has existed for millennia has shown its sustainability. It has shown that it conforms to an objective reality of which human nature is but a subservient part, an objective reality that philosophers call the natural law. In contrast, those efforts to replace the perennially normal and the laws of nature with new normalities have always proved disastrous, their iconoclastic practitioners killing others and then each other in a feeding frenzy of cannibalistic and cabalistic bloodlust. The human tragedy or dark comedy is that any normality other than normative normality always ends up being an abominable abnormality. We are living in abominably abnormal times in which those who are normal are being demonized by those who refuse to tolerate normality.

As for the roots of normality, in the etymological sense, we find that the word derives from the Latin word norma, which is a carpenter’s square. It is the rule be which we measure things objectively from the right angle. In an absolute and objective sense, therefore, we might say that being normal is to see things from the right angle, in relation to that which is objectively real and true, and to conform our actions to that reality. In this sense, and to return to our initial thoughts on the subject, we can see that being normal is indeed a good thing. Ultimately, being normal is to conform ourselves in faith and reason to the will of God. It is to always follow the Carpenter’s rule!

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. I enjoyed this essay, but it would have benefitted by addressing the obvious question it raises in the mind of the reader (this reader at least): what about those practices given to us by longstanding tradition (i.e. slavery, women as chattel, religious intolerance, etc.), the end of which even current conservatives/traditionalists support? It is not enough to say that traditional normalcy is better than contemporary normalcy. Yet, this article doesn’t appear to go any further than that. My guess is that the typical liberal/progressive would say they don’t wish to destroy the roots of our culture (perhaps some disingenuously), rather they just want to keep pruning away the bad branches and fruit, comparing favorably the introduction of same sex marriage to the elimination of slavery. The real question is: how does one separate the good fruit from bad fruit, both of which are produced from the roots of our culture? To resolve such questions we need more than just an appeal to normality.

  2. In response to TAA, Christ abolished the normality of slavery and made us all free. In particular, instituting the sacrament of matrimony , he established the utter dignity of women. This would be an example of a positive radical discontinuity.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: