Musings on normal…

In Philosophy on Sunday, 9 September 2012 at 12:58

Musings on normal…

By Lorie Ederr

I heard a fellow psychologist say something to the effect of “you look at what’s normal for kids ‘Billy’s’ age and compare ‘Billy’ to normal kids” in discussing baselines and those fun kinds of things we psychologists discuss.  My conclusion directly from that statement, not via my feelings or own subjectivity, being that there is a quantifiable determination as to this state called “normal” and that it is, in fact, a measurable phenomenon.  And there I take issue.  First of all, the term “normal,” to me, is incredibly value-laden and negatively correlated the further and further you go away from the mean (i.e. societal norms).  The statement also suggests that you can actually quantify “normal” and use it as a baseline.  Now, in practice, I understand the speaker probably would just as easily have used the word “average” and probably did not mean (pun intended) anything negative by it.

Agreed it was not meant to be derogatory, merely descriptive.  Nevertheless, I have an issue with a mental health professional/educator/clinician  using the term “normal” because I do feel it is quite value-laden.  I am really not one of those to get into battles about words or labels (a necessary evil in my field…labeling to obtain certain services), but this one stuck with me.  And by battling about words or labels my example follows:  I have met deaf people that absolutely, positively want to be called “deaf” and are offended when people use the term “hearing impaired.”  This was explained by the deaf person who was called hearing impaired and objected to it this way: to him someone who is hearing impaired could possibly hear (maybe a little, maybe more, but not without difficulty), just  not as well as others and deviating from that bell curve of hearing. He explained, in his case and many others, a deaf person can not hear at all, thus prefers the term “deaf.”  And the converse is true for others…they want to be called “hearing impaired.”  So, I try not to offend anyone and also try not to use absolutes.  Everyone has their preferences and everyone should be able to identify as they want without putting an absolute label based on societal norms.   I try to oblige.  I think it was Adler who said pathology is brought about when people live by “shoulds” as it relates to what society thinks you should or should not do.

However, in regard to the usage of the word “normal” in that particular context, I do believe that “normal” is value-laden and could be taken to be insolent and/or disrespectful. The person who identifies as gay, for example, may not fall into the middle area of the bell curve (the , but would you use “abnormal” to describe them?  I would think, if anything, you could say “minority” because there are more heterosexuals than homosexuals, but that doesn’t make them abnormal.  If you were to apply the term normal to anyone that is a minority (African Americans, Native Americans, GLBTQI, those with physical disabilities, Asian Americans, etc.), I would hasten to guess that most would be offended by the term.  Would you ever consider someone who is blind to be “abnormal?”  I have never heard a blind or visually impaired person called “abnormal.” So, why do we use it to describe mental illness, learning disabilities, etc.?  We seem to be fine with abnormal vs. normal in certain situations (I do see it most in mental health) but would NEVER use it to describe the child born without the ability to see or hear.

I think if someone overheard you saying they were not “normal” (not falling within the 68.2% of the bell curve) it could be hurtful.   In fact, I will go a step further and say that I am pretty sure they would take it as a pejorative. I know I would.   As kids/adolescents many of us wanted to buck the norm and ‘express ourselves,’ (pink hair, a style of dress, an affinity for certain types of music, etc.) but, for the most part, we wanted to be a part of the crowd (i.e. “normal”).  If an educator or therapist were to tell you that your kid  was not “normal,” I would think you would, at the very least, be a bit concerned.  No one wants to stand out in a crowd.  Or, at least that’s how the saying goes.

That said, I do see kids and adolescents today being much more comfortable/secure in their own skin.  I am definitely generalizing here, but I do see more kids that seem content and confident with who they are whether it’s within that one standard deviation (or more) either way or not. I think about a scenario not totally unrelated, but maybe a bit.  A little background…I read a piece of research (that I now can’t recall or cite) studying age of onset and sexual identity/sexuality.  In essence, it was a longitudinal study that followed kids from pre-school into adulthood, paying attention to interests, friends, types of play, what they were drawn to, etc.  What it concluded (well, one thing…I am sure there was quite a bit that I can’t recall), was that sexual identity is ‘set’ by around age four.  Nonetheless, at some point society steps in and makes a confusing mess of it all.  You know girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks, pink os for girls, blue is for boys, no exceptions. We see it everyday when we walk into a store, on TV, in print, etc. I have heard many parents say that to their own children (“Johnny, boys don’t wear pink” or “boys don’t play with dolls”) and have even seen parents replace a doll with a truck if a boy chooses to play with the doll.  This is very common.

Back to the scenario…a kid is in class and someone uses “gay” in the pejorative.  You’ve heard it.  “Oh my gosh, that is sooo GAY!” when trying to say that something is stupid, less worthy, negative, not “fun,” etc.  (although, I hope we are more sensitive and evolved and would explain why that is not a good term to describe an activity, movie, etc.).  Well, for the kid who kind of knew he was not like some of his friends and may start realizing that he or she is “gay” and he may be starting to identify as gay, what is he going to think?  Gay=bad, stupid, less worthy, not deserving of attention, odd.  In that exchange, what could have been (although I don’t believe it should be used in that context) a term that meant one thing to the speaker (likely not meaning it to be related to a person) has now become value-laden, at least to that kid.  This type exchange took place in one of my schools.  I was speaking to a group of kids and one of them said a certain movie was “gay.” I asked him what he meant by that.  He said, “You know, like stupid or boring.”  In essence, I explained to the group that this could be a hurtful term to some, what it meant in our society today (lets leave out that it truly does mean lighthearted or happy because this was not how he meant it), and how it could be hurtful.  An African American girl in the group suddenly said “Then that would be kinda like calling me a ****** (I just can’t even type that word, but I believe you can figure it out). Not exactly like that, but I do believe they understood the main point I was trying to make.

While tangential in my musings, I am coming back to the my point…normal vs. abnormal I think we have to be cognizant of using value-laden terms when talking about kids or around kids, adults, anyone not falling “in the norm” when norm is used to delineate a statistical term not a descriptive one).  We may not be able to recall a great deal from childhood, but I am sure we all recall times unkind words were spoken.  I am ALL about “averages” and quantifiable things (thus the appeal of Descartes musings about brains and vats.  I have been called a “quantoid” when it was meant as a veiled insult and I was proud of it), but that is a story for another time).  So, to say someone is not within the average range sounds, to me, more neutral in its connotation (if forced to use a descriptive, as in test scores or percentiles).  At least more so than “normal” (unusual, atypical, divergent).  Point being, just think about who is around you and who can hear and think about the words you use. Moreover, if you could, maybe say what you want to describe as “abnormal” in a way that was less hurtful/value-laden (there are many words synonymous with abnormal). Or, just think how you would feel to be described as abnormal for something that may not be mainstream, but certainly doesn’t make you “abnormal.” I am not sure why hearing that conversation made me go off on this tangent, but it did get me thinking that we need to be mindful of varying values and points of view and how we speak.  At least I’m going to.

~be love~


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