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The Danger of Normality
Why we shouldn't want to "go back"
Just wanted to start by quickly saying thank you all for bearing with the ups and downs of launching New Means. I wanted to send you a follow-up Earthseed post this past Wednesday, but life (and a community defense piece that surprised even me!) got in the way. But this coming Wednesday I’ll be sending out Octavia Butler and Earthseed part two for sure. Cheers, and hope the piece below on the danger of prioritizing a return to normal is helpful.
An internet acquaintance of mine, Kalaya'an Mendoza, recently posted a little tidbit about normalcy bias. They were responding to a post wondering why a whole lot of people appear to have given up trying to avoid covid, specifically people who have gotten it once or twice already. A concise definition of normalcy bias reads, “A human tendency to respond to threat warnings with disbelief or minimization, and to similarly underestimate a disaster’s deleterious effects.” Maybe the simplest example of this phenomenon is the boy who cried wolf. After repeated false warnings, the boy’s real warning went unheeded, as we all know. Unfortunately, the phenomenon appears to occur when the warnings are very real, too. Whether it’s covid or climate change or neofascism we keep seeing repeated warnings of serious dangers downplayed or even discarded.
The power of normalcy bias comes in part from the fact that people are immensely adaptable. It’s a strength of our species in many ways. But, it also allows us to normalize and adapt to scenarios that we should be confronting head on instead of gradually adjusting to. And in this time of great change we can’t afford to let massive and dangerous new conditions simply wash over us; and we’re certainly in a time of great change. We know this both instinctually and analytically. We’re also in a time of great and increasingly violent reaction against some of these changes. One of the secrets of the most violent and reactionary elements of society, however, is that they’re also pushing for massive changes to society. As much as they claim to be conservative and claim they want to preserve what’s best about society or take us back to some traditional way of life, that’s simply a lie, and they know it. What they want is a radical restructuring and re-organization of this country and the world at large. The people who currently dominate the U.S. right, overt fascists, are not actually in pursuit of some golden era or mythical past. They want some elements of the past that they might think were golden, like segregation, patriarchy, sexism, child labor, and robber barons, but they also want hyper surveillance, more police, coordinated violence against trans and queer folks and other vulnerable populations, a very modern propaganda machine, and more. The talk of a mythical past is just that: talk. It’s both about pandering to their riled up base and presenting a more palatable facade to less radicalized folks. It’s targeted at a nostalgia for a time when society was simpler, even or especially if that nostalgia is deceptive, and it allows them to gloss over the horrors of the past when they want to, while also appealing to people who embrace those violent and oppressive elements of the past, when they want to. And, sadly, they’re increasingly roping other folks in with this narrative of harkening back to a simpler time, even though what they really want is a terrifying future, not a comforting past.
So as I wrote last week about uncertainty, change is coming whether we like it or not. It could be a beautiful future where we learn and organize and bend the arc of justice, or it could be a terrifying new reality combining the worst elements of the past with the most dystopian elements of the future. Either way, change is here and more is coming. And very few things make clear that change is already here like the pandemic. The pandemic revealed and reveals that the world is more unstable than we’d like to think, and that it can change dramatically at any time. It also briefly made clear that we, humanity, are capable of adapting to change on a mass scale. Unfortunately, it also made clear and continues to make clear how badly a whole lot of people, powerful and otherwise, want to wish change away. I’m continually struck by the power of the collective desire for normalcy we see around this pandemic. Over 1 million people in the US, and over 5 million around the world, have died. Thousands are still dying every day, and yet the appeal of normal persists. If anything, the pull and weight of the appeal to normalcy has grown stronger as abnormal times persist and people get increasingly tired of living in an unstable and unpredictable world.
We’ve heard different versions of an appeal to normalcy that started as early as just a few months into the pandemic. The refrains about “getting back to normal” or “returning to normal” echoed through our TVs and print journalism and sound bites from politicians. And most folks didn’t seem to question their appeal. But it’s worth asking, why is normal so appealing? What’s so great about normal? What even is normal these days?
I recently heard comedian Valerie Vernale talk about some of this, specifically one of the ways these refrains were used to talk to essential workers. She talked about working in a grocery store in a wealthy neighborhood in New York at the height of the pandemic. The boss gathered everyone around one day and said something along the lines of, “We’re here to provide people with a sense of normalcy. We’re here to provide them with some regularity and comfort during these difficult times.” And although Valerie might not have said this to her boss at the time, what she told us she was thinking was, “What normalcy?? I’m here double masked with gloves for 8 hours so that other people can run out of their apartments for twenty minutes a week to get some food. What normal?” She then got to the funnier stuff, and I highly recommend checking out Valerie’s work, but that part of her set is what stuck with me. What normal? And for who?
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What might help clarify the issue with, and the appeal of, going back to a perceived normality is spelling out what exactly people want to go back to. For a lot of people it’s a feeling, a feeling of stability, the relatively more calm and settled feelings they seem to recall having a few years ago when they didn’t have to worry about public health and political uncertainty. And for a lot of people the pandemic might have heightened these feelings of uncertainty, but often the Trump years are when the feelings of existential instability began. Now of course millions of people were struggling to make ends meet and living in instability before the Trump presidency, but there’s no denying that the tenor of our country changed during that time, and the prospect of a nation that many believed to be infinitely stable devolving into civil conflict, or our institutions failing, emerged for a whole bunch of people who had previously held a sort of faith in our underlying stability, even if they had simultaneously believed they were all manor of problems with our country and government. And the political fabric of society rapidly unraveling in several ways is not just something these folks perceived, it was and is real. We see that in escalating fascist attacks on drag shows and infrastructure, in MAGA rhetoric, and much, much more. This devolution affects some people immediately, and puts them at risk. For others, who remain materially comfortable, we still see a change in political anxieties and even a growing awareness that more radical action is required to address the growing fascist threat. Of course, there isn’t unity around exactly how to address the problem, but I want to focus the rest of the article on both a political and social antidote or two to the “return to normal” concept, aka the dogged pursuit of stability at great cost. I want to do this both because we know how much suffering there was and will be under the banner of “normality,” and because change and more turbulent times are most likely coming, whether we like it or not.
The first antidote begins at the idea that democracy was never meant to be stagnant, it’s meant to be a verb. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” there’s a segment about New England that’s stayed with me through the years. In the towns and villages of Massachusetts and Connecticut he finds all these town assemblies that are extremely active and participatory. De Tocqueville talks about how the whole community would show up to participate in the running of each of these towns. And although these were majorly imperfect models, what we can take from these examples is that democracy was, and still is, a verb rather than a noun. It’s something that we do rather than something that we achieve. In fact, the moment we think we’ve achieved it, that we’ve reached some end goal or stagnant state, we begin to lose it. The illusion of a stable, stationary democracy lulls us into complacency. It’s there, we got it, now we can go about our business. And what happens then? A smaller, wealthier, more power-hungry group of people are likely to keep participating, take over, and undo the elements of democracy that years of widespread, consistent participation built up.
Now did the U.S. ever have a full and true democracy? No. Far from it. But, did our yearning for, and the illusion of, a stability that we didn’t have to actively participate in make it easier for people who value profit over people to run the show and make things a whole lot worse? Probably. And yet, we’re still left with the why. Why have we pursued the deceptive idea that we don’t really have to do much to have a democracy, that it’s a noun rather than a verb?
There’s a whole lot of reasons, and in a later piece I’ll probably dive more specifically into this topic of democracy as something we’re still very far from and what real economic and political democracy might look like or entail. But, for starters, we can briefly examine the most pervasive concept of freedom in this country and how it, in many ways, hurts rather than helps democracy. In the U.S. when most people talk about freedom they mean negative freedom, or negative liberty. This libertarian approach to the idea is so much the norm that it rarely gets the “negative” modifier. It’s just freedom. I can’t claim to know exactly how it got into the water like it has, but it goes way back and you can see it running through early understandings of settler colonialism and the frontier, through the red scares and anti-communist crusades, and all through the laissez-faire approach to economics. It’s the freedom to be left alone, more or less. And robber barons loved it, they still love it, because it also grants them the freedom to exploit and do whatever they want to workers and the land.
To give a more official definition, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense.” So there you have it. Freedom as the absence of: absence of regulations, laws, restrictions. But, right after that definition on this particular page of the encyclopedia is a definition of another type of liberty. It reads, “Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.” And that definition sounds pretty different. It also sounds pretty unfamiliar. In my U.S. history classes, as wonderful as some of them were, I don’t recall this conception of freedom coming up. The freedom to control our lives—ideally the freedom to come together and collectively control our lives. In other words the freedom to have real economic and political democracy.
Positive liberty, positive freedom, real and thorough democracy might sound utterly foreign to us. It also sounds immensely appealing, collective, and transformative. But in the U.S. we aren’t familiar with it, for the most part, because we weren’t raised on it. We were raised on freedom meaning the right to absence. The right to isolation and a lack of interference. And to be clear, as much as they’ve taken over the libertarian party and “movement” such as it is, the far-right isn’t interested in either kind of freedom, negative or positive. Fascists want a big government, but just in order to more effectively oppress you rather than to provide for peoples’ basic needs. So they envision a world with neither of these freedoms, while our work is to envision a world with both. Yes, I prioritize positive freedom, the freedom to build a better society and collectively decide how we can thrive. But, I think we can have both, and need both. Building positive liberty requires some liberties from overreach and intervention, particularly in our current context where the government has been known to repeatedly attack liberatory movements. But, more on all that later. For now, suffice it to say that there are better directions to head in than back to a normal that offers us only negative liberty, and less and less of that as time goes by. There are more viable directions as well, better able to meet this turbulent moment by building something new and powerful rather than conceding to the lie that what’s best is behind us. Instead of heading back to an imagined past that is more mirage than reality, we can head in a fresh and positive direction. Positive liberty, and democracy as action can be two pillars that guide us, and antidotes to a quiet return to complacent normalcy.
And the world is changing, whether we want it to or not. That we know. As Octavia Butler wrote, “God is change,” and whether or not that statement hits you right, change is certainly one of the few constants in this life. So then, if the world is always changing, the question becomes do we change with it? And how?
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