Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Narrowing of Normal

"No one believes anymore that scientists are
trained in science classses or politicians in
civics classes or poets in English classes.
The truth is that schools really don't teach
anything except how to obey orders."
--John Taylor Gatto, "The Curriculum
of the Family" in A Different
Kind of
Teacher, 2001.

A few weeks ago I read about a mother who had her son arrested for smoking pot. I first saw the story via a homeschooling blog, though I don't remember where. (Update: It is at The Thinking Mother here). The blogger seemed troubled by the story, although she could not put her finger on why. My visceral response vis-a-vis my kids and legal athority is to keep the two as far apart as possible. There is ample evidence that the systems euphemistically designed to "help" children in various ways also function to introduce a good deal of conformity among them. And those who refuse to conform are criminalized.

But the story got me thinking again about what I call the "narrowing of normal". It is a pervasive mind-set in our current culture; a mind-set that limits what is considered normal to a very narrow set of behaviors and choices, and criminalizes and/or makes diseases of any behavior outside those rapidly narrowing bounds.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, there were odd people in my world. Most of them could be characterized as "mostly harmless", like the earth itself according to The Hitcher's Guide to the Galaxy. We had words for them, words like 'eccentric" and "strange." Now we have other words for them, words that come from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the past, people who just wanted to be left alone were called hermits, but now they are thought to have a disease, one that could be "a danger to society" and must be "treated" for the good of society, and, of course, "for their own good". In the 1950's, unconformity was socially nudged, but now it is legally punished in a variety of ways.

Although adults can get away with being non-conformist to a limited degree, heaven help the child who does not conform to the increasingly narrow norm. I was talking to a former social worker over last winter's holiday, and she was explaining to me why she left the field. She told of terrible stories in which children were made responsible for family dysfunction, labeled and removed from their homes. Often those children ended up with a psychiatric diagnosis and were forced into treatment. Most of the time, this friend explained, they also ended up with legal record as well. A record that, like the one the young man whose mother reported him to the police for smoking pot will have, will bind that child for life, taking certain adult choices out of their reach. Choices like college or a career in politics or medicine.

I have seen the same in schools. Children who respond in any way except passive docility to the officious busy-body interference of school personnel are quickly labeled as oppositional, as defiant, as unable to learn. Screening instruments that cast a wide net of disorder around normally foolish and childlike behaviors are used to label children "in need of assistance" or "at-risk for school failure." A child who retains pride in her not-PC ethnicity, or who defends himself against a bully who comes from the protected ethnic group is likely to be labeled and made the problem.

Temple Grandin calls these potentially labeled behaviors as ones that break the "stupid neurotypical rules." But in the same breath, she warns parents and teachers that it must be impressed upon the child that not conforming with certain such rules could limit their options severely in the future, and even cost them them their freedom from officialdom in the near and far-off future.

Did I say that adults can be less conforming? Lately, at least in Albuquerque, this is only true if they stay away from the police. An elderly couple were arrested and roughed up last summer because they did not response docilely to a complaint that they had left a dog in the car. (It turns out the man had gone to get them all some water). The 90 year old husband ended up in cardiac care and the 87 year old wife was pushed around because she was supposedly trying to escape, even though, with a prosthetic leg and a walker, she wasn't likely to run anywhere faster than the cop. Recently, a young adult with a learning disability spent time in jail for DWI because his speech was slurred, even though his blood alcohol content was 0.00% (that's zero, precise to the hundreth of a percent). His crime? A speech impediment.

And don't get me started on "the war on drugs." Suffice it to say that to put young users caught with a small amount of pot in jail with hardened criminals is not terribly productive. And it is less so, if that person becomes a non-person in society, unable to go to college or work in certain fields, merely for having been arrested for such a "crime."

And then there is the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The committee making it up is considering diagnoses that would make excess internet use (what is excess?), political apathy (sounds Soviet, nu?), and "parental alienation*" into psychiatric diseases. Being overweight is also being considered as some kind of mental disorder, as well as a socially stigmatized difference.
*I don't know if the parents are alienated or if the children are.

The formerly broad category of "normal", which was once so wide that one could argue about what it really meant, is being narrowed to a frightening degree. And those found outside the bounds are likely to become the targets of special government programs aimed at getting them to conform. Because to those who what's best for us, being different just has to be an impediment to happiness.

I believe this progressive narrowing of normal has two purposes and neither of them are good. The first is to impose fairness upon an unfair world by those who mistake equality for equity. Among such people, individual differences are an affront to their Vision of the Annointed. In the perfect collectivized world, everyone must be made equal. (For a great dystopian short story about this, see Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. A trailer for the movie 2081, based on this story can be seen here).

The other is about control. People who deviate from a very narrow norm can be used to illustrate the consequences of dissent and difference quite effectively, whether those consequences are labled as a mental illness to be medicated or as a crime to be punished. Thus a whole society can be enslaved to an unlivable moral code, their liberty taken from them by masters who have something to gain.

"Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed? . . . We want them broken. There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law abiding citizens? . . . But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted--and you create a nation of law-breakers--and then you cash in on guilt." (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Centennial Edition, p. 436, emphasis in the original).

The narrowing of normal, whether conscious or not, is a way to limit the freedom of others to be who they are. It destroys their liberty and their ability to freely pursue their own happiness, and often, too often, it destroys lives.


christinemm said...

Hi Elisheva,
It was my post you read. It is here.


Your post was great.

I have been thinking of the same things that you talked about in this post.

Odd or quirky was what kids were when I was a kid. Exactly one kid in my high school (1000 kids) was "hyper" and the neighbor kids reported he was on medicine for hyperactivity. Now how many kids are ADHD diagnoses and on drugs? Too many?

A related topic is "boy behaviors" as abnormal.

A related topic is pushing down formal academics to age 2 and 3 and 4 and then labeling those who are not ready as hyperactive or LD.

Someone I know born in the 1910s today would be called gender confused and possibly guided to a sex change. She lived alone all her life, dressed as a man and had a "man's job" and never was in a romantic relationship, so who knows what her sexual preference was.

I saw an adult male last week who was on my school bus. As kids we thought he was "weird". I watched him for a long time (alone in a public place, and he still lives alone in the home his parents used to own). I am convinced he is on the Autism Spectrum by today's definitions. I was close to saying hello, introducing myself and saying I'm sorry so many kids on the bus bullied him. But I didn't do it as I'd not know how it would have been received.

Anyhow...so many things that were quirks are now a diagnosis.

One other that comes to mind is people who are thrify and "pack rats" being labeled with OCD and when does it cross to "hoarding" and become a mental disorder?

Susan said...

When my son was in 4th grade and in the public school, there were 10 kids out of the class of 70 something that were on ritalin. One was a girl and the rest were boys. I was a mother helper and no, I shouldn't have known that information. (I certainly didn't ask.)

I am also really concerned about the institutionalization of our littlest ones to get them "school ready". Little ones learn best as free creatures who ask endless questions as they observe so much. 4 walls is limiting,at best. Stifling (and sad) at worst.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Christinemm: I will link your post. For the life of me couldn't remember and ran out of time to browse for it.

I have been questioning in the same way that you have for some time. There are those that argue that ADHD is underdiagnosed, and yet 1/3 of the kids diagnosed before age 10 "outgrow" it. It is clear that there is really a difference in brain development among some kids, but I am wondering if we should differentiate between the trajectory of brain development (mostly timing)--which maybe should not be labled?--and real differences in sensory processing--which really might need treatment.

Boy development vs. girl development: we know that boys brains function differently and that their higher-order processes are more lateralized and develop more slowly. Since that is the norm, it seems strange to be calling it a psychiatric problem.

And, yes, I agree with the slipperyness of the label of OCD. A competent psychiatrist would look for whether the behaviors actually cause real dysfunction in a person's life. Unfortunately, there are many checklist diagnoses in which families and/or schools label the kids and the doctor just confirms it with a formal diagnosis. This is the issue of deciding for someone else what is dysfunctional without looking for real dysfunction.

Susan: Both you and Christine bring up a very good point. We are creating "disease" by putting very small children into an environment that is not conducive to their learning. This is at the heart of what I mean by the narrowing of normal!

Crimson Wife said...

There have been a number of stories lately about parents who wound up in legal trouble after making bad judgment calls. The mom arrested for breastfeeding while apparently drunk. The mom who made her squabbling 12 and 10 year olds get out of the car and walk home. The mom who let her 12 year old and a friend spend an afternoon at the mall with 3 younger siblings in tow.

In the past, the most that would've happened to the mom was a lecture about why what they're doing is not a good idea. Now, they're arrested.

Retriever said...

Good post. Most of us in my family (and my husband's--assortative mating) are fairly eccentric or at least geeky and academic, but fortunately our generation wasn't so diagnosis-happy.

I disagree with you on the pot, however. We have raised our kids to obey the laws of the land, however stupid they may sometimes seem, and obey orders unless asked to do something discriminatory, otherwise cruel or liable to harm the vulnerable. I do not allow my children to drink alcohol(when they reach 21, they can do whatever they like) or do drugs. I have told them that if they are caught with either, they will have to suffer the consequences. Fortunately, they have heeded my warning so far.

Nobody forces anybody to smoke pot, and if they are weak minded enough to feel that their friends won't like them if they don't, then I will not protect them from the law. It is fairly easy for me to be consistent as my spouse and I did not do drugs ever, and do not drink.

I am perhaps overly fierce about this, but it is partly because I live in a community where many of my friends' children have become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and there were clear points where they might have been stopped except that the parents enabled them (left kids alone for the weekend in a house with a liquor cabinet, gave a lot of allowance, drank to excess themselves in front of the kids, and paid for lawyers who got the kids off when caught). One friend's kid nearly killed someone in a DUI and the friend was angry that he got "sentenced" to alcohol ed and had his license taken away for six months. Three people in my office have lost young male relatives in the 18-19 age range in the last three years because of alcohol related automobile fatalities.

Those bereaved parents may feel now that a living child unable to go to the best college but able to take a second shot at life might be preferable to a dead one they shielded from the law when they first got into trouble.

Please do not think that I am an advocate of brutalizing techniques of "tough love" or that I would not advocate for my child if they merely made a bad judgment.

Like you, I frequently coach my kid on things that one absolutely, positively cannot say lest the PC thought police get one.

But it is clearly illegal for people under 21 to drink, and for most people to smoke pot. So kids should abstain.

Having said all that, I personally believe that the war on drugs has been a failure, and that legalizing drug use would do some to mitigate their awful effects by taking crime out of the picture.

And if an 18 year old can serve his or her country in the military, I think they should also be free to drink if they so choose. However, until the laws are changed....

It is a slippery slope to say "This is a good law so I will obey it, and that is a bad one so I won't". People who break small rules often end up breaking larger rules. This is a good thing if one lives in a fascist state, but not if one is merely frustrated by an imperfect democracy.

In my community there is much quiet gnashing of teeth over the routine manipulation of the system and false IDs, false residency in good school districts, and lies about income and eligibility for social services by illegals. The liberals do not want to sound mean or xenophobic, the conservatives don't want to sound self-rightous by saying what they think: you broke laws to come here, so you are likely to bend rules living here.

As far as the schools and labelling,absolutely agree with you. In my then ignorance, I let my kid collect a succession of awful diagnostic labels, and medicated, and tho he was indeed very troubled (on the spectrum plus a virulent variant of the family mood disorder), if we had to do it again, I would have homeschooled him, kept him off the radar screen, and tried to find some way he could work in some more tolerant and less socially demanding a community than this gilded suburb. Regrets, regrets.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I do not think we disagree about pot as much as you think.
I simply do not believe that there should be a "war on drugs" nor do I believe that every deviation from the law should terminally affect the future of a child. In so doing we are creating a criminal class and that will come back to bite us in the butt, big time. Ask yourself this: What is the long-term consequence of making a class of people unable to support themselves in the economy for life because of a small legal infraction in adolescence? An underground economy of disaffected people who have no interest or stake in their communities or states.

Further: Unlike you, I do NOT believe that the government is our nanny, and that it should protect us from ourselves. A crime is an action that violates the rights of others. In the United States the federal government's job description, clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, is limited to protecting the rights of citizens. Any other action is unconstitutional and we have allowed the feds to get away with that for way too long.

People must make decisions for themselves and their children about issues like alcohol and pot. the government should only intervene when someone else's rights are violated. That means that laws against the consumption of such substances are wrong, but that laws about driving under the influence are okay. Laws should also be enforceable without violating the 4th and 5th amendment rights of individuals guaranteed in the Constitution. Even 2000 years ago, both Roman and Jewish law recognized the danger of uneforcable laws.

Now I suppose I could easily get pot should I want it. The law as it stands is unenforcable. But I don't. Not because there is a law, but because I know that I have, and that my children have, vulnerable brains. In other words my own self-interest is a better moral compass than is the law. Not all morality can or should be made into a legal matter.

Finally, I believe I said this in my blog entry: ". . .that it must be impressed upon the child that not conforming with certain such rules could limit their options severely in the future, and even cost them them their freedom . . ."

This is a serious issue. In other places I have said that I teach my children that when considering whether to practice civil disobedience to an illegal law, one must also consider the consequences. Civil disobedience does not imply immunity from consequences. When someone has a gun to one's head, a person must ask, "Is this the hill I want to die on?"

That said, civil disobedience is a time-honored American tradition, without which we would have never got rid of the Poll Tax (read "The Night Thoreau spent in Jail") and slavery, as well as the redress of other greivances. The Petition for Redress has been consistently ignored by our legislatures, and when it is, Civil Disobedience is the next step.

So you can see that I teach my children both respect for legitimate law and the American way to deal with illegitimate law. At the same time, I would never put a child into the hands of the rapidly growing police state for a foolish infraction.

Retriever said...

Elisheva, I think I agree with most of what you say...I certainly am not an advocate of the nanny state, and I fear as you do that we are moving ever closer to a police state. I have lived ini them in South America and visited Francos Spain, and I am appalled that so many Americans now are so sated with bread and circuses that they don't even notice the liberties that are being taken away from them while they are being entertained...

I agree that laws about the consumption of drugs and alcohol are wrong so far as they tell a person what they can and cannot do about their own health. My position is merely that the average teenager in my community would love to be a barracks room lawyer or practice civil disobedience selectively (without penalty) in order to do whatever they feel like doing, and that their behavior can and often does endanger others. If a teen gets blind drunk, and falls off a cliff, it is tragic, but if they kill someone else in that state, it is criminal.

To some extent, my views on civil disobedience are influenced by associating them with people who hate our country, who disobey the laws of the US but who would like to impose their own odious form of PC statism on others.

Ancestors of mine fought the British in the War of Independence for our freedoms, and friends of mine in tea parties recently, so obviously I agree that there are times when unjust laws should be fought. Just as my hero Bonhoeffer was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler.

But when raising childrenin a community where the laws are as yet mere inconveniences at time, as opposed to genuinely oppressive, I try to tell them that until they attain some small measure of wisdom from life experience, they should try to understand the law, and abide by it while trying to change it legally.

I should add that I spent formative years in Latin America where power definitely came out of the barrel of a gun, and one longed for laws, impartially administered, and for concepts of loyal opposition, peaceful resolution of political differences, etc. there that might have kept people from torturing,killing and generally abusing each other. Likewise, tho England originated Habeus Corpus, I found that my teen years there made me think appreciatively of the greater civil liberties here in the US. The Official Secrets Act has been horribly invoked to deny people their rights and liberties in the UK.

Excuse this hasty response, from netbook running out of juice in the library before back to work. Love your blog, and wish you all the best luck in your exploratory campaign.

I think the government should mostlyl just stick to army, police, fire, basic public education (not everyone is fit to teach their own kids, tho that would be ideal) and some care for the most vulnerable (frail elderly without family disabled, orphans). Other stuff like Food and Drug Administration possibly as our current food supply is increasingly becoming more dangerous (as we get stuff from unregulated countries). To be continued.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


Again my point is that Civil Disobedience implies accepting consequences, and that a person should think carefully about what hill he wants to die on.

I am looking forward to the continuation! :)