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
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.