The Special Normal

There’s a word that we use almost everyday, and it can be used in a derogatory way or as a form of praise. It can be something to strive for and something to rebel against. Its definition varies from person to person but somehow we still use it and assume that it’s a word that serves the purpose of a word, to communicate, when really it does nothing of the sort.


In certain contexts this word does have a well-defined meaning, and that is asĀ  follows (from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary):

Normal (adj.): according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle.

A norm is an average, so by definition normal means little deviation from the average. The average in this case is any trait or set of traits measured over the sum of some population. There are statistics from studies, surveys, and censuses that can give you averages in almost every field of your interest, from which you could in theory determine whether you fit the definition of average.

That’s rarely, if ever, the way the word is employed. A Bell curve of the human race does not cross many minds when someone uses the word. What does it really mean then, when we take it upon ourselves to statistically average massive populations in order to make a judgment or comparison?

To me it doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s an arbitrary judgment call that no one can define well if you ask (or it will be a long list of arbitrary qualities). Yet we use it to define each other and ourselves on a regular basis. The phrase “I wish I were normal” is probably common enough that it’s one of few things that fits the label.

As if it weren’t bad enough trying to seek out some character quality that is totally devoid of meaning, there’s a competing tendency that is instilled repeatedly throughout childhood and well into adult life. It’s the supervaluation of the special, the tendency to view uniqueness with a golden halo, and pay talented rockstars and actors a high premium although arguably they serve little function in society. Don’t get me wrong — I love movies and music. Things like motherhood, however, are labeled (in the derogatory sense of the word) as normal and are not compensated nearly as much when it is vital to the survival of the human race.

What’s more is that the “direction” or “sense” of unique is as arbitrary as the definition of normal. What differentiates a unique quality from a weird one? What makes someone an ugly moth rather than a beautiful butterfly? Both are outliers in terms of the distribution of qualities over the population. One is supposedly at the low end, the other at the high end. Who makes such a call? In some cases it might be clear but in general it’s arbitrary. There are artists and musicians who are only appreciated long after their times have passed, precisely because the categorization of their work as crap or genius is so fickle.

Everyone is a unique butterfly.

It’s a cliche but on some level we’re raised to believe it — that we all possess qualities or talents that we alone are good or best at. In theory this is possible. There are a finite number of human beings in the world and an infinite number of possible talents. Does that mean we should spend our lives searching for the talent that no one else possesses? Basket weaving while sitting on an exercise ball? The truth in this case is mathematical. A distribution cannot be composed entirely of outliers; by definition this is nonsense. Everyone cannot be special. Trying to find that regime where we fit into the outlier regime (which may or may not be good) is depressing and destructive.

On the one hand we have a strong desire to be normal and fit into the world, and on the other we want to be special or unique in some way. Both definitions are murky at best. Can both of these demands be met at once? If you relax each definition and apply each one as liberally as you like, perhaps. However, in the sense that these words are probably meant to be used, they are contradictory. You cannot be normal with little deviation from the average AND an outlier far from the average.

You cannot be special and normal at the same time. Yet this doublethink pervades our society and makes people miserably unhappy for a lack or surplus of one quality or the other, which will always be the case by definition.

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