How Normalization Can Create Conformity but Also Change

09.17.2021 Arts & Culture
Rachel Guest
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At THE FULLEST, we’ve been thinking a lot about normalization and the way it can consciously and unconsciously influence our collective and individual ideas, behaviors, and perspectives.

Normalization is broadly defined by modern sociologists and psychologists as a process that makes behaviors and ideas seem “normal” be it through repetition, ideology, propaganda, and so on. Once a behavior or idea is defined as “normal” within a culture, those that “stick to the norm” are protected or even rewarded, and those that deviate “from the norm” may face challenges such as conflict, disrepute, and even social isolation.

A more detailed explanation of this is discussed in Discipline and Punish by French philosopher, Michel Foucalt. He used the term to unpack the normalization involved in the construction of military conduct. For example, a soldier is normalized in exceptional detail from their posture, to their march, to their uniform. If the soldier deviates, they are punished until they fall back in line with the norm.

Although there may be a need for normalization in some cases, potentially the military being one of them, normalization happens in varying degrees from abusive behavior to more subtle social norms.

In looking for an example of an abuse of normalization, one could highlight the period of time before the Me Too movement. The phrase “Me Too” was initially used by Tarana Burke in 2006 before gaining global recognition in 2017 following the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, wherein countless women bravely stepped forward together to share their stories. Before 2017, the women in this case, and women the world over in thousands of other cases, did not speak up because to some degree, sexual harassment by men toward women in the workplace including inuendo, groping, and inappropriate propositioning was normalized. Minimization and throw away comments such as “boys will be boys” and “that’s just the way it is” made many victims feel that their experience, although unacceptable, was “normal” and therefore could not justify speaking out against their abuser — or that in doing so, there may be a harsher penalty towards them rather than their aggressor. Unfortunately, even though the Me Too movement has made huge strides in de-normalizing this behavior, many people may still feel that harassment is normalized in their workplaces.

On the other hand, a positive example of normalization is the current push by many women to create a new narrative around breastfeeding. Once frowned upon and considered taboo, many women are speaking out in the hopes of reframing breastfeeding not as a taboo act or even an intimate act but as a basic act of nourishment between mother and child. The intention is that as more women breastfeed in public, more people become accustomed to seeing it as a natural part of life, and over time the act becomes “normalized.”

Some social norms are more subtle and also more polarizing. One that springs to mind is alcohol consumption. From early as our teens, many Americans and other Western countries normalize often dangerous levels of drinking. At high school parties, college events, and even later life occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and work functions, it is more uncommon to choose not to drink than to choose to drink. Even though alcohol is technically a poison, especially in large volumes, its normalization has made many non-drinkers feel ostracized and lonely. In fact, it has led some non-drinkers to seek out communities that also uphold a sober or sober-curious perspective as it is often too difficult to have to repeatedly explain one’s decision to go against the grain and not drink alcohol.

Looking back at these varying examples of normalization is a great opportunity for individual and collective reflection. It’s a way of asking ourselves, do I agree with the “norm?” In the case of drinking, perhaps you no longer feel the need to drink as much as your peers, and understand that you are choosing to drink due to social conditioning — or perhaps, you are happy with your relationship with alcohol and it needs no further inquiry. For issues that create more internal discord, the ones that feel troubling and traumatic even though you may perceive that others find the same issue a “normal” part of life, perhaps you can seek out a therapist or confide in a trusted friend. For issues that you are passionate about, perhaps you can use it to speak out and break a stigma to create a “new normal” such as public breastfeeding. Normalization is an embedded part of living in a collective world — but that doesn’t mean we cannot challenge nor do we need to accept the status quo.

Find your definition of truth on any and every issue, and support yourself with people, practices, and environments that don’t force you to accept any norm not aligned with your values.

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