Strolling through woods, my friend asked me “is that normal?” and seemed astonished when I replied, “Is that question even relevant?” We were talking about thoughts, feelings, experience – I can’t remember, now, exactly which. In any case, I have been asked that question, or variants of it, so often. We seem to be obsessed with normality; strange when in so many areas of life we are busy deconstructing the notion.
So here is my theory. Normality is an idea that stems from the herd. Herd behaviour is primitive, instinct-driven, and designed to ensure the survival of the group at the expense, if necessary, of the outliers. The slowest, or those on the fringes, can be sacrificed to the group cause; picked off by predators or extreme conditions.
Two things follow.
- The individual, when the group is operating at this primitive level, becomes anxious if they find themselves at the back, or off too far to one side. “Am I normal?” becomes a proxy for “am I safe?”
- The group, when under pressure, will expend less energy supporting individuals on the fringes and may even push them further to the edge, since their value to the group lies chiefly in their expendability.
And this is how insecurity leads to Stigma:
- We are generally placid as long as things continue as they always have (and provided our basic needs, at least, are met). But if something out-of-the-ordinary arrives we are challenged, and the degree of challenge depends on the extent to which we feel insecure. If something unfamiliar turns up in my experience or in my group, I may welcome it if I am feeling secure, but if I am feeling insecure I shall be suspicious of it.
- Because, in the latter instance, novelty is unwelcome, I do not want the group to associate me with it. If they do – if I run next to this individual – then the group may sacrifice me also, in the interests of its survival. The unusual person – near the rim of the bell-shaped curve – is at the fringe and expendable; a target for predation or a low priority for succour – so the further I am from them the better.
We have developed an attachment to “normality” and when our attachment behaviours are activated this can contribute to stigma and marginalisation.
- An insecure group will tolerate difference less; will stigmatise it more; will be happier to see it suffer and disappear.
- A secure group – one in the mood for exploration and discovery rather than survival – will be more likely to welcome difference in its midst, as a possible new resource .
- To decrease stigmatisation of minorities, maybe we need not to attack the perpetrator more, but somehow reduce their sense of insecurity.
When we find ourselves asking “is it normal?” we are operating from a primitive and insecure position. The better question might be “is it dangerous?”. At least then we allow ourselves the possibility of a higher-level existence; welcoming and experiencing novelty, and providing succour to individuals rather than marginalising them.