What does it mean to be normal?

Sunday 3 November, 17:3018:45, Auditorium 1Science and society

The 2019 edition of the popular reality TV show Love Island was met by a chorus of disapproval for its focus on unrealistically beautiful people. The most common refrain was that the tanned, sculpted babes and hunks did not look like ‘normal’ people. There is something of an obsession with ‘normality’ today. Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People, was widely acclaimed for its sensitive portrayal of everyday contemporary relationships. The TV smash hit Fleabag was likewise praised for its unflinching portrayal of ‘normal’ British middle-class sexual mores.

In the past, there has been resistance to the idea of ‘being normal’, especially through the 1960s. From the gay liberation struggle to the anti-psychiatry movement, normality was seen as an oppressive idea encouraging backwardness and conformity. Today, by contrast, we are more likely to see resistance to ‘normies’ coming from the far right than the left.

More broadly, attitudes towards ‘normality’ seem difficult to get a handle on today. On the one hand, campaigns to raise awareness for a variety of social or psychological ills seek to show it is not ‘abnormal’, for example, to experience depression and that such people ‘are not alone’. But on the other hand, the proliferation of identity characteristics encourage people to be celebrate difference, uniqueness and not being ‘normal’. Moreover, everything from sexuality and gender to autism is conceived as being on a ‘spectrum’, with the implication being that there is no such thing as normal and we should celebrate what is often called ‘neurodiversity’. But does this mean there we can no longer make distinctions between behaviour and features that should be celebrated and things we should be concerned about or oppose?

What are we to make of this shifting understanding of what it is to be normal? Should we just accept that everything is unstable, that we can’t expect a single category of ‘normal’ to be helpful? What should we make of attempts to reduce the shame or stigma of being ‘different’? Is the result a new liberation, or do we simply see the proliferation of new psychological or medical categories that could end up trapping people within them? Has there been a shift from engaging in wider political causes towards discovering the ‘self’ individually? Does society need a concept of normality, if only to define common sets of beliefs and values or does it enforce conformity? Should we celebrate being normal?