The Trouble With Normal

The first time I heard the word “normalization” was sometime in late 2015. Most likely in reference to Donald Trump’s “muslim ban.” Since then we’ve diluted it.

Sometimes “normalization” means talking at all. The idea is that, by treating a party of Steve Kings and Roy Moores and Stephen Millers as though it were a normal political party, we can make it normal. But the act of arguing doesn’t concede anything. We seem to think we can’t engage a reprehensible idea without treating it as though it were something else. If we can’t speak without compromising our convictions then something else is going on.

More to the point, Stephen Miller is in the White House. Steve King is pushing two decades in the House of Representatives. It took allegations of sexual abuse to sink Roy Moore. Narrowly. Anyone worried about normalizing the bigotry and authoritarianism of the Republican Party is missing the point. It’s normal already.

When an idea is marginal, it can perhaps be ignored, but ideas are dynamic. They have weight of their own and normal rules apply. There is inertia to consider. Ideas in motion tend to stay in motion unless countered by an outside force.

My mother listened religiously to a Canadian singer-songwriter and activist named Bruce Cockburn. I remember hearing one song frequently. “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”

Our mistake is that we assume silence doesn’t normalize. We watch the government separate children from their parents at the border and people yell in protest. We consider lamenting the incivility of both sides to be measured and diplomatic. It’s heart-breaking that we have to explain the absurdity, but we do. Always.

There are ideas that should fall outside the boundaries of respectable political discourse. But we constantly redraw the lines; smudge them, erase them, sketch loops around our feet. Ideas that were once far afield are firmly inside a pocked, misshapen, warped, and swollen circle. Arguing about whether or not the boundary is reasonable doesn’t change the fact that they’re on this side of the line now.

The goal is not to change minds in a dramatic way but to the label the authoritarianism, tag the demagoguery, paint shame on the racism every time it shows up in respectable dress. Things need to change in big ways, but we can’t ignore the small.

The fate of Czechoslovakia was a forgone conclusion when George Orwell wrote that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” His world tumbled off a cliff and lucidity was the purest rebellion.

We think that we can starve an idea of oxygen, and we can. But fires don’t starve when they’re allowed them to burn in the open. They starve when we make an effort to corral them. We throw a blanket over a small fire or isolate a bigger one so it only burns one house. Leaving the fire alone is not a solution.

Ignoring dangerous ideas doesn’t make them less so. Simply declaring them dangerous is a start, but the dangerous things are dangerous for a reason. The abnormal things were not chosen at random. The lines weren’t drawn blindfolded. Everything has dimension, color, shape, texture, context. Describe them and enumerate their significance. Push against them and disrupt their motion. Remove the screws and toss the parts out to rust.

Normal is relative, but danger and oppression are not. Corruption has a value of its own. Misogyny and racism are tangible, demagoguery and power effable. Normal doesn’t always get worse, unless we fail to actively shape it.