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Are you normal? In 'Am I Normal?' Sarah Chaney interrogates a particularly difficult word

This is not normal. Credit: YouTube


July 25, 2022   6 mins

There’s a lot of normal stuff going on right now. Last week, for instance, the Jan 6 committee heard that the staff of the tottering Trump White House had divided itself into Team Crazy (guys urging the defeated President to retain power through fraud and violence) and Team Normal (those asking if he would mind awfully if he didn’t).

Then, as if acting as warm-up man for the coming entreaclement of Luton Airport’s runway, the UK’s former energy and climate change minister, Sir John Hayes, went on Radio 4 to argue that all this fuss over a heatwave showed that “we’ve lost our sense of what’s normal”. (“I can remember the summer of 1975,” he declared, puzzling anyone who could remember the summer of 1976.) Three days later, his home county sent a four-wheeled gritter named Spreaddie Mercury to discharge itself over Lincolnshire roads liquefying at a record-breaking 56.3°C.

Then, just as I was about to finish this piece, Esquire magazine revealed that Chris Evans — the Knives Out one not the TFI Friday one — had been detected trying to “normalise” something. When you hear about things being normalised, it’s usually in reference to lying or racism or toxic masculinity, but thankfully Evans had just decided to go to the premiere of The Gray Man wearing a white vest under his suit jacket. “The normalisation of sexy, sexy menswear,” the mag confirmed, “has been coming for some time.”

At our moment in history, is the word “normal” exhausted beyond use? Is it time to retire it? We expect it to do so much. The normality of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, for example, resides in its characters’ struggles with mental illness; the novel argues for the ordinariness and ubiquity of experiences that fiction might once have treated as exceptional. It’s not the same normal as Planet Normal, the Daily Telegraph podcast that offers views on Covid policy that are not broadly shared by either the public or the scientific community. So what, if anything, does it now mean?

These are questions for Sarah Chaney, research fellow at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions, which in recent years has produced exciting work on British weeping, shame in early modern Spain, and Busman’s stomach (a psychosomatic disorder that troubled double-decker drivers around the time of the 1937 Coronation). Chaney’s new book, Am I Normal? takes a single term and, like a long, chatty entry from Raymond Williams’s classic Keywords (1976), traces its sources and explores the different uses to which it has been put.

Her first lesson about “normal” as we understand it today is that its history is short. In essence, her book is an account of an escape. In 1800, “normal” was a mathematical term designating a straight line perpendicular to the tangent. But in 1840, along came Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer and statistician who loosed the term into the space of a new discipline he called “social physics”. (Auguste Comte had thought of it first, but coined another word — “sociology” — to ensure nobody confused their work.) Taking data on the chest measurements of 5,738 Scottish soldiers from a two-decades-old copy of the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, Quetelet plotted these numbers on a graph to produce an average chest size, rather as astronomers used multiple readings to establish the length of a planetary orbit. As revolution brought chaos and disruption to Belgium, Quetelet found that on paper, all measurable human qualities — from height and weight to propensity for suicide — fell into the quiet and simple order of the bell curve. We still call this “normal distribution”.

Quetelet knew that his calculations were not offering a simple description of reality. The average soldier who emerged from his numbers did not exist. Not all who followed in his footsteps were so clear-sighted. As Todd Rose relates in The End of Average, the spectral figure of the average man led US Air Force designers to produce a generation of jet planes with cockpits that fitted nobody. (It’s also why nuclear families are easier to find in adverts than censuses.)

There’s another story here that’s just as big. Chaney spells out the problem with the data itself: it shows an enormous bias towards white middle-class individuals, who comprise less than 12% of the world’s population, but make up 80% of subjects in medical studies and 96% of subjects in psychological ones. The normal isn’t just a phantom; it’s one raised from the experience of a minority. Yet it is used to create standards for a world in which everyone must live.

Quetelet’s work generated a universe of good and ghastly work based on averages — the Body Mass Index, typologies of criminals, Florence Nightingale’s hospital reforms, John Snow’s discovery of the waterborne nature of cholera, the IQ test, the Kinsey Report into the sex habits of Americans, eugenic projects from Francis Galton to the Nazis.

Amazingly, Am I Normal? suggests that the data didn’t even have to be real in order to have an impact. For instance, statistics about the poor physical state of British recruits to the Anglo-Boer War are often credited for starting the process that gave us the 1904 Committee on Physical Deterioration, free school milk and — eventually — the National Health Service. The numbers are scary. 8,000 of the 11,000 men who volunteered in Manchester, it was said, were unfit to serve. Chaney uses a 2008 paper by the medical historian Vanessa Heggie to show that this figure has no source but the rambling polemics of Arnold White, a failed Liberal parliamentary candidate with a thing for antisemitic conspiracy theories. (“When we survey other nations,” he wrote in Efficiency and Empire (1901), we “perceive how weakness, self-indulgence, want of foresight, self-respect, culture and industry are enabling astute, industrious, or unscrupulous Jews to destroy the power of whole classes.”) A culture convinced of its own declining state did not ask for White’s receipts. It had a picture of itself that matched its prejudices.

But Chaney’s work also yields a warning about making the same kind of mistake about the past. In one of her chapters, she uses the brutal practice of the clitoridectomy to illustrate how 19th-century medicine attempted to regulate female sexuality. The operation, she argues, was “a cure for sexual desire” that “acquired a dubious reputation after the discrediting of its main advocate, gynaecologist Isaac Baker Brown, in 1867”. She is not the first to use Brown to tell a story about normality imposed by a surgical blade — but I’m not sure whether the facts really serve her thesis.

Scandal erupted around Brown when it was revealed that he had been operating on patients without consent. The subsequent inquiry also allowed his peers to pass judgement on the procedure itself. They used words such as “barbarous”, “quackery” and “terrorism”. I can find only one example of an English doctor other than Baker who ever carried out it out. It was the opposite of normal. It was shockingly extreme.

Moreover, the case that brought Brown down was not the one that we might naturally imagine – a Victorian wife punished for her desires. The central figure in the affair, Mary Hancock, suffered from severe bouts of mental illness. She saved pus from her blisters in a gallipot, believed that she was turning into a crystal, imagined that she was Princess Charlotte of Wales, who had died in childbirth in 1817. Her doctors were concerned about what they perceived as a manic sexual energy, but marriage, not mutilation, seems to have been their preferred cure.

All this became a matter for the courts only when her husband, Robert Peaty, fought, unsuccessfully, to save her from the machinations of her family, who wanted to annul the marriage for financial gain. As the astonished press coverage indicates, there was nothing normal about any of this (except, perhaps, the punishment meted out to the doctor who cut Mary Hancock with steel scissors of his own design). A misplaced scholarly tradition of seeing the clitoridectomy as an exemplar of Victorian cruelty may be the only reason that Chaney implies otherwise.

Ironically, Am I Normal? is just the sort of book that might save a researcher from error. Its pages are full of implied warnings against the unquestioning use of data, particularly when it fits preconceived ideas too neatly. But as Raymond Williams reminds us, this is hazardous work. Many of the entries in Keywords begin by saying that the term under discussion is “one of the most difficult words in the language”. “Normal” is not on his list. But, as Chaney demonstrates, it merits the same careful handling. It’s a word that imposes a false picture of the world and may sometimes cause us much pain. But it’s one for which we’re grateful when we’re trying to work out how many Paracetamol to take, or how to read a red hot weather forecast.

A few weeks ago, a clip of the scruffy CBBC personality Hacker T. Dog went viral. It was a short moment from a 2016 TV show in which he made a strange emphatic statement to his co-presenter, Lauren Layfield. “We’re normal men!” he declared. “We’re just innocent men.” Layfield, her face close to his snout, dissolved into incapable laughter.

Hacker is a little glove puppet with button eyes, but this was probably a more intelligent and sensible deployment of the word “normal” than the examples at the beginning of this piece. It demonstrated its meaninglessness and its power. It showed how a young and promiscuous concept has exerted such a powerful influence on our lives — despite being fragile to the point of absurdity.


Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.

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Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago

“It showed how a young and promiscuous concept has exerted such a powerful influence on our lives”

Yes, stay away from using “weaponize” for the same reason.

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

Normal in the sense of ‘standardised’ predates 1800. In 18th century France and Germany it was used in the form of ‘Normal school’ for educating teachers in the correct form of pedagogy (norms eg for standard Latin and religion education).
It derives from norma – a carpenter’s square from which we get the sense of ‘fixing the angle correctly’. But also the perpendicular meaning used in geometry (Regula – the carpenter’s ruler – gives us regulations).
Similarly, the normal curve was originally derived by De Moivre but is more correctly called the Gaussian curve as Gauss used it to account for random variation in astronomical observations (1809). Quetelet, formerly an astronomer, applied it to social measurements in the 1840s, rather than invented it. He was obsessed with averages and observed population measures often followed the Guassian curve. However, that’s not why the curve is called ‘normal’
The shape became referred to by the name of ‘normal curve’ by statistics theorists in the late 1870-90s because it was the ‘standard’ distribution most commonly found in mathematical statistical theory – not because it measured ‘normalness’.
So to the name of the book ‘Am I normal?’ in older times would be interpreted as do I meet the norms and standards of the day – which today’s ecoles normales would include diversity and gender identity as normal. It’s not the same as ‘Am I average?’ or less clumsly written as ‘Am I typical?’ Normal people, however, wouldn’t notice the distinction.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

It seems to me, when I was young, there were strict behavioural norms but as long as those norms were observed, there was much greater freedom of thought and expression. I lived in a small town, everyone knew everyone by name or by sight. To encounter someone and not say hello would be considered extremely rude, but there was plenty of eccentric behaviour that was never commented upon, in fact eccentricity was considered an essential characteristic. There was the phrase – an English man’s home is his castle.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

My own childhood memories are similar, particularly in this interesting way. There were gay couples whose “story” was widey accepted by most of the town. Two women “sharing a house”. Or two men “vacationing” together. There would be seperate bedrooms or hotel rooms, but where they actually slept wasn’t considered to be ayone’s business.
By the time I figured this out it hardly seemed unusual or even worthy of mention. The adults around me said and did some wacky things, but this, ignoring the obvious for the sake of social peace, seemed perfectly sensible.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

An interesting but rather unfocused and rambling article based on Chaney’s book.

While “normal” is often used as an Arnold White type informal statistic meaning ‘something that I and my friends think and do and you ought to too’, no one would actually want to be operated by someone with “normal” ability in the sense of falling within the hump of the bell curve. Instead you want someone not only with skill that falls at the desirable end of the bell curve for the population but ideally at the desirable end of the bell curve for qualified surgeons. In this sense being abnormal is widely known to be desirable where particular skills are required.

You certainly would not want a surgeon that was regarded as “Normal for Norfolk” by his colleagues.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Quite agree. Depending on the metric in question, interpretation will vary. And interpretation is king.

The technocratic classes, meanwhile, worship statistics in a cargo cult manner, LARPing the manipulation of numbers to give a neat answer, whilst missing the critical limitations of what they think they know.

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Parker
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

If by “technocratic classes” you mean the broad swathe of civil servants and politicians, I agree that because, for the most part, they are statistically illiterate they are unable to interpret such statistics as they do receive and put them in proper context. The pandemic revealed the abysmal level of statistical knowledge particularly among MSM journalists.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Yes, that’d be a good working definition. Essentially, I mean anyone who begins with a model of the world and then tries to hammer messy old reality into that mould. Adverse outcomes then become other people’s fault, or at least the effect of confounding variables – but never the fault of the technocrat.

John Ralston Saul was quite good on that topic, as I recall.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

normal for Norfolk? Nothing wrong with that? nice guns, old shooting bags, Guards boating jackets, Schoffels and tweed caps, lots of land and no Pooters in miles…

Paula 0
Paula 0
1 year ago

”
.It showed how a young and promiscuous concept has exerted such a powerful influence on our lives
”

Yeah, also with the use of “WEAPONIZED.” Please, can’t we argue using terminology in common usage from at least five years back?

My head is filled with garbage concepts, newly coined, viralized
it is a sickness. Resist for the sake of all our sanity, please. Stop using the hip terms. If we think with older terms, we might find our way out of these riptides.

As I write this, d**k Cheney’s offspring is doing the three phrase trick, to prove how patriotic and right she must be. Beware of the listed three reasons, the listed three adjectives. This is a sign one is being bamboozled by someone who is just pouring out rhetoric.

Lol. Sorry, Richard Cheney! lololol Ilooked back, and I wrote his name with a capital D. This is on the algorithm, not me.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paula 0
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Paula 0

‘Viralized’?

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago

I suspect there is confusion between the words ordinary and normal. Mental illness can be normalised but true mental illness by its very nature cannot be ordinary. Post traumatic stress is a normal response to genuinely traumatic events, the resultant behaviour is unlikely to be ordinary. I am thinking of a friend’s father who suffered post traumatic stress from his experiences fighting in WWII; every time a plane flew over the house he would run for cover and hide under the dining table insisting all the other members of the family join him for their own safety: abnormal behaviour is a normal response to great trauma. Ordinary emotions and struggles in life have been pathologised. Dante wrote the divine comedy as a self help guide for ordinary people (it was the first work to be written in Italian, the vernacular, so ordinary people could have access) as a way out of depression – Midway through my life in my thirty fifth year, I found myself in a dark wood (first line). Maybe the NHS should prescribe Dante, Plato has been found to relieve depression as well. Recent research suggests medication for depression which interferes with serotonin levels is ineffective, a waste of money.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Bob Null
Bob Null
1 year ago

My local weatherman has begun using “normal” to refer to the temperature when he means “average.” So he talks about the temperatures being higher than normal but then one sees in the graphic posted earlier that the record high was recorded in 1934. Forty or so years ago, my doctoral advisor told me (when discussing an early dissertation draft), “God***it, Bob, words have to mean something!” I think about that a lot as I see words being used carelessly all the time nowadays, such as “expert,” “science,” “data,” “misinformation,” and many others, now including “normal”.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Null

Weather forecasting now incorporates a moral element. If some weather is normal then other weather is abnormal – something to be feared. Weather forecasters are amongst the prophets of doom – the end of the world is nigh, but instead of being commanded to stop sinning (in the traditional sense), we are instructed to reduce are CO2 emissions: licentiousness is fine. Time for some human sacrifice though the prophets of doom – the Markle’s, Emma Thompson, Leonardo di Caprio etc.- have no intention of being part of the sacrifice.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Null

‘Democracy’ and ‘fascism’ have become almost meaningless these days.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
1 year ago

Normal, a word that means boring to those off us who aren’t interested in being normal. Averaging out things is the best way to turn everything into a sterile landscape that removes the wonderful bio diversity of our species. Normal is exactly the opposite of what most people call normal, it’s means you always have both sides of the coin, the good, the bad and the ugly.
– I wasn’t finished writing and accedentily posted the text while on the run.
Ideal and idealization seem to be a human desire. The Greeks created statues of idealized heroic figures that everyone wanted to emulate. The Romans copied the Greeks and created marvels that are all idealizations of the human figure in imposing positions. Are these ancient cultures to be criticized for their bias through idealization, or is it our nature to always seek the most beautiful and imposing in life. Is this normal or abnormal?
Let’s take a rainbow as an analogy: A rainbow is only a rainbow if it has all its colors. The same applies to our species: it is only normal if it has the full spectrum of characteristics, which includes both the good and the bad qualities. If one or the other were left out, we could not have the full range of characters and personalities. This is a concept that many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around.

Last edited 1 year ago by Raymond Inauen
Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

Agreed: statistics are useful as descriptors and then only when used judiciously and as impartially as may be achieved.

Statistical measurements should not be seen as prescriptive. That is a grave fallacy and has led us down some foul byways. Reliance on statistical data as an absolute guide is typically the result of lazy thinking (or other more general shirking of responsibility for one’s necessary choices).

It also holds true more often than not, that in my own field (life sciences), “normal” (I prefer “Gaussian”) distributions are usually not the norm at all. Bi-modality, kurtosis and skew all conspire to confound the comfortable assumptions of central limit theorem. The patterns in data sets – the “abnormalities” – are what makes them interesting, to me and most of my colleagues.

The finer details of biochemistry and cell biology may, of necessity, describe fairly reliable limits, but even then we qualify data distributions with a confidence interval (usually 95% of the data distribution).

So, “normality” is even strictly qualified at the molecular level: at the level of our perceived reality it is at best a comforting fiction.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Agreed, because that is what Darwin recognized: Without diversity and adaptation through evolution, nothing would change. Normal means that change can only occur if there is room for variation and adaptation. That means deviations are needed otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Last edited 1 year ago by Raymond Inauen
Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

Excellent point – I hadn’t considered positing that aspect.

Quite agree: the Gaussian distribution is a useful tool but not any guide to a desirable state of affairs! If only the political left would recognise this we’d probably be in a better state


Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

One of the things i enjoy about reading Unherd comments is the introduction to new terms.
kurtosis
Thankyou!

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Pleasure! “Leptokurtic” and “platykurtic” always make me smile too: the one puts me in mind of an obscure skeletal complaint, the other a novel marsupial


Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

Many (if not all) parents want their children to be normal, but exceptional at the same time. What they often mean by “normal” is “fit in”; not necessarily an unreasonable desire.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago

The antonyms are telling. The opposite of normal is abnormal, the opposite of ordinary is extraordinary. Parents are often conflicted in their desires, as are people in general, the extraordinary is abnormal. The abnormalities of the extraordinary are being used against them to cancel them. Eric Gill comes to mind, there is no doubt he was an extraordinary artist, and his behaviour was abnormal – it broke cultural norms. Caravaggio was a murderer.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
1 year ago

I have just educated myself on Hacker T. Dog.
He’s very funny. Humour cures many of life’s ills.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Rogers

Hell, yes. To possibly misquote R. L. Stevenson: “nothing like a little judicious levity”.

Mark Kennedy
Mark Kennedy
1 year ago

This is not a normal essay… it’s too informative, insightful and non-polemical and isn’t trying to convert me or sell me anything. What’s the matter with the author–doesn’t he understand his normal role?

Tony Reardon
Tony Reardon
1 year ago

In Australia, we recently had a media report of a new batch of census data that stated:
The average Australian:

  • The average Australian is a 37-year-old woman
  • 74 per cent of the the population were born in Australia
  • 54 per cent had both parents born here
  • 61 per cent identify as Christian
  • One in five have no religion at all
  • 19 per cent speak a language other than English at home
  • The most common language other than English is Mandarin

This claim about an average for sex is obviously a complete nonsense – an “average” when there are only two categories is a complete misuse of the term. The accurate report would simply be that the population splits 50.45% female. 49.55% male.
Note that it doesn’t say that the average Australian is born in Australia to Australian born parents, is Christian and only speaks English. I wonder why. Lies, damn lies and statistics?

Michael Upton
Michael Upton
1 year ago

Those who were “puzzled because they remembered the summer of 1976” might be set at ease by recalling that the summer of 1975 is reported to have broken heat records that had stood since 1947, and which themselves stood until 1995.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

“Hello, I’m Glenn Normal on the 7.53 up from Seveneoaks, on my lap top, with my work security pass reound my neck…reading a car magazine…. I work in ‘ hinsurance…I am a dull, tedious non entity….Drone… bore…” Normal? I’d rather be in Rampton or Broadmoor