This morning the first thing that captured my senses was a baby crib shaped like a shark’s mouth. A Quebecois TV announcer was discussing this odd family product. It occurred to me that, the night before, I’d been watching ’Pirates of the Caribbean’ on the French channel. Not because I speak more than a lick of French, but because I was curious to see how many words I could pick up. This unorthodox beginning to my day led me to wonder about all the forms of normality we take for granted, or even grant moral superiority.
For instance, what if you woke up one morning to find that coffee and tea were illegal stimulants? If you were Mormon you’d be surprised that a scripture from your holy book had been made law; suddenly your normal had been enforced on everyone else (Doctrine and Covenants, 9). If you weren’t Mormon you’d probably be flabbergasted to find out that being busted for drinking hot beverages now warranted a stiff fine or even a mandatory stay in a rehabilitation clinic. Those who don’t consume coffee or tea might instead be mortified to wake up to discover that their ice cream or potato chip privileges had been suspended. You get the idea. What if every normal behaviour you did was challenged? Furthermore, what if we were to rigorously challenge social preconceptions in our own lives?
Normality is context-dependent. I recall how when a friend of mine acquired a dog we soon realized that playing backyard bocce now involved additional, er, obstacles aside from shrubbery and rose bushes. Being tentative about haphazardly grabbing one’s ball off of the ground became the new normal. In life, external factors dictate the social expectations we have. Or, as Mannville, Alberta native, Erving Goffman, put it, social circumstances dictate our definition of the situation (Goffman, 1956). Much of being ourselves and acting naturally depends upon reference scales which take their cues from details in the world around us. Our responses to reality come to feel instinctual. Yet new versions of normality are cropping up all the time.
We account for our behaviour in terms of individual motives, or social pressure, or a combination of the two. This attribution process tends also to be dictated by our surroundings; if a person goes against the grain, people feel unsettled or even upset. It’s like how if you clasp your hands together with fingers interlocked in whatever way feels natural and then clasp them together in the opposite way, with the fingers slotted into what feels like the ’wrong’ position, a disturbing feeling ensues. However, unlike our genetically determined preference for one or another handclasp position, socialization and our self-image determines what feels proper in assorted situations. What feels right depends on what we and those around us believe in and how we act; social reality is remarkably labile.
Our behavioural choices are largely unconscious; often we act naturally almost without a second thought. When good things happen to us, at our graduation, for instance, we try to spread credit to others such that we don’t seem narcissistic. When the BC Lions announced their new head coach, highly-touted Jeff Tedford, who turned around the Cal-Berkeley football program in such dramatic fashion that fans wore tye-dyed shirts emblazoned with the words ’Tedford is God’ around campus, he, at the press conference, thanked many others for his hiring but did not pat himself on the back (Ulrich, 2014). No matter how much of a pedestal (or podium) we are placed on, we instinctually know better than to herald our arrival at the top. Only in the most tyrannical regimes does a leader fully embrace the cult of personality which unfolds around him or her.
Yet, in some circumstances, where positive life changes occur, people utilize the opposite sort of accounting practices. We make the event much more personal, much more about ourselves, and we believe that our individualized definition of the situation holds true. Wedding vows, for instance, are often written as though two isolated hearts, adrift and alone in the universe, came together by some quantum-mechanical intervention. A sidelong glance on a trail near a beach, a dropped package of penne in the aisles of a store, and voila, two souls found each other and, by divine right, were united into one. In our culture, marriage is a relatively individualized institution; it embodies the essence of our belief in free will and freedom of choice. Yet people who meet and fall in love do so while remaining enmeshed within their pre-existing social circumstances (kids, co-workers, friend networks), and, once married, continue to inhabit a variety of social roles. Marriage does not occur in a vacuum.
I should add, incidentally, that the folks I know who had arranged marriages have the same 50% divorce rate as those (including me) who met through average North American cultural channels ie. as ’strangers’. In terms of online dating, people are matched up in terms of traits and beliefs, tastes and goals. Very little is left to chance after you’ve spent a half hour filling out personality questionnaires. In many ways relationships are more arranged now than in the proverbial days of Romeo and Juliet or rural ’shotgun weddings’.
The truth is, our individual traits and expectations of relationships are only part of the equation. There is no Mr. Right or Mrs. Perfect without their attendant social facts and, in many cases, their human (not to mention animal) attendants. We are not so far removed from the medieval Cinderella ball where each courtesan has her retinue of supporters and even clingers-on. A recent comedy movie called Ted made this hilariously clear: a 30-something man struggled with commitments to his beautiful girlfriend because he couldn’t give up attachment to his beloved teddy bear. Of course, the teddy bear was really just the stereotypical ’best buddy’ which women as well as men often have to distance themselves from?or even elide from their lives if they are to achieve marital bliss. He needed to challenge what had been normal for him since childhood.
It is not by coincidence that serenity and silence evoke one another in our minds; the more social clamour we feel in our life, the less we are certain that our individual choices are really our own. For this reason we must question what normal really means to us and to what extent our own personal, private, morality is being framed by our true desires or to what extent we are being framed by social facts beyond our control.
As distance education students, this process of criticism and self-criticism is particularly vital: who hasn’t been asked ’what are you gonna do with your education?’ And who doesn’t know a cohort or comrade who ended up majoring in something that was far down on their list of desired topics? In order to fulfil ourselves we have to be able to drown out the roar of the rushing social ocean, be it the media giving dire forecasts for graduates with Arts degrees, or our friends counselling us that we need to have our career (code word for future income) in mind, long enough to ask if what seems normal and expected of us is really what we desire. In the end, even the simplest things, like the language on the TV or the way our hands clasp into those of a lover, can, with a slight change, yield drastically-different results. We might even feel like buying a shark-crib for our niece.
Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.