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When exploring feelings of unconscious shame and disgrace, it’s important to remember that these feelings always exist in response to judgment. Judgment, in its turn, is always against a standard. In our patriarchal society that standard is what we call normal.

What is normal?

So, what is ‘normal’?

Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for the term, in the sense of a ‘normal person’. But it does have a very interesting entry on social norms that describes how normality is shaped:

Social norms are shared standards of acceptable behaviour by groups… Norms are contingent on context, social group, and historical circumstances.

Scholars distinguish between regulative norms (which constrain behaviour), constitutive norms (which shape interests), and prescriptive norms (which prescribe what actors ought to do). The effects of norms can be determined by a logic of appropriateness and logic of consequences; the former entails that actors follow norms because it is socially appropriate, and the latter entails that actors follow norms because of cost-benefit calculations.”

Intriguingly, Wikipedia use the term ‘actors’ (without explaining it) to describe those who participate in social norms, which is all of us. I’ll come back to that later.


As Wikipedia points out, the definition of normal we buy into depends on who we identify as our ‘tribe’—which is itself a cost-benefit calculation.

For instance, members of a motorcycle gang may have a definition of normal that places them in opposition to or outside the bounds of mainstream society. They are supposedly rebelling against normality.

Yet all the gang members are emotionally enslaved into upholding the gang’s internalised view of normal, such as its hazing rituals and notions of honour. Similarly, swinger groups overturn the social norm of monogamy.

Admittance to a tribe is only permitted through strict observance of its version of normal.

Hazing rituals—whether killing a rival gang member or swinger sex—provide boundaries that must be crossed to demonstrate belonging and loyalty to a tribe.

Most of us in Britain belong to mainstream society whose hazing rituals include going to the pub, shopping, getting excited about sports we don’t really care about, voting for politicians without integrity, and over-eating at Christmas.

In The Function of the Orgasm (1942), psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich writes: “The character structure of modern man, who reproduces a six-thousand-year-old patriarchal authoritarian culture, is typified by… fear of responsibility, mystic longing, sexual misery, and neurotically impotent rebelliousness…”

“Neurotically impotent rebelliousness” characterises the behaviour of all supposedly anti-establishment groups. They’ve just swapped one set of chains—one definition of normal—for another. Of course, mainstream normality is just as neurotically impotent, like the anodyne smiley robots in the picture above.

The origin of normal

What’s the origin of these norms that constrain, shape, and prescribe (i.e., render impotent) our individuality?

Reich’s quote points the finger at the emergence of patriarchy some six thousand years ago, which happened in response to climate change. In Saharasia, geographer James DeMeo describes how prolonged drought caused desertification and famine in the equatorial belt from North Africa through the Middle East into Central Asia.

Famines spanning hundreds of years deeply affected human physiology. In the increasingly harsh desert conditions, tribal identity was a matter of life and death. All expressions of individuality that threatened belonging had to be subsumed to the greater good.

Famine turned peaceful hunter/gatherer or agricultural communities into nomadic warrior tribes competing for diminishing resources. The victors eventually founded the first patriarchies, who propagated their social norms in waves of global conquest.

Wikipedia breaks this into three stages. We’re at the ‘taken-for-granted’ stage:

“Three stages have been identified in the life cycle of a norm: (1) Norm emergence – norm entrepreneurs seek to persuade others of the desirability and appropriateness of certain behaviours; (2) Norm cascade – when a norm obtains broad acceptance; and (3) Norm internalization – when a norm acquires a ‘taken-for-granted’ quality.”

Definitions of normal are based on a set of unconscious polarised good/bad values. They form the basis of judgments of both others and of ourselves.

No such thing as normal

Wikipedia labels those who follow social norms as actors—an interesting terms that hints at the ultimately fake nature of these norms. When we observe a norm—which is generally an unconscious action—we are acting. We’re not expressing our true, individual self.

Most of us spend most of our lives acting, unconsciously fitting in with the prevailing social norms. Eavesdrop on any conversation and you’ll find that most of it is superficial adherence to tribal notions of good and bad.

You must say the right things, do the right things, wear the right clothes, maintain the right attitudes. At this time of cancel culture, social norms are being imposed with growing force.

Yet the more we do this, the more we lose ourselves—and the more mental health issues we suffer, the more anxious we feel, and the less able to cope.

Six thousand years ago, obeying norms was a matter of life or death. Now the opposite is happening. Authenticity is becoming paramount to wellbeing. In this sense, there is no such thing as normal as a society without norms is the only society of truly free individuals.

Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

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