Friday, July 10, 2009

There are norms, and then there are norms

This is a perennial issue that keeps cropping up in various conversations concerning oppressed and marginalized groups. It's been annoying me for ages but for some reason I haven't posted on it yet.

In conversations about marginalized groups, the word "norm" is often thrown around a lot. As in "normal" and "abnormal." As in "norming" and "othering." And one thing that frequently happens in these discussions, online and IRL, is that various uses of the word "norm" and "normal" become conflated. Generally speaking, it is not the case that a given word in our language (or in any language, for that matter) has only one meaning. Any competent English speaker knows this to be the case about our language, so I take protestations to the contrary as an indication of convenient and willful ignorance.

Two of the most common usages of the word "norm" are what I'll call the numerical norm and the social norm. This is a statement of numerical norm: there are more heterosexual people than homosexual people. On the face of it there is no moral judgment, no good and bad. It's just a factual, descriptive statement about people. And this is an important point: statement concerning numerical norms are merely descriptive. On the other hand, social norms are prescriptive. They involves statements about how we ought to behave, what attitudes and beliefs and values are acceptable, or the best ones. As such, they indicate the value and rank of a person within a cultural hierarchy on the basis of identity and life choices.

One common exchange in discussions of marginalization and the treatment of oppressed groups goes like this.

Person A: The reason why refusing to adopt a descriptive label for non-trans people, such as "cis," is problematic is because it norms the cis experience and others the trans experience.

Person B: Well, being non-trans is the norm. There are more non-trans people than trans people.

This exchange involves an equivocation between the meanings of the word "norm" such that B's response to A does not count as a rebuttal or even a response. They're simply not talking about the same thing.

1 comment:

  1. McAlly7/13/2009

    OMG, this drives me crazy! And it occurs in all kind of conversations - about race and sexual orientation and gender identity and ablism and on and on. Next time someone pulls this I'll link them to this post!