Monday, May 2, 2016

The New Normal


Here’s one definition of quality education and culture:
Expanding one’s view on what’s normal.
We are all born into a family and surrounding culture that creates our perception of normal. No way around it. It’s normal! One group of people think it’s the norm to sit around for 4 to 10 hours a day staring at screens, another stops all activity five times a day to kneel and pray, another’s idea of fun is to writhe and bounce around to ear-splitting music and catatonic flashing lights. Who’s to say what’s normal?
“Other villages, other ways” was a saying I heard in Java, where even provincial rural folks had a sense that their way of life was relative, not absolute. Naturally, we identify with what we inherit, think of it as at least a little bit more normal than other ways, become hardwired to mostly prefer it to other ways. Or not.
Part of the grand adventure of life is to discover things that initially appear “exotic” because they’re at the far end or off the chart of a culture’s normalcy. From escargot to blowfish sushi to corndogs, from yoga to mudwrestling to speaking in tongues, from Chinese opera to punk rock to Ethiopian armpit music, we discover that the world is much larger than our narrow view.
And sometimes this turns our world inside out and upside down and sets us on the path to discovery far beyond the life we thought we had to live. Someone bored with the Christian church becomes convinced that spirituality is not for them and then they discover Buddhism. Another who is failing at classical percussion finds out that they love and have an aptitude for tabla or taiko drumming. Someone who feels perpetually alienated growing up in a Connecticut suburb goes to Italy and feels instantly at home. And so they adopt a new normal. At least until something else comes along that catches their spirit.
So the question at hand is how to understand that one’s inherited normal is fine as far as it goes, but that it never goes quite far enough and we would do well to keep peering over its edges. I have peeked into many, many cultures, tried to play some of their music, eat their food, get to know some of their people and have found something worthy in all. And also have yet to find one that doesn’t have more work to do. In one place, all the people are musical, but they have strict taboos against and harsh treatment of homosexuality. Another has many good political institutions, but lacks a certain spark and rhythmic vitality in the people. And almost every culture on the planet has more work ahead in its perception of and treatment of women. There’s always something beyond the horizon.
All of this is on my mind from a less happy reason. Reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Ta-Nehesi Coates Between the World and Me (a great 1-2-punch combo), it’s clear that so much evil persists because people have been brainwashed into seeing brutality and oppression as normal. Read about a policeman shooting your neighbor’s kid and getting off scot-free and if you’re white and the kid was white, you’ll be shocked and outraged, with support from blaring newspaper headlines. But if it’s a black kid, well, that’s just what happens. (Hence, the birth of Black Lives Matter). The normalization of an artificial category called race and the subsequent racism that became accepted and normalized is still at work today because we have not challenged or expanded our definition of normal.
And our allegiance to our perception of normal taken to extremes carries other dangers. We become freaked-out when that perception is challenged because we were never trained to look beyond the horizon, to question, to discover, to seek. We were taught to be compliant and cling to a relative truth as an absolute one and when that is challenged, we feel threatened. That’s why hate groups who habitually hated each other (like Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis) are starting to get together to form an alliance of White Supremacy. (Recent news from Georgia). That’s why Donald Trump. That’s why Civil Rights in the 50’s caused “normal” American citizens to spit and cuss and torment and torture innocent black children entering their schools. They had built their identity on a way of life that called lynching, rape, enslavement, segregation “normal” and felt the earth move under their feet when called upon to change. And similar people today feel so threatened by transgender bathrooms because it defies their notion of normal, but are perfectly fine with the NRA pushing for carry and conceal assault weapons—that’s just normal.
More on this soon, with quotes from folks like Baldwin and Coates who are more articulate than me and lived through this nightmare. For them, challenging perceptions of normal and seeking larger, more inclusive identities is not a pleasant pedagogical possibility, but a necessity for survival.
Meanwhile, every act that transforms the exotic to familiar, the them to an us, the discomfort with newness to the excitement of newness, the stagnant pond of “you can’t change me” to the flowing river of “who else can I be?” is a revolutionary act, bringing healing and political change alongside a more vibrant and colorful life. The desire to be just a little bit better, larger and brighter tomorrow than we were yesterday is…well, normal. 

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