The new normal
“Now nobody, it seems, wants to be seen as normal: not even normal people. But I do. All my life I’ve craved normality and never quite managed it”
I keep seeing a T-shirt bearing the message “Normal People Scare Me”. I used to see it only on young people of a pierced persuasion: scruffy, indie music types with blue hair or purple lips. But lately I’ve noticed that even tidy teenagers and affluent tourists are wearing it.
I don’t think this is a reaction to the rise of populism or Brexit. It’s a cultural shift that’s been going on since at least the 1960s, when it became cool to be crazy and to be normal was to be a brainwashed suburban zombie.
Now nobody, it seems, wants to be seen as normal: not even normal people. But I do. All my life I’ve craved normality and never quite managed it. As a teenager in the early 1970s, I wanted a strong, silent dad with a shed and a sensible, biscuit-baking mum: instead I got two sex-mad druggies. I wanted a normal wife, but married the coke-snorting Stalinist Julie Burchill. I wanted to be normal, but turned out a “total lunatic”, according to my second ex-wife, a therapist. Clearly, I am conflicted.
I once appeared on a daytime television debate show to discuss sado-masochism with a group of its more extreme practitioners. A man told me he loved having his scrotum nailed to a coffee table — and what was wrong with that, he asked? When I suggested that maybe, wanting your scrotum nailed to a coffee table wasn’t, umm . . . normal, he and the entire audience went ballistic.
It’s easy to understand why “normal” has become a taboo word quarantined with quotation marks. The message of just about every Hollywood film is be gay, a misfit, an addict, a mutant, be different. Meanwhile, social media encourages look-at-me exhibitionism. The message is clear: the grey get left behind.
In the past, you could wind up in prison or a psychiatric ward because you weren’t considered normal. But I worry we have swung too far the other way. The normal are pressurised into not being normal. They are the new misfits, seen as boring or socially inadequate.
There’s a pervasive belief that if you stop trying to be normal, you’ll discover, in the words of Maya Angelou, “how amazing you are!” Sorry Maya, but difference doesn’t make you amazing. This is a modern myth rooted in Rousseau and Romanticism. Those who were once marginalised can be just as mediocre and, dare I say it, as normal as the rest of us. And that’s no bad thing.
Recently, an old friend from my debauched and druggy youth asked me with some sadness: when did we become so normal? I said I wasn’t sure, but thanked him for the compliment.