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When normal is abnormal

July 26, 2020

What with the cricket, the pandemic, the labours of writing a daily post and the bizarre political goings-on on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m finding it difficult to catch up with one of my favourite activities: reading book reviews.

So this morning I was doing a review binge. One of the books that caught my attention was a novel set in the 1918-19 flu pandemic. I got halfway down the review to the point where the author is described as living with her female partner and their kids. At that point, I thought uh-huh, I know what’s coming.

And it surely did. A few paragraphs later she talks about realising she was a lesbian at 14, and the effect that this had on her writing career – the sense of otherness that every writer needs at some time in their life.

I don’t doubt her sincerity, and I agree with her otherness hypothesis. But I wonder at what point in the future we stop remarking on sexual orientation as being noteworthy.

Perhaps when Putin has fallen, when imams no longer urge their followers to throw gays off the top of buildings and when thuggish Chelsea supporters no longer beat the crap out of gay journalists.

Also perhaps when we have worked out a commonly acceptable protocol within which people can change their gender without arousing fear and paranoia rather than sympathy and supportiveness among those who aren’t remotely affected.

Should that day ever come, relief from the politics of sexual identity is unlikely to be long-lasting because most phobias tend to submerge and rise again. But I actually long to read something like this in a book review which doubles as a profile of the author:

When I got to be 18, I realised that try as I might to prove to myself otherwise, I was a man who had no sexual interest in other men and did not wish to be a woman. I found porn boring, had no dominating sexual fetishes and was only interested in women of roughly my own age. I felt utterly alone.

Because when we get to the point where normality in terms of human behaviour is no longer seen to be relevant, and has only ever been a reflection of social expectations at a specific point in time, then we can start thinking of a new baseline. What is toxic? What is harmful, not only to other humans but to other species and to life itself?

Does that mean abandoning religious belief, which is responsible for so many of the structures that help societies to be coherent yet cast aside people who do no apparent harm and yet whose behaviour is deemed abhorrent? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that perhaps followers of religions should examine their scriptures and traditions and ask whether their deity really intended to cause so much suffering through the strictures they are supposed to have decreed.

As part of that process we also need to define more closely what harm actually means. If we accept that those who murder, injure, rob, lie, steal and cheat are doing harm, what, for example, about those who break with societal norms, and in particular the rules of honour? Is someone who brings shame upon a family doing harm?

These are all questions on which enough has been written to fill many libraries. I have nothing profound or groundbreaking to add to the literature.

But I do sense that in many parts of the world we’re moving closer towards the ethos of “do no harm”, even though Google abandoned it years ago. Perhaps that’s because I’m of a subset of a generation that tried for a while to live by that ethos, until we discovered for ourselves that harm has many definitions and that living in the real world was far more complicated than we imagined.

Since the Sixties and Seventies, in Britain at least, we have moved on from some moral absolutes. We don’t censor books, male homosexuality is no longer a crime, divorce no longer carries implications of morality, and it won’t be long before we decriminalise marijuana.

You could argue that our increased toleration of variety in behaviour is a sign that the bonds of Western societies are weakening, that we are becoming increasingly decadent. That’s certainly an argument that the likes of Xi Jinping might accept.

And yet, even while laws might reflect a more tolerant society, we use the power of the social media to reject, condemn, ostracise and cancel people whose views don’t chime with ours.

We live in a world with miraculous diversity. We have more species than we can count. Each landscape and waterscape is subtly or obviously different from its neighbour. Why then are we so obsessed with differences in human behaviour?

Much as I’d like to believe otherwise, as each generation finds its targets of intolerance, I don’t have much confidence that we’re moving much closer to that golden era when to be normal is abnormal.

From → Books, History, Religion, Social, UK

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