We hear it a lot, about how certain conditions or phenomena are the “new normal.”
We say this about climate change, wildfire dangers, mass shootings and social media vulgarity. What exactly do we mean when we talk about this concept of old and new “normals”? When we say something is a new normal, are we really saying we give up? Are we resigning ourselves to a social or physical change that we don’t like? Are we acting like sheep instead of citizens, feeling helpless to protect and restore our environment, society or politics?
Too much of that kind of thinking will make us all inhabitants of a withering, burning planet full of hate-spewing politicians with young parents sheltering their children in basements. Let’s stop accepting all these “new normals” and get back to fighting climate change, demanding civility and shedding the worst addictions to our artificial intelligence devices.
What if we believed it was still normal to flush all our untreated sewage into our Russian River like we used to do? Once upon a time we thought that was normal even though the steelhead fish didn’t think so. Wasn’t it once considered normal for parents to spank their children for bad behavior? Up until a few generations ago it wasn’t acceptable (or even legal) for black and white people to marry each other. What if we all still believed it was normal to smoke cigarettes in a restaurant around other people eating their food?
So, when is adopting or accepting a new normal a good thing and when is fighting against one the right thing to do? How do we learn the difference? What’s accepted as “normal” changes with new scientific discoveries, the shedding of old prejudices or from the lessons of great thinkers, noble crusaders or rabble-rousing nonconformists.
We’ve always had difficulty with the term “normal.” One person’s normal might be another person’s pet peeve, right? (Does the toilet seat go up or down?) But a society cannot function without a set of widely held standards — or norms. Some of our norms are codified as written laws, but some are just assumed patterns of behavior. We all have to drive on the right side of the road and stop at stop signs. But where does it say we can’t blast our car radios out the window at top decibel?
Speaking of loud and obnoxious, what kinds of behavior do we expect from our politicians? The days of being a great statesman or eloquent orator like a Lincoln or a Churchill aren’t happening anymore. But is it an acceptable new normal to tolerate all this name-calling, Twitter bullying and raping of the truth? If we’re going to keep voting for — and electing — uncivil leaders then our “new normal” will have no place for an Honest Abe or a John McCain Straight Talk Express.
Killing another person has never been accepted as normal, at least not since caveman days. We shouldn’t be uttering excuses or explanations about why mass shootings, urban gang murders and hateful racial attacks (verbal and physical) are now part of who we are. None of this is normal or acceptable. This is a nationwide crisis, just as we also face a global environmental crisis and climate emergency. We lack the courageous and honest leaders we need to help us surmount these unwelcome abnormalities.
In our history, our nation’s and society’s norms have been both defended and changed by mass political action, civil disobedience and faith-based affirmations. Ending gun violence will require this. Affirming racial equality and, replacing hate with tolerance, will not be accomplished only at the ballot box. Allowing self-absorbed leaders or polluting corporations to define our environmental laws will not put us on the right path to save our planet. If we want to set our own new normal, we may again have to march in the streets to proclaim it. Sí se puede.
— Rollie Atkinson