By Victor D. Infante
Perhaps it would help if we were quicker to define terms. Take this past Saturday, for example – a mere week after a suicide bomber in Manchester, England, killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, according to Time, “told the 950 graduating cadets at West Point that they are joining the ranks of those whose mission is to protect the innocent from terror. He says they must never permit perpetrators of terror to define ‘our sense of normal.’”
“Normal” is a word I have trouble with these days. Merriam-Webster defines “normal” as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.” Frequently, we look at the world and want to declare that, “This is not normal,” but we can’t. The patterns are self-evident. We want to say, “a bombing at a pop concert is not normal,” except that we know these sorts of things happen all over the world with alarming regularity. We try to narrow the focus. We examine the largest demographic group in the bombing, and say, “attacks on teenage girls are not normal,” but then we know that’s not true, either. From the attack on Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, to the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping, to the truly horrifying statistics about sexual assault in the United States – crimes so common they rarely make the news, if they’re reported at all – we have ample evidence that violence against young women is, indeed, normal.
Mere days ago, two men – Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche – died in Portland, Oregon, standing up to a white supremacist who was threatening two young women whom were presumed to be Muslim. What in this scenario isn’t normal? White supremacy has reached a fever pitch of late, its toxic influence displayed so brazenly during the election that the man who is now president declined to openly condemn former KKK leader David Duke during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, saying, “I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.”
In interviews in the ’90s, Trump was highly critical of Duke. Now he doesn’t seem to know who he is. Is that normal? Trump lying seems to be normal, and his distortions are excessive, even by political standards. To paraphrase comedian Larry Wilmore, in his new podcast Black On The Air, “Hillary Clinton lies like a politician … Donald Trump lies like a crackhead.”
Trump’s presidency has been a continual, all-out assault on reality, but his dissembling has, in large part, been used to obscure the presence of forces in our culture that feed his administration, but from which many people would recoil if they were forced to face. Most people would look at the murders in Portland and assume, if they were in that situation, they would act as heroically as Best or Meche. They hope that, if they were truly tested, they would be able to rise above hate and oppression like Yousafzai did. They want to see themselves as the hero in their own story, when what’s patently obvious is that most of us are blind and cowardly. We turn away from injustice and persecution on a daily basis. We regularly decline to face that sort of darkness when we look in the mirror, and increasingly, the lies that permeate our politics serve to further distort our reflections. Very few people would look in the mirror and hope to see Portland murderer Jeremy Joseph Christian or Manchester bomber Salman Ramadan Abedi, but they feed the systems that creates these monsters. We say that they’re “not normal” because it’s easier than admitting that they are normal, and that they’ve been normal for a long time.
Violence is normal. White supremacy is normal. Racism. Islamophobia. Antisemitism. Homophobia. Transphobia. All of this and more is normal, and it’s all fed by denial. These are cancers that permeate the body of our culture, where small bits of everyday xenophobia metastasizes into something far more deadly.
Perhaps what we mean when we say these things “aren’t normal” is that they aren’t right, and that they’re unacceptable. This is the truth. It is unacceptable to live in a world where children are bombed at concerts, or young women are accosted in the streets. But just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it can’t change. We actually have the means to do that in our hands, but that takes courage. It takes the courage to look at yourself in the mirror and tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts. It takes the courage to reject pretty lies that make us feel better about the persecution of one group or another. It doesn’t mean trying to wish ourselves back to some mythical fantasyland, because there’s no time in history where this toxicity wasn’t extant under the surface. It was just easier to ignore.
No, much of the diction in the world today is about getting back to normal, but that’s self-defeating. Instead, we need to work on building a new normal, one where these things we recoil from in ourselves are indeed abominations. It’s not enough to work our way back to a state of blissful ignorance: We have to demand that the world – starting with ourselves and extending all the way to our world leaders – be better. Anything less than that allows the cancer to spread.