Every society, and every period in history, has its own unique conception of what is to be considered “normal.”
And anyone who steps outside of these strict boundaries is considered a pariah, a radical, someone not to be trusted. We see this when it comes to believing in the established dogmas of a given time, political views, views about the future of society, and so on.
Further, we see this pattern set early on in the educational process, particularly in “free” societies.
We are told what to think, not to question authority, to sit in a straight line, and to politely raise our hands if we have something to say. Those who decide that they don’t want to follow these mandates are considered behavior problems, glitches that need to be fixed.
They are, in other words, abnormal.
In this way, our conception of “normal” is absurd, because in order to be considered normal, you must adhere to incredibly abnormal standards, you have to adhere to nonsensical beliefs, and you have to respect people who don’t deserve respect.
This, in a nutshell, is Aldous Huxley’s observation in his lesser appreciated but crucial work Brave New World Revisited.
As a nonfiction followup to Huxley’s most popular novel Brave New World, Huxley essentially offers a status check of humanity, and as is often the case, his diagnoses were not particularly joyful or shining with optimism.
One of the aspects of society that disturbed Huxley most was our willingness to conform, and our susceptibility to the most egregious propaganda; even within societies considered free and democratic.
“The really hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal.”
Quoting philosopher-psychologist Eric Fromm, Huxley continues:
“Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silence so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.”
Here’s Huxley again:
“They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society.
Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness.
These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted, still cherish ‘the illusion of individuality,’ but in fact they have been to a great extent deindividualized. Their conformity is developing into something like uniformity.”
Quoting Fromm again:
“[But] uniformity and freedom are incompatible. Uniformity and mental health are incompatible too….Man is not made to be an automaton, and if he becomes one, the basis for mental health is destroyed.”
Conformity, in Huxley’s view, is a sort of psychological sickness, a sickness which develops to the point of being entirely undetectable, all the while slowly eating away at our critical faculties.
We see this to a significant extent today: People believe what the media tells them to believe, accepting that this is the full story, the most balanced perspective. As the media and our politicians beat the war drums, for example, we do our duty and follow suit.
Patriotism is used as a bait and switch: “Don’t you love your country? Okay, then you must support this war.”
Many accept with resignation illegal surveillance practices carried out by the government. They accept the ever-growing police state. Blind acceptance, or what Howard Zinn would call “civil obedience,” is the problem. Willingness to conform is the problem.
Propaganda is often seen as something only utilized by dictatorships; this is far from the case. Propaganda is utilized extensively in democratic societies, as a means of social control.
“Propaganda in favor of action dictated by the impulses…seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that atrocities come to be perpetrated in the name of God and the most cynical kind of Realpolitik is treated as a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty.”
Because they cannot use violence, the “leaders” of democratic societies must control the beliefs of the populous, thereby making propaganda an indispensable tool to force conformity and adherence to the status quo.
Huxley deals with the struggle against the powerful forces of conformity and normality in fictional form in his most famous work Brave New World.
A character who emerges deep into the novel, John the Savage, expresses his disdain for what was considered civilized life, and simultaneously offers a critique of rosy, utopian visions of society’s future.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
In Brave New World, the civilized population is so “normal” that they are “in the likeness of termites.”
They follow orders, are distracted by meaningless activities, subdued by frequent self-medication, and retain as little individuality as possible.
Huxley contends, essentially, that there is an inverse relationship between “normality” and freedom.
The more “normal” you are in this “profoundly abnormal society,” the less free you are. The less free you are to think for yourself, to do what you believe is right, and so on.
We all want some form of order, undoubtedly. We want some form of government. Some measure of organization. However, Huxley reminds us, “The Will to Order can make tyrants out of those who merely aspire to clear up a mess.”
So what is the answer? How can society utilize organization, maintain order, and still maximize freedom and liberty?
“Organization is indispensable; for liberty arises and has meaning only within a self-regulating community of freely co-operating individuals.
But, though indispensable, organization can also be fatal. Too much organization turns men and women into automata, suffocates the creative spirit and abolishes the very possibility of freedom.
As usual, the only safe course is in the middle, between the extremes of laissez-faire at one end of the scale and of total control at the other.”