By Peter Schlosser
“Norms rarely emerge spontaneously: they are often reflection of underlying material interests and resulting political struggles.”
– Akitoshi Miyashita
What is “normal” is dependent on many things: culture, geography, values, income, access to technology, and many other factors. Moreover, what is normal is dynamic. One hundred years ago, most families did not have access to an automobile. Less than 70 years ago, the FIFA World Cup was televised for the first time and only a privileged few had access to a TV to watch. Less than twenty years ago, it was unheard of to share your vacation photos with people around the world. And life changed completely with the advent of the mobile phone.
In broad terms, normalization is the process of turning actions, ideas, tools or behavior into routines or even second nature. While some cultures, such as the U.S., promote the idea of individuality, people are highly likely to conform to the social forces and perceptions we experience and witness daily. Humans have an amazing capacity to adapt and to rewrite what is normal, often aided by new technologies, such as in the aforementioned examples. The speed at which change has happened during my lifetime is astounding.
We have normalized global warming. And we have even normalized low expectations from international negotiations. I wonder, what will it take for humankind to do things differently?
Yet, it can be hard to quantify and sometimes even comprehend human capacity to normalize, with or without technology, or to anticipate the speed at which change happens. During the past 12 months, we have witnessed the extent to which humankind has normalized disruption, even to the point of mass death. We have seen that normalization of death with COVID-19, and we see it with violence. Consider, roughly a week after the Robb Elementary massacre, a CBS News poll revealed that 44% of respondents belonging to one of the major U.S. political parties answered that mass shootings are something people must accept in a free society. COVID-19, gun violence, war and even inflation–all of these disruptions place our focus on individual safety and well-being, preventing attention to substantive, systemic changes that will transform the future.
Humans always have normalized disruption. We have normalized global warming. And we have even normalized low expectations from international negotiations. I wonder, what will it take for humankind to do things differently?
Our ability to normalize, whether related to tragedies or global change, is a key mechanism to dealing with difficult situations, trauma, and loss. It might even be a key contributor to our survival. It can have negative effects, as described above, but it can also promote behavior that will benefit planetary health. As we look ahead to the new year, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory is a place dedicated to normalizing positive change. What is normal is a dynamic part of our action space, opening endless possibilities to do things differently. To do things better.
Peter Schlosser is the vice president and vice provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. This article first appeared in the Global Futures: Now newsletter on Dec. 19, 2022. Sign up for the newsletter at globalfutures.asu.edu/gfl-newsletters.