What is Normalization?

By: | May 16, 2017

Normalization is a social process where over time, trends or events naturally come to be accepted as a “normal” part of daily life or people’s lifestyles or beliefs. The process occurs in tandem with political, social, religious and economic change as these shifts impact the jobs people do, the choices they make and the life they lead.

Take, for example, body piercings and tattoos, which historically were not accepted in the workplace or even in public, and were particularly shunned by members of the upper class. The norm has changed in many Western countries like the United States and most European nations. Through the process of normalization, tattoos and piercings are now widely seen as acceptable and “normal” in most Western countries. Today you see individuals from all walks of life with varying demographic backgrounds proudly displaying their body art and piercings. Tattoos and piercings are now accepted and respectable – they have been “normalized.”

When you think of a norm, you think of something common, standard, or accepted. Standards are a part of our normal patterns and practices as members of society. They’re something we follow and accept on automatic pilot. They are unwritten rules and regulations for how to behave acceptably and how to react to each other people appropriately. This can differ widely in different cultures. For instance, in the United States when you approach the Movie Theater and see there is a long line, do you cut to the front of the line because you are eager to see the movie? No, because that would break a societal norm and you would quickly become the most unpopular person in the theater. In India, however, for example, they have different social norms, and lines are not an accepted convention of daily life. Crowding around to get to the front is normal, whereas in many Western countries it is rude and may start fights. This shows how different customs and normalization processes occur in different societies.

The concept of normalization has been much-discussed in American society, for example in Pew Research Center polling in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 57% to 35%. Since then, support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown. Based on polling in 2016, most Americans (55%) support same-sex marriage, compared with 37% who oppose it. See the latest data on same-sex marriage. Similarly, attitudes related to social issues point to a host of hot-button social issues that have changed over time. Mixed race and religious marriages, out of wedlock sexual relationships, and women in the workplace all once scorned are now considered “normal” by the majority of people. I think it’s fair to say that issues related to Transgender have not yet been normalized and the hard fought battles that arise over access to bathrooms in various states is evidence. According to Newsweek, “The battle over America’s bathrooms has raged into 2017, as advocates in more than half a dozen states are seeking to enact “bathroom bills” that would require people to use the facilities that correspond to their sex assigned at birth.”

Trump change agent or outside of the norm?

Since the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump has been a cause for debate about the term “normalization,” especially within the media. In this context, “normalizing” President Trump has generally been characterized as accepting or regarding as acceptable, the behaviors of a leader who does not feel bound by traditional norms, processes, standards or approaches to the presidency, government or the media. His supporters voted for him to shake up those norms so it should not be a surprise to anyone that he is attempting to do so, but his behavior and actions have still been met with an enormous amount of outrage. There is an irony in the accusations that Trump is normalizing formerly unacceptable behavior, however, since if it was indeed normalized it would presumably not spark such a strong counter-reaction at its unusual nature.

President Trump has challenged the assumed political rules and boundaries of what is acceptable to say about his opponents, members of cultural and religious groups, and citizens of other nations. Where some see overt racism, sexism and authoritarianism, others see a strong leader who is unafraid to challenge the prevailing norms of political correctness. Supporters often see Trump’s rhetoric as a welcome contrast to the milquetoast, hypocritical governance of the past.

Trump has also challenged norms established between the United States and its allies. His redefinition of past foreign policy norms has sparked concern in both supporters and detractors who fear that such shifts could create increased global instability. More recently, Trump’s walked back his prior criticism of NATO and his strike in Syria, however, have increased the perception that he is unpredictable and even erratic or contradictory. This again could be seen as a new phenomenon, but it is rather easily observable in American history. President George W. Bush, for example, campaigned on a platform of strong domestic improvement and not being a nation builder, but did a 360-degree-turn on policy following the 9/11 attacks.

The widening political divide

Some others on the left and right fear the normalization of President Trump’s perceived “authoritarianism.” These people are concerned that over time Americans will view a strongman leadership model as the new standard. With a vast spy apparatus and national security powers granted to him by his two predecessors President Obama and President Bush, and being in partisan control of all branches of government, Trump is in prime position to justify certain of these fears in the coming years of his presidency. The ripple effect of someone so powerful changing social and political norms so quickly could also lead to a further deterioration of social cohesion in American society, which is already on tenterhooks.

Norms and social cohesion

Unraveling social cohesion is damaging to business, government, communities and global relationships, especially if new norms are rejected by many citizens or not strategically planned. The unraveling of norms can also be dangerous if the new standards seem overly punitive to various identity groups who are accustomed to being treated in a more positive manner. Citizens who hold power ultimately control the shaping of what is acceptable. Often the decisions over which norms prevail, are determined through the political process, hence the origin of the term “political correctness.”

Managing your anxiety and adapting to social change

With a change in norms comes a change in people’s attitudes and behaviors as they adjust to the new way and learn what is acceptable and what is not. Anxiety is a normal reaction to significant social changes, especially when we are outside our comfort zone, and major transformations in society and social or political norms can cause an increase disruption and disquiet among the populace. Anxiety over Trump has even been cited as a condition increasingly seen by various psychologists.

Just because you are feeling anxious doesn’t mean that something bad will happen, so persistent worrying is not helpful, even though it is sometimes understandable. Anxiety can become a healthy, manageable part of our lives if it doesn’t become chronic and persistent. So, too, in society. Worrying too much and becoming preoccupied with “what if” scenarios about North Korea or Syria can be counterproductive. Obsessing over potential crisis situations will ultimately cause more stress in your life and not help solve those crises. Worrying and anxiety can also cause a resistance to change