Ideas

THE WORD

What does it mean to ‘normalize,’ exactly?

Protesters march in Los Angeles Nov. 12 in reaction to Donald Trump’s election as president.
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Protesters march in Los Angeles on Nov. 12 in reaction to Donald Trump’s election as president.

What happens when a set of beliefs considered by many to be so fringe and so hateful are the winners of a national election? The losers beg that the behavior not be normalized. While warnings against normalizing President-elect Donald Trump have appeared all through the campaign, they’ve mushroomed since his election across the political spectrum. A Forbes article pleads, “Normalizing Trump: Why The Washington Media Must Break The Fluff Cycle.” A Media Matters piece claims, “60 Minutes Is Already Helping Normalize Trump’s Presidency.” The Lawfare blog discusses, “Donald Trump and the Normalization of Torture.” Meanwhile, the National Interest flipped the script, charging the press and Trump critics with “Normalizing Hysteria.”

“Normalize” is a word of the moment. But it, along with the idea of normalization, goes back to the 1800s. The earliest uses documented in the Oxford English Dictionary are related to biological processes, but one is a clear predecessor to today’s uses. A New York Times article from 1864 discusses how “. . . attempts to normalize despotism display the impotency as well as the malignity of the Executive.” The normalization of despotism is exactly what so many fear today.

Biological functions, despotism, you name it: Just about anything can be normalized. You can normalize orthography by making it more uniform or normalize your breathing after heavy exercise. There are types of normalization specific to math, metallurgy, and computing. Data normalization reduces redundancies, creating data that are more uniform and therefore easy to analyze. One meaning from psychology seems particularly relevant to recent events. According to the OED, normalization can mean “The subconscious process whereby the mental image of a shape, pattern, etc., is changed to resemble something more familiar.” In political terms, that can mean a nonpolitician elected to the presidency becomes just another guy in the White House.

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Several sub-senses of normalization are specific to politics. When two countries are in conflict, normalization — meaning resumption of peaceful relations — is often the goal. A 1940 use in the journal Pacific Affairs is interesting in hindsight: “The USSR seeks to avoid war with Japan and to normalize relations with that country.” A recent Bloomberg piece echoes this theme: “Putin, Trump Discussed Ways to Normalize US-Russia Relations.” President Obama has gotten credit and blame for attempting to normalize relations with Iran and, as seen in a recent headline from The Nation, Cuba: “Normalization of Relations With Cuba Is All But Irreversible Now.”

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Racism and normalization have often been linked, though not necessarily the way you’d expect. In South Africa, a sense related to apartheid emerged in the 1970s: To normalize was, especially in sports, to eliminate racial bias by desegregating. In a normalized sport, anyone can play. This meaning is almost the opposite of recent uses, such as a recent tweet by Dianna Walla:

Depending on the context, normalization can remove or legitimize racism.

Why is normalize the right word for these times? Branding expert and word maven Nancy Friedman discussed normalization at length in her blog Fritinancy and by e-mail called the 2016 election “a radically abnormal campaign, so concepts of what is normal were being discussed.” Normalize is more effective than a near-synonym, legitimize, says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society.

“Legitimize,” said Zimmer, “sounds like it has to do with bestowing official, legal acceptance, while normalize makes a broader social statement: should we simply accept Trump as a normal part of our cultural and political landscape? On the other side of the political spectrum, you hear social conservatives complaining about how same-sex marriage normalizes gay lifestyles. Of course, it all depends on where you draw the societal boundaries between normal and abnormal.”

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Normal has many mutations. You can discuss a state of normality or normalcy — the latter spread but not coined by Warren G. Harding. Our customs are our norms. If you strongly believe in those norms, you’re a normalist who adheres to normalism. In math and elsewhere, there are normalizers. In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik asked a hopeful question using another variation: “Can the residual normative energies and ongoing practices of a liberal democracy — the subsidiary arrangements and independent centers of power — survive a new ruling class uncomprehending of that democracy’s basic premises?” As usual, the only norm in language is variation.

All of these words reference a contested, subjective, charged state. Much like the word natural, the definition of normal varies from person to person, state to state, and culture to culture. One person’s norm is another person’s quirk or abomination. When you have an ache, there’s no more reassuring words from a doctor than, “Oh, that’s normal.” But calling a neurotypical child normal could understandably irk parents of children who are neurodiverse. Just using normal implies its opposite, the abnormal, along with a heap of judgment. Who gets to say what’s typical, usual, regular, OK?

Many feel that the normalization of intolerance is a failure of the culture. But the psychological need for normalization is also powerful. For the minorities, women, and veterans Trump routinely insulted, his election may feel like a trauma. The way many deal with such trauma is hinted at in a line from Erica Jong’s 1973 classic “Fear of Flying:: “You always insist on normalizing your life.”

That truism explains some of the normalizing of the moment. Normalizing is a form of coping, but then again, so is excessive drinking. The hangover might not be worth it.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.