Wednesday, August 02, 2006

How do we determine what "normal" is?

Shadow owes its birth to light.
- John Gay, poet and dramatist (1685-1732)

Without light, we know nothing about shadow. On the other hand, without shadow, we have no means of evaluating or appreciating light.

While this quotation seems to launch a discussion of contrasts in physics, its importance reaches far beyond that into our daily lives.

Almost daily we see or learn of people who are doing things of which we disapprove. We also know of people who do too little, causing us to disapprove of their apathy or lassitude.

We need contrasts, even extremes, in order to make up our own minds about what should be "normal" behaviour. Assemble many opinions on these various subjects and we have what become the social norms of communities, the ethics of our professional organizations and the morals of our religions.

In order for a censor board to determine whether a particular work of art or a movie violates the social norms of a community, it must have opinions from many people in that community about what they believe the norms should be. In order for the owner of a web site or service that offers and exchange of articles or instant messages to determine if one member has violated the norms of the community, that person must have input from many of the users of the service.

Those who subscribe to the extremes of behaviour seem all too willing to express their opinions about what is acceptable and what is not. The media play these up to get reaction from the large majority of people who usually say nothing about such matters.

If the large majority do not speak up, the boundaries (the "new" boundaries) of the extremes become the new norms.

And there you sit, in the middle, wondering if you should speak up or not.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to wake up the majority so that everyone knows what we all need to know.
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