With Donald Trump now president-elect, many people are concerned that something truly precious and fundamental is under threat. Though Americans disagree about many things, we traditionally had a shared national sense of the bounds of normal behavior and a seemingly entrenched understanding that certain kinds of behavior fell completely outside those bounds. There is now a widespread fear that Trump’s recent actions will be ‘normalized’ and that our shared understanding of the normal will then be lost.
I think that this fear is getting at something of deep importance, and it is therefore worth taking a moment to think philosophically about what is at stake here. What exactly does it mean to see certain behavior as normal?
At least initially, the notion of normality may seem like a puzzling one. Indeed, it might seem that this notion could be understood in either of two ways and that neither of them helps us understand the present sense of crisis.
One view would be that the notion of normality is a purely statistical one. On this interpretation, when people say that it is important not to normalize Trump, what they mean is just that it is important that people not have the belief that actions like Trump’s are statistically frequent. But this interpretation seems to miss what is so deeply important here. It doesn’t give us any understanding of why people might think that something precious is in danger of being lost.
A second view would be that the notion of normality is a purely evaluative one. On this second interpretation, when people say that it is important not to normalize Trump, what they mean is that it is important to hold on to our sense that actions like Trump’s are very wrong. But again, this interpretation seems to miss the point. To illustrate, many people think that Bush’s tax cuts were very wrong, but such people still see Bush’s tax cuts as normal. When people say that we should not normalize Trump, they seem to be getting at something further. They mean that it is absolutely essential that we not think about Trump’s actions in the way we might think about Bush’s tax cuts.
Just in the past few years, there has been a surge of work investigating the notion of normality, and I think this work actually does a lot to help illuminate these issues. The key insights here are not due to any individual paper or any single researcher. Rather, they emerge collectively from the work of a number of philosophers and cognitive scientists working closely together, including Adam Bear, Paul Egré & Florian Cova, Joseph Halpern & Christopher Hitchcock, Jonathan Phillips, and Tomek Wysocki. Much of this work is quite technical, but I think it actually gives us exactly the tools we need to understand the crisis we face today.
In particular, this work provides evidence for two main conclusions:
First, people may be able to think about purely statistical questions or purely evaluative questions, but people also have a more basic mode of thought that blends these two sorts of questions together. The notion of normality is a clear example. It seems to involve an undifferentiated blend of the statistical and the evaluative.
To give just one example, a recent paper on normality explored people’s intuitions about the normal amount of TV to watch in a day. Some participants were asked to guess the average amount of TV people watch per day (a statistical judgment), while others were asked about the ideal amount of TV to watch per day (an evaluative judgment). Unsurprisingly, participants gave a quite high amount for the average and a much lower amount for the ideal. Participants in a third group were then asked about the normal amount of TV to watch in a day. The results showed that the perceived normal amount was intermediate between the average and the ideal. In other words, people’s notion of the normal seemed somehow to blend together the statistical and the evaluative. (This very same pattern arose across a wide variety of quantities, including everything from amounts of exercise for a person to do in a week to percentages of students to be bullied in a middle school.)
Second, when people regard a possibility as abnormal, they tend not to think about it all. Thus, when an agent is trying to decide what to do, she will tend to consider various different options, weighing the pros and cons of each. However, she will also tend not even to consider possible options that are completely abnormal. It is not that she rejects these possibilities on the grounds of their abnormality; it is that she takes them to be too absurd even to be part of her deliberations at all. (This second idea has been a key theme in the work of Jonathan Phillips.)
With all this in the background, perhaps we can get a better sense of what is at stake in this struggle to preserve our shared sense of the normal. When it comes to an issue like tax cuts, we might think that people should be actively thinking about which policies are right and which are wrong. People have a capacity for purely evaluative judgment, and we might think that they should be using that capacity to evaluate the various options at hand. But when it comes to some of Trump’s recent behaviors, we might not think that people should think about them in this same way. It is not that people should be thinking about these options and concluding, ‘To do that would be very wrong.’ Instead, it seems that there is some more fundamental mode of thought that should be blocking these possibilities before they even rise to the point of active consideration. The shared understanding that is so deeply precious here is the one we might express by dismissing such options with a sentence like, ‘That’s just not a way any normal person would behave.’4