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‘Normal’, ‘special’, and the art of marginalization

Written by Sherwin, published on October 1, 2011

normal distribution curve

I have a warm fuzzy place in my heart for the engineers and other technical specialists with a penchant for math and a lack of understanding of social nuance, connotation or tone. Heck, in many contexts, I’m the ignorant cis white guy that doesn’t understand the impact that my language choices have on others. But I do try to understand these issues.

Normal

There is a neutral, technical, use of the term ‘normal’. Normal is a statistical concept. A particular breed of grass has a normal height. The Earth’s orbit has a normal frequency and vibration and the Earth has a normal distance from the Sun. Ice cream normally melts in the sunshine. There are different ways of calculating these norms, but despite this, these are perfectly reasonable, neutral was of speaking.1

But.

Even though it is statistically normal for humans to have a generally heterosexual orientation, in most public and social contexts, it would be completely inappropriate to say that homosexuality is not normal. To say this, even if you are not cognizant of the impact, is homophobic. Intention is not the issue here. It is, after all, not what you say, but what people hear.

And this is the difference between normal¹ and normal². One of them is loaded. One is politically and socially significant. One is inappropriate in many contexts. Thus, as my very good friend has pointed out to me, “normal is only found on washing machines.” 2

Success or failure

An old roommate of mine once lamented the moralization of the terms ‘success’ and ‘failure.’ When an engineer says something failed, they generally mean this in a neutral, technical sense. The bridge stopped functioning and collapsed. The circuit did not uphold the intended logic. Constructs fail. No biggy. It’s my understanding that, back in the day, success was simply what happened next. One could very well have said that after the bridge was erected, it succeeded in failing. ‘One thing succeeded another’ had no implicit expectation of progress, in much the same that that engineers say ‘failure’ without a tacit moral condemnation.

But.

‘Success’ and ‘failure’ need to be used cautiously. There are some contexts where you are better off not mentioning success or failure. This is a simple social moray. Break it, and you could lose your job, or hurt your loved ones. To say out loud, for example, that your son’s team failed on Sunday, is absolutely tone deaf to the impact of your words.3 To note that your wife has failed to send out the invitations on time, lacks social nuance.

I’m actually of the nerdy camp that says we should have courage to use it more often. Let’s get neutral and descriptive failure. The folks in silicon valley do it: Fail Faster, etc. The reason I am including this digression into success and failure, is that many people understand this, in a way they don’t about ‘normal’ or ‘special interest.’ This case is less abrasive and if you bust someone socially abusing ‘success’ or ‘failure’ there is less chance that they will feel a need to retreat to the more neutral use.

Special interest, or special interest group

There is a neutral use of these terms. Special interest groups are bands of people getting together to advocate their interests. Awesome. This is a somewhat unusual usage, however. Much like ‘statistically normal’, this is the more technical and neutral meaning that folks retreat to once they have revealed their politics, sometimes accidentally. It’s a somewhat broad meaning because, by this criteria, any social movement or lobby is a special interest group.

That said, I do think the term is somewhat slippery. It’s a relative term in so far as some groups will be more special, or more specialized, than others.

But.

This phrase plays an important role in social and political discourse. It is a loaded term. It is value laden, and it can sometimes reveal the values of those that use it. And there are many contexts in which it is inappropriate to attribute it to a group.

Canadian Suffragists, for example, were not a special interest.4 To say so, flattens the importance of their interests in the larger tapestry of our society. I am not a woman, but I still benefit from, and am thankful for, the hard work of the Suffragettes.

First Nations are not a special interest. To say so glosses over the tragedies of historical and contemporary colonial practices. To say so, makes colonization an afterthought.

Unions are not a special interest group. There are over a half million Canadians in CUPE alone. To say that unions are a special interest makes it sound like the interests of union members, or the interests of labour, are fringe. But the interests of labour are fundamentally at the center of the way we should form our communities.

What is a special interest group

A paradigmatic example of a special interest group, is Falcon Breeders. They are few. And they form alliances in order to lobby the various provincial and federal ministries about all things falcon. Most people will agree with me that they are a special interest group.

Interestingly, it is likely that the falconry folks will, themselves, object to being identified as a special interest. Most people don’t like it. That’s because some folks listen to the conservative framing and priming served up by the National Post and other big business media for the last last thirty years. They have been slowly and patiently grinding away at the legitimacy of special interest groups. It is often a term of derision.

One commentator I follow has noted that “there is a problem defining special interests in the same way one goes about defining who’s a terrorist.” ‘Special interest’ can be code for the group that I hope no one will listen too, because they are small, or unique, or loony, or have an opinion that is not mine.

That’s the connotation. But back to the nerdy, neutral, relative use.

Can a political party be a special interest?

The short answer is, obviously, yes. The Rhino Party was (is?) an example. The Natural Law Party was another obvious example.

Can a (major, national) political party be a special interest?

If you can get past the initial worry that the question appears to contain the answer, I think this question is interesting. It’s interesting because I think ‘special interest’ is a relative term. It’s also interesting because conservative commentators have been insinuating or explicitly saying that the NDP is a special interest group for years. They posit this, much the same way folks continue to claim that unions are a special interest.

In my humble opinion, the Conservative Party of Canada is more of a special interest than the NDP: the Conservatives serve a narrower class of interests.

  1. Dare I say, normal? 
  2. And on the lips of heteronormative, upwardly mobile, white folks.
  3. Is ‘tone deaf’ an inappropriate term? It might be. I’ll leave it and return to this question another day.
  4. Thank you to Becky Cory for this example.
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