2015-11-18

The New Normal

Here's a personal story.

I got into distance running at an early age, especially for running. I guess I started taking things seriously at around age 9 or so. Consequently, I was always one of the better runners. (You can imagine that there aren't many 9-year-olds running 5Ks competitively to begin with.) Being at the head of the pack was normal for me; it was all I'd ever known.

This continued into my middle school years. Then, at age 15, I made the leap to high school track and cross-country and discovered that I was no longer at the head of the pack. Quite the contrary, I was bringing up the rear in most races. Over the course of my high school years, I had to work hard to fight my way back to the front of the crowd, and eventually I did it.

But this isn't a story about how I was good at running, and then bad, and then good again. This is a story about how I encountered a "new normal" when I started competing against high schoolers. My race times were improving, but my overall placement was much worse. I could have adjusted to that condition as the "new normal." I could have accepted that I was "no longer a front-runner," and I could have channeled that into a 4-year high school running career being comparatively slow overall.

I could have, but I didn't, because I didn't want to bring up the rear. I wanted to win.

Whore-mal

What I want to explore instead is the social esteem of sex workers. Prohibition itself could never be sustained without widespread stigmatization of sex workers. And any decriminalizing reforms will fail to eradicate the exploitation associated with sex work if they go unaccompanied by a widespread cultural shift toward esteem for the sex worker.
That is from "Dignity in Whoredom," a recent article by Paul Crider over at Sweet Talk Conversation. As you can see, Crider's argument is not that prostitution should be legal or that we should be nice to people even if they're prostitutes. Instead, Crider argues that we should treat sex work as normal.
But to take seriously the idea of normalization – what I advocate here – we should have some sense that sex work deserves an inconspicuous place in the prospering polis of virtue.
Note that italicizing "normalization" was Crider's doing. He wrote it that way. He wants prostitution to be not legal, not available, but all of those things, plus normal. Crider cites a few examples of scenarios in which we might deem the choice to hire a prostitute understandable. "Understandable" is a far cry, however, from normal, and unfortunately Crider offers little justification for normalizing a behavior that is anything but.

Now, I'm not going to shake my finger at you if you develop a taste for prostitutes, but why should I call you normal? Isn't it enough that I leave you alone? Need I really go the additional step of making you feel normal, i.e. socially accepted despite your unusual choices? Am I not entitled to my own ethical view of the matter?

More to the point, if you decide you like prostitutes, what hope do you have of ever really being normal? If normalcy is important to you, I'd argue that you should do normal things, otherwise grow comfortable with the fact that you are not normal, and be an individual.

But that's the problem: People want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to make unusual choices, but to have those choices sanctioned by the very society that deems them to be unusual. They want to be individuals, but also socially accepted. They never, ever want to walk in a different direction to the crowd; they want the crowd to change its direction to validate their feelings and choices.

Weird.

Mor-mal

I had to shake my head when I read that thousands of former mormons turned up near the LDS office buildings in Salt Lake City to stage a "mass resignation."[1] 

Most who read my blog are not mormons, so I had better add some background information here. The LDS church keeps detailed records on the names and whereabouts of all their members, presumably for harmless reasons. When ordinary Christians decide to leave their faith, they simply do it and that's the end of it. Many mormons similarly leave their faith, but the LDS church still counts their name among the "official numbers" of mormons. So, when you read that the LDS faith is comprised of "over 14 million" people, that number is actually highly inflated. Many names counted among that 14 million are people who no longer hold those beliefs.

For some former mormons, it is infuriating that their name gets counted in the "official tally," and so they submit an official LDS document formalizing their request to have their names removed from the LDS organization's records. 

Pause for effect.

Got that? Some people decide they want to quit believing in a religion, and instead of just not believing it anymore, they follow official church "quitting procedure." Can you imagine how completely they must still believe in the LDS church that they would have to follow official church procedures in order to stop believing in it? (?!?)

Here I am reminded once again of the Stanford Prison Experiment, as described by Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect. Here's what he writes at the experiment's official website (emphases added):
The next day, all prisoners who thought they had grounds for being paroled were chained together and individually brought before the Parole Board. The Board was composed mainly of people who were strangers to the prisoners (departmental secretaries and graduate students) and was headed by our top prison consultant. 
Several remarkable things occurred during these parole hearings. First, when we asked prisoners whether they would forfeit the money they had earned up to that time if we were to parole them, most said yes. Then, when we ended the hearings by telling prisoners to go back to their cells while we considered their requests, every prisoner obeyed, even though they could have obtained the same result by simply quitting the experiment. Why did they obey? Because they felt powerless to resist. Their sense of reality had shifted, and they no longer perceived their imprisonment as an experiment. In the psychological prison we had created, only the correctional staff had the power to grant paroles.
Take the time to understand what was happening at the staged parole board hearing. The "Board" asked the "prisoners" whether they would be willing to forfeit the money they were being paid in order to be released from the experiment. This was basically the terms of the contract the "prisoners" had signed - they were being paid to pretend to be prisoners; if they wanted to quit, they were free to do so at any time, but they would not be paid. The board asked the prisoners about the contract they already signed and new about, and each prisoner indicated that they wanted to end the experiment subject to those terms. Then the board said they would "consider" their request, and told them to go back to "jail," and the students obeyed! They could have left at any time, but they did not.

The analogy to mormons who need the LDS church to "sanction" their disbelief is straight-forward.

Auth-ormal

What does the normalization of prostitution have to do with mormons who need an official stamp from an organization they no longer believe in, in order to stop believing in it? The sanction.

Religious organizations are more than just structured belief systems, they are communities and societies. When you participate in a religion, you participate in all the rites and rituals, as well as the social atmosphere created by that religion. To leave a religion is to also leave a community. For most people, this is the most difficult part of disbelief. 

Leaving a religion puts you at moral odds with the community to which you belong, in a way that makes them judge you negatively. Complaining about the judgment is futile - you broke a well-established community guideline when you left the church, and you will have made yourself an outsider in doing so.

Similarly, openly hiring prostitutes or watching a lot of pornography is a violation of the rules of most communities worldwide. We can discuss the relative merits of these rules, but the fact remains that they are the rules - moral rules, even if not legal ones. (Note that prostitution is not illegal everywhere.) That means violating these rules means putting you at odds with your community in a way that subjects you to their moral judgment.  

Seeking an official sanction for your departure from a religion is nothing more than your attempt at continuing to follow the guidelines of your community. But if you're seeking to sever your connection to that community, what difference does it make whether or not you get your sanction? You want to leave, but you don't want to be judged for it. 

You want to hire a prostitute, but you don't want your girlfriend to tell you you're pathetic. Tough cookies. The problem isn't the community in this case. The people don't need to change. In this case, the problem is you - there you are, wanting to be different, wanting to adhere to a different set of rules then the rest of your community, but you don't want to be judged for it.

You want to violate the rules of your community, but you don't want your community to treat you as though you have violated the rules. Where have I heard this before?
All psychological defenses have a common structure: that two legitimate but contradictory beliefs are held simultaneously, one consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously. That way all possibilities are covered. Change is neutralized.

Abnormal

Needless to say, in any footrace, there are always more losers than winners. "But everyone's a winner!" Oh, sorry, I meant medalists. The point is that in heading up the rear as a high school freshman in a track and field race, I had the community on my side. I was participating, I was part of a team, I was out there trying. I was doing all of the things people pat you on the back for when you call yourself a runner. It doesn't matter if you win or lose, they say, as long as you give your best.

But giving my best meant winning the race, and eventually that happened. What happened to my community? Did they rally around me as someone who had finally achieved his best? Well... some of them did. Others resented me for it. Envy can be an ugly thing. I certainly had a lot more friends on the team when I was losing; but when I was winning, the friends I had were better friends.

I was okay with not being normal. Being abnormal, in that particular case, meant winning races. If you've never won a race before, let me assure you: it's a lot more fun than bringing up the rear, even if your teammates are less-interested in you when you run fast. I embraced my abnormality.

Years earlier, I embraced a different abnormality: I quit the mormon church. I didn't write a letter. I didn't go around telling anyone about it. I just stopped believing and stopped going, and that was the end of it. The local community didn't like that very much, and they treated me accordingly. But I didn't need their sanction. My beliefs are my beliefs. Nobody has to agree. If that disqualifies me from your community, so be it.

Self-esteem is not needing the untold millions patting you on the back for your decisions. Self-esteem means being able to diverge from the crowd, sometimes dramatically, sometimes radically, and not having to justify yourself to the people who, ultimately, aren't ever going to love you for being different.

Accept it. Different = not socially sanctioned. But, as Frank Zappa said, "Without deviation from the norm progress is not possible."

If you're going to make your own choices and be your own person in your life, then you need to confront the reality of this desire: Society isn't going to respect you for being different. The world isn't going to validate your divergent choices.

For that, you'll need a consistent belief system. Spoiler alert: that belief is far more satisfying than any social validation you'll get by playing by the rules. Just remember: you are violating the rules.


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[1] Scare-quotes in this section are not direct quotations of anyone. I'm using them for rhetorical effect.