IN in the news

The lesson for the day begins with a news story. From yesterday in the Guardian:

British Muslim teacher denied entry to US on school trip: Juhel Miah from south Wales was removed from plane in Reykjavik despite suspension of president’s travel ban … A council spokesman said Miah was left feeling belittled at what it described as “an unjustified act of discrimination”. The council said the teacher is a British citizen and does not have dual nationality.

Then from Nadim Zaidi on Facebook, commenting on this:

These stories are becoming so commonplace that I don’t even bat an eye at them anymore. And that is how it starts, through normalization. More specifically, banality, the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt wrote.

That’s normalization, the nominalization of innovative normalize (IN) — ‘render normal [‘acceptable’] that which was previously deemed beyond acceptable bounds’  used in a political context. From Emily Dreyfus in Wired 11/23/16:

Long before [[REDACTED]] became the president-elect, his detractors warned against “normalizing” his myriad violations of campaign decorum: the bigotry and misogyny, the Putin-philia and cavalier talk about nuclear weapons. Since [his] election …, “don’t normalize this” has become a liberal mantra, a reminder to stay vigilant in the face of aberrant presidential behavior that Americans may feel tempted — or emotionally bludgeoned — into excusing as just the way the country works now.

(Zaidi is not the first person who has recently fallen back on Hannah Arendt and her dissection of the banality of evil. George Orwell has also seen an upsurge of attention.)

Pointed objections to the behavior and language of [REDACTED] and his associates come from those who are appalled and outraged by it, notably liberals (who see it as a moral swamp, an attack on basic democratic principles, and a threat to the safety of the world) and those who are threatened by it: among them, Muslims, Hispanics, Blacks, Jews, women, and of course fags like me. Andrew Solomon in the New Yorker on the 2nd, in “Fear and Loathing in [[REDACTED]]’s America”:

It’s different being gay now than it was in, say, October. In October, the progress we’d made as a movement seemed relatively secure, and our view was set on how we might better secure our freedoms. Now whatever we’ve achieved feels fragile, and our energies are occupied with trying to prevent a slide backward. We have had to give up on the future in attempting to save the past.

First outrage, then fear, and then cleansing defiance: resistance.

Now back to Dreyfus in Wired, who continues after the intro above (you will note that I am quoted):

You may feel like you’ve noticed [IN] more in headlines, on Twitter, and over the dinner table. Don’t worry, you aren’t suffering from the frequency illusion, that perceptual fallacy where after you learn about something, you suddenly seem to see it everywhere. On the contrary, data shows that a large segment of the US is latching onto the word in the weeks after the election. Kory Stamper, lexicographer at Merriam Webster, examined a range of sources and found that people have used the word twice as much online in 2016 than in 2015, and that this usage spiked after Election Day by as much as 50 percent. But Americans are using it in a different way than they normally do. The country is normalizing a new use of “normalize.”

This is a kind of linguistic contagion. But according to experiment psychologist Joshua Greene, who studies the science of decision-making at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, it’s also normal. “That’s how culture works,” he says. Ideas spread, they catch on. Call it a sort of meme.

Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky says a few things are going on here. Yes, the spread of the word is in one way just the normal dissemination of words and phrases. But the viral spread of “normalize” could be happening because it strikes people as genuinely useful, he says: “Useful because it refers to things that are newly of significance.”

That notion is born out in Stamper’s data: the way people are using “normalize” in the weeks after the election differs from the way it’s usually used. Stamper notes that since the election the word is being used mostly to denote one of its secondary definitions. Its first definition is “a return to normalcy,” as in: “Relations between the US and China are normalizing,” or “Her heart rate is normalizing.” But most instances in the past two weeks use it in a different sense: the “redefinition of modern discourse to allow extreme views to be considered normal,” as a Merriam Webster blog post described the changing use of the word last week.

What’s more, Stamper says, most of the time the word appears post-election, people are specifically using it to talk about [REDACTED] and the racism, sexism, and xenophobia his campaign inspired. In fact, of the 106 instances of the word that appeared over the past two weeks in the News on the Web database (a corpus of online news sources compiled by Brigham and Young University), 90 of those used this formerly less common definition. And most of the time those uses originated from left-leaning sources. In other words, though “normalize” may seem to be bubbling up in the zeitgeist, it’s only the zeitgeist for some. The word is not everywhere: It’s trending among liberals. This tilt jibes with Zwicky’s hunch about the virality of the word, which he guesses “come from left-leaning people like me, people who feel that uncharitable and downright threatening behavior … has come to be treated as normal.”

Language as a means of signposting who we are is a common phenomenon. Columbia University linguist John McWhorter says that the word “normalize” is going through a the process of becoming a signifier of left-leaning ideology, as are the words “offended” and “problematic.”

“In linguistics, a term’s originating is called its actuation and that can be extended to the term’s becoming ‘a thing’ beyond where / who it was invented,” McWhorter wrote in an email. “Normalize is definitely being further actuated by the [[REDACTED]] victory.”

In a similar way, liberals themselves might be feeling actualized by “normalized.” The country right now feels like a strange, alienating place to many people on the losing side of the election. In that darkness, the word “normalize” becomes a way to send up a flare to others who see the world the way they do — a linguistic Bat-Signal to come together and push back against a presidency that to lots of folks feels anything but normal.

Possibly of historical significance, excerpts from my e-mail to Dreyfus back on November 22nd:

My guess is that the uptick [in IN] is a side effect of an increase in references to “the new normal”: what was once outrageous, socially unacceptable, etc. has become the new normal. Bullying, hateful speech, etc. have been normalized to an astonishing degree. (As a publicly gay man usually taken to be Jewish, with many Jewish, black, Latino, Asian, and Muslim (not to mention female) friends, colleagues, and students, I feel this shift keenly and fear an oncoming return to the days when I regularly got death threats on the phone and had insults hurled at me on the street.)

[ED: “It seems to me that the word itself is kind of contagious”] There are several things going on here. One is just the normal spread of linguistic practices (of all kinds) through social groups, sometimes accelerated by media uses. Sometimes lexical items spread rapidly because  they strike people as being genuinely useful — useful because they refer to things that are newly of significance. And there are linguistic fads and fashions, which spread just because they sound new, with-it, cool, etc.; these are likely to spread virally (in an extended sense of “viral”).

[ED asks whether IN could be “a sort of cultural signifier of ideology”, in particular left-leaning ideology] Expressions can start with very specific sociocultural significations and then spread through people who don’t know (or care about) the history, or misunderstand it, or subvert it. The history of “politically correct” is a sad case in point.

It probably is the case that many, or even most, recent uses of “normalize” come from left-leaning people like me, people who feel that uncharitable and downright threatening behavior (towards faggots, bitches, kikes, chinks, towel-heads, niggers, spics, etc.) has come to be treated as normal.

Until recently, I *think* that uses of “normalize” were mostly with reference to statistical manipulation (“normalize the data for vowel height”), to diplomatic affairs (“normalize relations with Iran”), or to homosexuality and homosexual behavior, in disapproving commentary from socially conservative, especially “Christian”, sources: out gay people as trying to normalize (the sin of) homosexuality, same-sex marriage as an (illegitimate) attempt to normalize homosexual behavior (especially anal intercourse between men, which “the Bible” labels as an abomination and demands death as the penalty), tv programs and commercials as attempting to normalize homosexuality by showing lesbians and gay men as ordinary people in ordinary relationships. (Extraordinary venom about commercials showing same-sex couples with children in a positive light.) [Here I introduce “homosexual IN” in addition to “political IN”.]

[ED: “I was telling a story at The Moth [a public radio program] the other day and heard the word “normalize” coming out of my own mouth when I was talking about an actor on TV — which is something I never would have said before… [Can] a word like this can possibly shape the way we think about things, even outside the context in which they are currently trendy.”]  Once expressions are trendy in certain contexts, they’re easily available for use in other (vaguely similar) contexts (so long as you don’t find them objectionable). This is a psychological biasing effect, and it might even have a name, though I don’t know it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: