One of the many interesting and distasteful things about the rhetoric of poverty and privilege in political discourse, both now and for at least the past 400 years or so, is the extent to which poverty is conceptualised as deviant, and privilege as normal.
Statistically, of course, poverty is quite normal. There has always been something of a skewed bell curve of wealth distribution, with a few very wealthy individuals, a few in the middle and a long tail (though the shape of the curve changes over history). As Jesus remarked, the poor will always be with us.
What we consider to be poverty is culturally determined. When you ask rich people what poverty and wealth are, they come up with some astounding answers. A recent survey of City workers, who were asked what figure they thought the top 10th percentile of income started at, revealed how skewed their view of the world. Those relatively high earners thought that the top 10% of earners in this country earned more than £200, 000 a year. The correct figure is around £40,000; it is roughly where the higher rate tax band comes from. But most people earning this amount do not say that they feel rich.
Most people in this country have a household income of below £22,000 for a couple without children, and the bottom 10% less than £11,000. Yet struggling to pay for a washing machine when it breaks, or being unable to afford the bus fare to go to the doctor’s surgery - things that are, in fact, 'normal' - are widely seen as unusual. Not normal. Abnormal. Deviant.
‘Obscene’ wealth – and the choice of adjective is significant – is also regarded as deviant, but wealth – or as we in the middle classes prefer to call it, ‘being comfortable’ - is defined as the norm, despite all the statistical evidence to the contrary.
And if being comfortably well off is the norm, then clearly the poor are deviations from the norm. And the way we human beings use the language and concepts of the group means that we slip so frighteningly easily from speaking of deviations from the norm – which should be a matter of statistical fact only - to speaking of deviancy, and from deviancy to demonisation. We see this only too clearly in the rhetoric of poverty and benefits today.
What is the opposite of 'normal'?
Abnormal - odd - deviant?
All of these imply some sort of value judgement. We have few words in our language that can simply refer to the statistical fact that some things occur more or less often than others.
In mathematics, the norm is a particular type of measurement: the single number that occurs most often in a list of numbers. (For example: if five people's scores on a test were 1, 2, 2, 6, 9 the norm would be 2, whilst the average would be 4). Similarly, deviation from the norm is measurable (there is such a thing as 'standard deviation', a measure of how much variation there is a given set of statistics) and morally neutral.
But outside of mathematics, we seem to use normal to mean not just 'the way most things/people/examples are' but 'the way things should be'. This makes it hard for us to discuss statistical outliers neutrally.
One of the key goals of all liberation theologies, and perhaps of feminism in particular, is to challenge the extent to which the dominant social status is seen as the norm, with the subordinate status seen as deviant.
Just as poverty has been seen as abnormal, so has being a woman.
ness has for centuries been seen as the norm in our society. And it has followed apparently logically and inevitably from that, that maleness is the norm from which femaleness is deviant. In past centuries this was very explicitly discussed. In the seventeenth century, for example, there were serious arguments amongst both theologians and natural scientists as to whether women were fully human. Women could be seriously considered to be deficient versions of men, in much the same way as children were deficient versions of adults. Though children were in some ways better off, as of course they could be expected to grow up.
This is not merely of academic interest. The oppression of women – physically, sexually, economically and politically – was routinely justified and explained on the basis that women needed to be looked after. We were seen as simply not having the same capacity as men to make financial, political, sexual or any other judgements, because we were not thought to have 'normal' (ie male) rational capacity.
The way we use the language of normality and deviance is of course also very relevant to current debates about those who have an LGBT sexual identity. We seem incapable of having a conversation about sexual orientation that accepts the existence of a statistical norm (most people are heterosexual), and of alternatives (some people - perhaps 5-10%, though estimates vary greatly - identify as LGBT).
People say - you will have heard this, perhaps even said this, yourself - 'but it's not normal, is it?'. It is, mathematically speaking, entirely normal for some people to be not normal. As the adverts said - some people are gay, get over it. It may well be that we want to have a conversation as a society about the acceptable use of our sexuality, what is and is not acceptable sexual behaviour. As a Church, we may well want to discuss the morality of certain sexual behaviours. But 'normality' is very poor grounds to base such a discussion on.
We need to pay much more attention to our discourse, our language, of normality and deviance. I would love to see the media - and all of us - resolve never to use the word 'normal' without a statistical qualification. If we said 'it is statistically normal for....' Or 'the statistical norm is....', we might begin to disentangle statistics from morality.
Some things are indeed more the statistical norm of human experience than others. But things that are less common are no less normal. It is within the normal range of human experience to be a rich gay woman, it just occurs less frequently than being a poor straight man.
But our current use of language tends to imply a value judgement on anything that occurs less frequently. We slip so easily and smoothly from normality to deviance in the way we conceptualise groups. Whatever your views on poverty, or women, or LGBT people, greater clarity in our way of speaking would be a great step forward in our discussions.