Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The Fallacy of Norms And Standards

Karntakuringu Jakurrpa

I've written before about how, when our daughter was a toddler, we lived within walking distance of the Seattle Art Museum, where we regularly popped in to visit our favorite paintings and sculptures. In the back of my mind, I suppose, I took her there out of a sense that doing so would be a mark of "good parenting." I don't specifically recall any expert recommending art museums, probably because two-year-olds aren't normally possessed of the executive function to make such a thing a pleasant experience. In fact, in all the dozens of times we prowled the galleries together, we never once came across another toddler. But that wasn't unusual for us: we didn't typically spend time with any other toddlers. During those first couple years our family of three formed a kind of happy pod into which the relatives and friends we allowed either had adult children or none at all.

The real reason we went to the art museum so regularly actually had nothing to do with parenting, good or bad. We went to the art museum because that's something that I've always done. A couple evenings ago, I had dinner with a woman who had been, for years, the director of our local art museum. When I mentioned that I'm there at least once a month, she replied, "Good for you -- thank you," as if my motivation was charity or civic duty, which is similar to the response I get when I mention that I read classic novels or attend Shakespearean performances.

I understand that many, if not most, of those reading this are suppressing yawns right now. I also know that at least a few of you think that by mentioning these hobbies of mine, I'm showing off. Add classical music to the list and I've hit the quadfecta (real word!) of cultural snobbery. But that genuinely isn't my motivation. For me, the arts are where I turn as a way to explore human nature, to understand myself and others, to shift my perspective. I come away from my engagements with art feeling more human, more connected to present, past, and future, and often even with a deeper sense of my own morals and values. I walk away full of reflections about the vastness of what it can mean to be human beyond the walls of the day-to-day humdrum of normalcy.

In contrast to its reputation for black tie fundraisers in celebration of dead, white men, the arts, and especially the ones that have stood the test of time, is the work of radicals, people who lived, or at least thought and created, outside the strictures of normal.

Too much of life is governed by norms: academic, social, medical, psychological. Those parenting books that I didn't read until our daughter was grown are a classic example. I have no doubt that millions of parents have found them helpful or comforting or even eye-opening, but like with much of what has been labelled the "therapeutic state" -- social workers, psychologists, dietitians, marriage counsellors, sex therapists, and the aforementioned child-development experts -- they work with the tools of what Antonia Case, philosopher and author of the book Flourish, refers to as "technique and normalization, offering step-by-step instructions on just about everything -- how to relate to our partner; how to quell disputes in the home; what not to eat during pregnancy; how to raise children; how to be a good mother; how to be tidier, neater, calmer, smarter." This leads, she argues, to a shrinkage of our imaginative and emotional horizon. "We no longer turn to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina . . . as a guide to human nature, or visit art galleries for some much-needed respite; the literary and artistic are brushed aside for the Beginner's Guide to Cognitive Behavior Therapy and a remedial massage. It is little wonder that modern life seems too highly organized, too self-conscious, too predictable."

"How can we serve others, nature or the planet," she asks, "when everything we eat, drink or think has to be put to some grueling standardized pseudo-scientific test?" And let's be honest, most of what the experts have to offer are based on what Stephen Colbert might call "truthiness." Not long ago, I was talking with the head of the neuroscience department at a major European university. When I tried to share some of my own thoughts on the subject, he shook his head, saying, "By the time any of our work makes it into the mainstream, it's already twenty years behind what we're doing in the lab. Even we have trouble keeping up." This is why science inevitably becomes pseudoscience in the hands of dilettantes. We've been taught by the ethics of the therapeutic state that science is made up of hard facts when, in fact, it is nothing more or less than a process by which theories are offered up as possible truth, then rigorously tested, and almost always found flawed.

In my life as a parent "science" once told me that the human brain is more or less fully formed by around five-years-old, while today we think we know that it remains remarkably plastic (renewable) throughout life. In the 1980's were were convinced that the ultimate healthy diet was one that limited fats and emphasized carbohydrates. Much of Freud is now considered bunk. This is the nature of science and any effort to define normal or to apply techniques or standards to our lives based upon it will inevitably be hit or miss.

The opening sentence of Tolstoy's novel Anna Karinina is one of the most famous lines in all of literature: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

This is the kind of truth that the therapeutic state simply cannot abide, yet it is one that has been true throughout the existence of humans. It's a truth that cannot be addressed by norms or standards or a step-by-step approach, because each case is a new one under the sun. It is a truth, however, that is found in the art that hangs on the walls of every art museum, on the pages of every great novel, and on the stages that bring us the comedies, histories, and tragedies of Shakespeare. And art is only one of the countless ways that humans may come to understand the world and their place in it.

I'm not saying to stop reading those parenting books or listening to education experts (myself included), but only to see them for what they are. Of course, you will find insights and ideas, but the moment they offer norms and standards, they are speaking the language pseudoscience, and the result is to drain much of the joy out of our work and play, limiting rather than expanding what it means to be human.

I've learned more about life from paintings, novels, and plays, than from any expert, not because they told me what to think, but because they spurred me to think for myself, and to ultimately see the cage that is created by the fallacy of norms and standards. What art teaches me is that none of us will find joy or peace by in a step-by-step approach, but rather that I must find my own path. I may not be any less unhappy than the rest of you, but at least I'll be unhappy in my own way.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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