Hundreds of people joined Humanists UK online on 1 December, to hear researcher and author Dr Sarah Chaney deliver Humanists UK’s prestigious annual Voltaire Lecture, chaired by Humanists UK President Dr Adam Rutherford, under the title ‘Am I Normal?’
These days, many people are concerned about whether or not they are ‘normal’. This could be due to any number of reasons: including societal pressures to conform to certain norms and expectations. Some people may worry that they are not normal because they feel that they don’t fit in with their peers or the broader culture. Others may feel that they are not normal because they have unique interests, experiences, habits, or personalities that are outside of the norm. Still, others may worry that they are not ‘normal’ because of how their bodies look or how they think or feel, with millions posing questions to Internet forums and search engines every year that begin with the words ‘Is it normal…’ Whatever the reason, these modern obsessions and preoccupations have become a source of profound stress for many people, negatively impacting their mental health and well-being.
Dr Sarah Chaney began by noting that ‘normal’ itself means different things to different people, drawing support from the so-called ‘Little Kinsey’, a sex survey carried out in the UK in 1949. One of the many measures in the survey was a question that asked participants if they considered themselves to be ‘sexually normal’. While some people were able to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ with ease, many respondents raised questions about the idea of ‘normal’ itself. One man wrote: ‘I consider that in relation to the whole of society I am not normal (say within the quartiles), but that in relation to my own group of society (single, male, living away from home, well educated, medium income group). I am normal in that that group of which I form a part is also normal to society as a whole.’
Dr Chaney moved on to discuss the origins of the idea of ‘normal’ being applied to humans. Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet was the first to use astronomers’ methods of measuring statistical ‘error’ to determine and compare human traits across a large group. He found that simple measurements – like height or weight – tended to fall on a bell curve. This was the ‘birth of normal’.
Many surveys, however, took steps that meant their results were not representative even on their own terms. Attempts to create standardised clothing sizes in the United States, for example, were based entirely on white women, for reasons not stated by the investigators. (Investigators did, ‘for the sake of good feeling within a group’ take the measurements of some black women who volunteered, but these results were promptly discarded.)
Even with these exclusionary criteria, Dr Chaney noted, it was very difficult to find even one single ‘normal’ human being. In the 1940s, two statues of ‘native white Americans’ – Norma and Norman – were created, based on the averages that had been measured. The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper ran a competition to find a real person who matched Norma, but from almost 4,000 (presumably self-selecting) entrants, not one person that matched all nine measurements was found.
Chaney went on to discuss how not all studies of the ‘normal’ have been exclusionary; in fact, the Victorian era ‘census of hallucinations’ demonstrated that what had been considered to be abnormal or unusual was in reality rather common, with 13% of respondents indicating that they had experienced one or other form of hallucination from a provided list.
The lecture also briefly touched on the origins of IQ testing, noting the aims of the endeavour in 1904 were to find ways to support children in France who were struggling in the classroom. Tests were soon applied to adults too, and Dr Chaney took aim at some of the egregiously culturally loaded items from early tests – such as the Army Alpha IQ test from 1917 – items that were ‘very much based on knowledge of a particular time and a particular culture’. The biases inherent in the question were not considered, Sarah argued, and led to erroneous conclusions when recent immigrants were found to not score as highly on these tests.
Coming towards the end of her talk, Dr Chaney noted that ‘normal’ has meant ‘a whole range of different things. It’s been an average and an ideal at the same time’. While it has been thought that the normal is not simply chance, but sometimes to be desired – and therefore, ‘to be an outlier on any characteristic was to be an error’ – the average man ‘is a myth. The average is not actually common.’
Even with that in mind, Dr Chaney noted, the basis on which we have often sought to measure ‘normal’, and deviations from it, has been skewed by the assumption (whether active or passive) that the baseline is a white, Western, middle-class lifestyle, something which itself ‘meets none of the other definitions of normal.’
Following an in-depth discussion during which he put to Sarah questions submitted by the audience, Dr Adam Rutherford presented Dr Sarah Chaney with the 2022 Voltaire Lecture Medal, for her illuminating research on human emotions and wellbeing, unpacking complicated social histories, and helping us think more critically about the ideas we take for granted.
The Voltaire Lecture explores ‘any aspect of scientific or philosophical thought or human activity as affected by or with particular reference to humanism’. The Voltaire medallist has made a significant contribution in one of these fields.
The lecture and medal are named for the philosopher Voltaire. The inaugural lecture took place in 1968 and was delivered by Theodore Besterman, biographer of Voltaire, who went on to fund the lecture series in his legacy.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.