Normalization of everything: misapplication of language creates confusion, ineffective activism

Art+by+Desmond+Kisida.

Art by Desmond Kisida.

Allison Kim

In the past five years, “normalization,” as a word and idea, has gained currency throughout social media discourse, with people very quickly applying its use to facets of politics and activism. The term has since evolved to hold the influence it carries today as a mantra for issues calling for social reform. 

The newfound popularity of the word normalize can be traced back to the 2016 presidential election, according to wired.com. Critics of former president Donald Trump used the phrase “don’t normalize this” as a reminder to continue recognizing the president’s actions for what they were and refusing to become accustomed to extreme imposition throughout the next four years. In an interview with wired.com, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at American dictionary publishing company Merriam-Webster, said people used the word twice as much online in 2016 than in 2015, with usage spiking by as much as 50% directly after Election Day. 

According to Merriam-Webster.com, there were subtle shifts in the use of “normalization” following its utilization in the context of Trump’s presidency. While the term previously described the alteration of atypical factors to fit existing social norms, people are now using it to describe the opposite, and normalization now calls for the expansion of the standards themselves to include abnormalities.The core of the word’s meaning, however, remains as changing an outlier into something we accept and see as natural. 

  The shift in the word’s meaning parallels the transition to its increased use in activism. As outlined in “Concepts and Theory of Normalization” by William G Bronston, normalization serves a vital role in creating change for social issues in two ways. First, by raising consciousness to “help us dislodge […] prejudices and biases that both we and the general society at large hold against people who are different,” and second, by organizing advocates for a cause to marshall strength and create a clear vision of a group’s goals. The increasing mix of ever-changing social and moral judgments society arbitrarily decrees as acceptable are tools those in positions of privilege use to leave out specific, often marginalized, peoples. When used successfully, “normalization” becomes a method for targeted groups to fight against exclusionary standards, effectively creating a safer environment for them to exist within communities.  

“#NormalizeNormalBodies” is an example of a movement using the word normalization as a means to raise awareness and support for a social issue, which in this case is body positivity. Mik Zazon, a virtual health coach, speaker and social media influencer, started the campaign in 2018, and after going viral on the social media platform Instagram, the hashtag accumulated over 269,000 posts. In this case, the movement correctly applies the definition of the word normalization, and advocates for the acceptance of bodies that don’t conform to traditional societal conventions. By highlighting how common it is to have a body that doesn’t fit the ideal beauty standard and creating an intentional space for individuals to share images of themselves, Instagram exposes users to bodies that people might not have otherwise considered acceptable to share online. The accessibility of messages like this on social media makes the #NormalizeNormalBodies campaign incredibly effective in influencing large groups to change what they view as normal. 

A problem arises when people apply the word normalization to everything, even when normalizing doesn’t make sense as a real solution. One instance in which activists misuse this word is when individuals call for the normalization of sex work. This appeal, calling for the acceptance of sex work as a career, glazes over the actual dangers of prostitution, which include increased exposure to STDs, experiences of sexual violence and adverse effects to overall health, according to a 2018 study by Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist, researcher and founder of the Prostitution Research and Education Organization. While we should not shame sex workers for their occupation, acceptance in itself does not do anything to protect those in the field from its risks. A call for the normalization of mental illness creates a similar outcome. While the mentally ill should know they are not alone in their experiences, society should not dismiss disorders as something normal. Patients with mental illnesses still require proper medical treatment to manage the disorder’s potentially harmful and dangerous effects. When actually put into effect, normalization of this issue would only undermine the importance of seeking help. A plethora of posts and infographics uploaded on social media showcase incorrect terminology under hashtags like #normalizementalillness and #sexworkiswork, which have a combined total of around 68,900 posts under them on Instagram. 

When addressing issues where communities face discrimination and oppression for partaking in a specific practice, there is another disadvantage to using normalization as a response. Some groups may not want to share their experiences with those who are not a part of their community. The definition of popularization is to cause many people to participate in something and differs from normalization, which only asks for something to be accepted. When individuals start to use the words normalization and popularization interchangeably, advocating for the normalization of a specific cultural practice may end up being a call for cultural appropriation. For instance, when answering a call to accept natural black hairstyles such as braids, afros or locs in the workplace, it would be inappropriate for people who are not black to sport said hairstyles to try and normalize them. 

The commonality between the scenarios outlined above is that many misuse the word normalization to express the idea of destigmatization. Destigmatization is the process of removing associations of shame or disgrace from something without the additional step of making it widely adopted or seen as a norm. While often working in conjunction with one another, these two ideas are two different solutions. The nuances of their distinctions are essential to keep in mind when trying to enact social change constructively. Acts like smoking, which people view as entirely normal, can still carry a stigma, and society can destigmatize things like sex work and mental illness without also normalizing them. 

The difference in definitions is especially significant because most of the posts and discussions online about normalization intend to educate, spread awareness and gain support for topics of activism. Misapplying the term can cause more harm to affected groups who may not seek normalization in the first place, and arguments using a misunderstood definition of a word can result in confusion about the original message of the post. Additionally, broader misuse across online spaces, like what we see with the word normalize, can create confusion on what the word itself means. This uncertainty weakens the efficacy of normalization as a tactic to solve social issues. Although making a shift in language may seem trivial, when attempting to speak out against the nonacceptance of certain practices and providing solutions to online audiences, being intentional about word choice is crucial in reaching those goals. Therefore, the people who make these posts must learn to use language correctly to most effectively communicate their ideas and ensure they are not causing more harm to the communities they are trying to help while doing so. 

Have you seen the misuse of “normalization” on social media? Let us know in the comments below.