The problematic concept of the “new normal”

“The ideal, as we conceive of it, is unshakable. You can’t step outside it. You must always turn back. There is no outside; outside you cannot breathe. – How come? The idea is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off. “‘ 1

A few weeks ago, our prime minister, Mark Rutte, addressed the nation in his weekly Tuesday coronacrisis press conference.In his message he spoke about the ‘new normal’. While we all probably have a pretty decent intuitive grasp of what he means with the concept, it gives rise to some philosophical questions. Putting any interpretation of his intention with the concept aside,neither assuming he invented it, nor that hethought the concept through regarding its implications or its consistency, the idea itself is anyhow nothing short of pragmatic.2

The ‘new normal’ is about a new set of social contact norms, such as maintaining a one and a half meter distance from all strangers in any public space at all times. The concept seems to imply a certain (future) acceptance of anew situation. A situation which at the same is meant to be created by the new social contact norms.They are new rules meant for coping with a new reality.

However, Rutte also spoke about his hope of eventually returning to a state of a ‘somewhat more normal than the new normal’. Which gives rise to certain conceptual problems and contradictions: How do we determine what is ‘normal’ and how can it differ from a ‘new normal’? And, if ever, when does it transform from an ‘old normal’ into a ‘new normal’? Does it even make sense to speak of how often and how quickly a ‘normal’ situation may change?

There are also certain social philosophical questions about the concept of the ‘new normal’ which can, and should be, asked. Is the ‘new normal’ a progressive concept, opposing the conservation of the the status quo, the ‘old normal’? Can we change our ways? Can we use the coronacrisis to propel forward into a better, cleaner future? Or is the ‘new normal’ an attempt to conserve the status quo as much as possible? The concept of ‘normal’ itself, echoing Rutte’s hope of eventually returning to a ‘somewhat more normal than the new normal’ unfortunately seems to imply this direction. Does a certain social ‘normal’ exist? We often speak of as if there being certain social habits of Dutch culture. And with regard to the new norms of the ‘new normal’, those relevant are a certain spatial distance between conversating persons, the shaking of hands and our famous three kisses on the cheeks. Those are to be abolished or changed in the new normal. The obvious objection to this idea of Dutch culture is that we live in a multicultural society, with a lot of different social contact norms. Regardless this objection whether a ‘normal’ even exists, we should ask ourselves whether we want there to be a ‘normal’ or a ‘new normal’ at all. The idea actually seems to be a pretty dangerous idea and it is exactly such a misguided perspective that Wittgenstein is referring to in the above aphorism.

Wittgenstein’s ‘ideal’, in the first sentence of the aphorism, refers to his own logical theory as developed in the Tractatus. In this work he decribes the normative framework for language: all the logical rules and structures and the fact that language should refer to situations which are empirically verifiable. If language does not meet these requirements, it does not qualify as being meaningful. Years later however, Wittgenstein realizes this is simply not how it is, or not how we should want language to be. There are a lot of instances of language that are valuable in their own right, communicating other types of meaning, not describing matters of fact: e.g poetry, prayers, jokes, oaths, swears. We should not disregard these instances of language, nor judge them as meaningless.

If we should reject a normative simplification of language we must also be aware of the dangers of a normative simplification of society and its social norms. A society that longs for or tries to implement social simplicity is a society dangerously unaware of its own situation. It stagnates, desperately trying to maintain the status quo, because it does not know how to adapt to emerging new problems. It is in a complex society, where different people think differently, that they can learn from one another precisely because of their conflicting perspectives. In the context of the coronacrisis this is perhaps peripheral criticism. The ‘new normal’ after all primarily relates to a set of new public health norms. But we should ask ourselves: How will the resulting change in social behavior affect our mutual social connection?

What we regard as normal is nothing but a pair of glasses on our nose through which we interpret reality. And the problem is, we cannot see clearly without them. We must maintain a certain grasp of our own idea of reality because it is a psychological necessity. It never really occurs to take them off. And if we do or try, it’s not for long anyways. It seems to me that this is not a problem per se, as long as we are aware that they are mere glasses, fit for our eyes. And for those who think alike, who see the world the same way. Now it’s time to take my glasses off.

Deze tekst is eerder gepubliceerd op het filosofieplatform

Share Button