Tolerance and Normalisation

I chatted with an associate this evening about the gun debate in America. For some reason, gun control is again a hot topic. He believes that guns, like drugs, should be treated as mental health issues.

Click an image to read the referenced article.

The Atlantic: An ER Doctor’s ‘Third Way’ Approach to the Gun Crisis
The Atlantic: The Real Reason America Doesn’t Have Gun Control

Full Disclosure: I do not believe that the Second Amendment of the United States confers unrestricted rights to own a gun. Full stop. I believe this is a perversion by activist Supreme Court justices of the original intent of the grammatically-challenged Forefathers of that cursed country.

The mental health topic brought my attention to the question of tolerance and normalisation. Mental health, an interest of psychology has a sordid past. At its very core is the idea that humans can be normalised, that they can be categorised into normal and abnormal behaviours, and what is deemed normal might have some room for variation, but this tolerance doesn’t really allow for much discrepancy.

Normalisation expects to bring people into some basic conformity—give or take. The problem is that this is contextual and the acceptable range changes over time and place. Many behaviours previously considered abnormal are now acceptable, and some acceptable behaviours are no longer tolerated. Some of these changes have flip-flopped legal status as well. It’s just a game to some people.

Tolerance takes a position that there is no normal, per se. Some people just have different ideas.

Here is a clip of an interview with Dr Oz ( né Mehmet Cengiz Öz) where he illustrates my position. I’ll disintegrate it next.

Dr Oz explains why he does not support legalisation of marijuana


Reporter: What is your stance on [the legalisation of] marijuana?

Dr Oz: … There are not enough Pennsylvanians to work in Pennsylvania, so giving them pot so they stay home… I don’t think [is] an ideal move. I also don’t want to breed addiction to marijuana. It’s not physical addiction; it’s emotional addiction, but I don’t want young people to think they have to smoke a joint to get out of their house in the morning. We need to get Pennsylvanians back at work you got to give them their mojo, and I don’t want marijuana to be a hindrance to that. I also don’t want people operating heavy machinery and driving by me when they’ve been taking their fourth joint of the day. But there are other issues that are plaguing Pennsylvanians. We’re a border state, practically, … because they’re flying illegal immigrants up here from the border in the middle of the night … but they’re also getting their narcotics up here really easily.

So, let’s break down this word salad. This will reveal some of Dr Oz’ and my worldview biases.

  1. Neither Oz nor I advocate the use of marijuana or other recreational drugs. However, Oz wants to make or keep it illegal and criminalised. I do not agree. I feel they should regulate it and tax it. Although I neither advocate nor endorse the use of any of these herbs and chemicals, I feel they should do this for all drugs. [And if we are going to make these chemicals illegal, let’s not be hypocrites and make nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine illegal.] I’m not advocating this. I’m just saying adopt a position and maintain it with integrity.
  2. There are not enough Pennsylvanians to work in Pennsylvania.

    First, Oz is a wage slaver. Next, the unemployment rate for PA was 4.9% in March, so this does not appear to be a problem.
  3. so giving them pot so they stay home… I don’t think [is] an ideal move.

    Oz makes an unsubstantiated connection between the legalisation of marijuana and staying home—being lazy or unmotivated.
  4. I also don’t want to breed addiction to marijuana.

    Marijuana is not known to be addictive. As a doctor, Oz knows this.
  5. It’s not physical addiction; it’s emotional addiction

    Here, Oz backtracks, but he also introduces an unsubstantiated claim. If you are interested in why I consider psychology pseudoscience, follow this link to explain DSM changes in this area.
  6. but I don’t want young people to think they have to smoke a joint to get out of their house in the morning

    Oz makes a total non-sequitur here. Nothing he has mentioned this far would lead to this conclusion. If someone already feels this way, its legal status is irrelevant. Enough said.
  7. We need to get Pennsylvanians back at work you got to give them their mojo, and I don’t want marijuana to be a hindrance to that.

    This is more Calvinistic wage slavery advocacy. Again, he is equating the consumption of marijuana with being unmotivated. Perhaps he should challenge Micheal Phelps to a swimming race. If motivation is the issue, perhaps he rather favours legalising amphetamines—but I supposed he’d have a preconceived rationale for that, too.
  8. I also don’t want people operating heavy machinery and driving by me when they’ve been taking their fourth joint of the day.

    Where does the number four come from? Is four different to one or two? Has this been studied? Is he saying this doesn’t already happen? Does he believe that current intoxication laws and incapacitation regulations aren’t in place?
  9. We’re a border state, practically…

    Where to start… Pennsylvania is a border state. It borders New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia. If one counts for the water border of Lake Erie, one might be able to argue that it shares an international border with Canada—although, I feel that’s a stretch. At that point, one wouldn’t be far from considering Hawaii to border California. It’s only water. He does say practically, so perhaps that’s his out.
  10. because they’re flying illegal immigrants up here from the border in the middle of the night

    Wait a minute… Geezer’s talking about the southern border between the United States and Mexico. (That’s where brown people live.) The fewest number of states between Mexico and Pennsylvania is four, but that’s stretching it. Something tells me that Oz is at least an elitist and at worst a racist. I’m a sad panda.

    Another non-sequitur. Somehow, Oz is trying to create a link between marijuana and narcotics whilst also contending that legalising marijuana would somehow affect these illegal flights. Wait, are the flights illegal or just the passengers? How does he know that either is illegal? And does it have to be at night? I get the feeling that Oz watches too much television. Perhaps that’s what we should criminalise. So many questions.
  11. but they’re also getting their narcotics up here really easily

    OK? Perhaps we should contract with them to transport the marijuana up here if they are so efficient. Or would it be better to grow it locally? Racists tend to be nationalists and would likely favour a Made In America policy—unless they can exploit brown people. Or Oz can employ otherwise unemployed Pennsylvanians on his pot plantations. Where does it end?

What does this have to do with normalisation and toleration?

People like Dr Oz want to mainstream people, a concept some familiar with special education might remember—get the people in line with the herd. Proper people—normal people—are supposed X and Y and Z. Toleration allows that there may be people with descriptively ‘normal’ traits and behaviours, but there should not necessarily be a penalty for noncompliance.

When I was an undergrad student, I had a side job as a shift supervisor at an Au Bon Pain in Boston. On an occasion, one worker, let’s call her Mary, was arguing with another worker that we’ll call Marie. Mary said she was not going to make any more sandwiches because she had already made twice as much as Marie. Although I understand the notion of fairness she was invoking, I reminded her that she was being paid by the hour, not the piece. As long as she was still on the proverbial clock, she would continue to make sandwiches. Although I didn’t press this point, I could have hired Marie to watch Mary make sandwiches. In fact, I suppose I was hired to watch them both make sandwiches.

The point is—Mary’s perception aside—that there was no reason to presume these two should produce an equal number of sandwiches in an hour, a day, or a month.

I mention this because—getting back to Oz’ drugs scenario—if people are happy getting high on heroin and nodding out on Kensington Ave, that’s their issue, not Oz’ and not mine. If Pennsylvania needs workers and can’t get them, figure out how to attract workers. Don’t create a situation so bad that the alternate to work is just the lesser of two evils. This reminds me of a story from my consulting days.

Without dropping any names, I was hired by a company to ‘deflect’ some costs. The high-level concept was to redirect people from a relatively expensive call centre to cheaper self-service. I reminded them of the Principle of least effort.

Essentially, I conveyed that people are inherently lazy—echoing Carl Jung. People will take the path of least resistance. If it’s easier for them to call, they’ll call; if it’s easier to self-serve, they’ll do that.

“So we should make it more difficult for customers to call?” was how this was interpreted.

“You should make it easier to self-serve.”

I’m still shaking my head to this day. What humans will do to other humans in the name of commerce.

Where was I?

Ambiguous Normalcy

I’ve never really liked the concept of normal being applied to behaviour, whether individually or societally. At a micro level, it might be fine, and one can assess a deviation from a norm, but at a macro level, we have averages of averages, so how many dimensions need to be out of calibration and for how long to be considered abnormal.

Moreover, statistically speaking, where we have a normal (Gaussian) distribution, we might consider a mean and a certain variance or standard deviation from that mean to be normal, but the reaction to deviance is asymmetrical.

An example that comes to mind is that of cheating. It is well documented that humans are predictably cheaters (and liars). Nonetheless, there are two measures of normalcy. There is a fundamental attribution bias in play.

We view ourselves as basically honest and justify occasions when we act the same way. Regarding the chart below, we like to believe that cheating is uncommon. In fact, we chastise or otherwise punish cheaters.

Descriptive versus Prescriptive Normalcy

Full disclosure this is not to scale nor representative of actual data. It’s merely an illustrative tool for conversation.

Prescriptive Normalcy

The bottom range in green represents the accepted and prescribed normal range of cheating. In this example, it might be anticipated that an average person might cheat on things like their taxes, their diets, not returning extra change at a vendor, and so on, about a third of the time, give or take. Anything more would be considered abnormal and unacceptable. Anything less and the person might be considered to be uptight or a goody-two-shoes, perhaps like Ned Flanders of the Simpsons franchise.

Ned Flanders – Hokily Dokily

Descriptive Normalcy

In practice, people operate well outside of this range. As illustrated by the top red range, people tend to cheat closer to two-thirds of the time. If a person is caught cheating, they are treated as being well outside of the prescribed range, society will look upon them harshly despite this actually being normal behaviour for those judging, those who know that they are guilty of the same activity.

One reason for the overreaction may be to signal that they are among the righteous. Here, it’s good to remember Jung’s quip: The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.

The brighter the light, the darker the shadow

Carl Jung

Intelligence Quotient

If I use IQ* for a reference, normal is the mean plus or minus a standard deviation (or sigma [σ]) of 16 points, so between 84 and 116. In the early to mid-20th century, clinical psychology nomenclature grouped IQs by bands:

ClassificationIQ Range
Idiot0 – 24
Imbecile25 – 49
Moron50 – 69
Dull or Borderline70 – 79
Below Average90 – 89
Average90 – 109
Above Average100 – 119
Superior120 – 129
Very Superior130 – 139
Willam Stern Intelligence Quotient Nomenclature

Later moron was replaced by moderate mental retardation or moderate mental subnormality with an IQ of between 35 and 49. As with many things, and in the case of IQ, an observation above the norm is associated as better with an observation below the norm being considered as worse.

* IQ has many problems. At first, an IQ of 100 is supposed to represent the average (mean) of a population, yet the average IQ of the world population is just over 82, a number outside and below the 1σ threshold. In the United States, the average IQ is an unremarkable 97% (ranking 26 among 199 countries). Japan and Taiwan top the list at over 106. In fact, Asian countries comprise the top 6 slots. Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are almost an even 100, falling ever so short. at 99 and change. Guatemala, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nepal fall at the bottom of the ranking, each with average IQs under 50.

Descent of Man

Joe Talbert, singer and songwriter for IDLES, shares some of his perspective with us. Cued is a bit on masculinity, particularly the toxic variety.

Interview with Joe Talbert of IDLES

For me, it’s a breath of fresh air. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but the IDLES bring some of the lost energy back into music. I’m old enough to remember the first Punk wave of the 1970s and the next waves as well as the ripples.

The Descent of Man clearly explains how masculinity as a construct is dangerous, problematic, and … bullshit

Joe Talbert

I’ve always been out of step with my music interests, ability, and availability. In the ’70s, I was raised on the Classic Rock of the day, from the Beatles and Stones in the ’60s, to Zeppelin and Sabbath in the ’70s before focusing more on the likes of Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, and then Allan Holdsworth. In the mid-’70s, came vapid and syrupy, saccharine pop and the nonsense that was Disco. Thankfully, this was disturbed by Punk on one hand and Eddie Van Halen on the other. Then there was New Wave and the Hair Bands.

When I wanted to play Rock in Japan, I had offers for Country. My mates in Los Angles were into retro when I was into Progressive and Jazz Fusion. I did get on a Blues kick for a while, but I didn’t really feel like I could pull it off—some affluent white kid and all. Besides Hair Bands in the ’80s, there was a Euro-synth wave, but I wanted something more complex and experimental. By the ’90s, I finished grad school and was career-oriented. I fell in love with Grunge and post-Grunge, but that was a personal endeavour. I did finally play that in the 2000s as covers sprinkled with originals, but it was a side-gig not designed as a career. That train had sailed. Nowadays, I still dabble, but I’m not all that motivated to compose much.

Anyway, IDLES is refreshing. I don’t critique it as music. It’s not particularly melodic or harmonic. It’s about the message and the energy. There’s a beat that drives, and there is instrumentation and vocals. It’s an experience.

IDLES – Car Crash (Live on KEXP)

But this isn’t about the music. It’s about the notion of normalcy. In this clip, Joe talks about his longing for normalcy. Maybe that’s just normal, but I’ve never subscribed to the notion of normalcy, so I’ve never longed for it. Truth be told, my preference is for people to realise that it’s all a control mechanism.

Joe was influenced by therapy and The Descent of Man by the artist Grayson Perry. In this book, Perry, clearly giving a nod to Darwin’s earlier work, takes on toxic masculinity and attempts to reframe the very notion of masculinity. Like normalcy, I am not interested in gender roles either.

I worked as a statistician for a couple of years way back when, so it turns out that I have a perspective on normal. The problem with the notion of normal is that deviation for normal is seen as broken. Social sciences and pop-psychology have done this. Foucault wrote a lot on this phenomenon. I won’t address his work here.

Joe viewed himself as broken because he bought into the narrative. He feels better now. He feels he’s in a better place. Perhaps this was necessary for him. I can’t speak to that. It’s not a goal I aspire to. Perhaps I’m privileged. I can’t say. For now, I get to enjoy the respite Joe & Co afford us.

The Bell Curve

Many racists, closeted and otherwise, cite The Bell Curve as proof that blacks are dumber than white people. Published in 1994, it’s controversial and bollocks. The first problem is with the notion of IQ testing itself, and then there’s the construction of the tests and relevance to aptitude. Anyone who’s read more than a handful of my posts know that I have long labelled the entire discipline of psychology a pseudoscience, so it would come as no surprise that a product of psychology is principally pseudoscience, too.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The impact of the Highly Improbable and Anti-Fragile: Things that Gain from Fragility, among other publications, Nassim is working on adding to his Incerto collection. At least a portion of the work focuses on the notion that IQ is largely a pseudoscientific swindle. Reviewing the material, it’s almost effortless to draw parallels to Foucault’s Mental Illness and Psychology, or even more so, sections from Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.

I’ve already moving on to new topics, so my parting point is that ordinary people find interpreting statistics to be an almost insurmountable challenge. Mark Twain recognised this in his quip, lies, damn lies, and statistics.

lies, damn lies, and statistics

Mark Twain

The problem is many professionals don’t understand statistics—even those whose function requires it. I was a professional statistician decades ago, so I have a certain fondness for it. I was even working on another post on the subject of the Simpson’s Paradox, but not quite yet—though it’s been weeks in the works. I am thinking about a post related to René Girard’s conflict theory as a lens and framework to understand the ‘insurrection’ at the US Capitol. I also want to react to the notion of metamodernism as a reaction to the conflict between modernism and postmodernism.

So little time. Please stand by.