Michel Foucault is one of those certain talents where a quirky mix of genius, talent and savantism all congeal in the mind of one person to shed the powerful glow of meaning and context on the rest of us One of Foucault’s passions in life was his love of words and his research into the power of labels.

The greatest power, Foucault argued, was to be in a position to name or to re-label an idea. By defining something unknown or by re-framing a known entity with new words — you were in control of the definition, the meaning, and the provenance of the idea.

The power of the name itself is what gives the name giver the ability to set agendas and close discussions by saying, “that isn’t what that word/label/name/idea means.” By naming, you give an abstraction form. You are a God that walks the earth.

Words can also reduce established ideas to ash.

“Wars” become metaphors for “police actions.” “Holocaust” becomes a ribbon to attach to any generic atrocity. “Heroes” can be found in any playground and living room. Yesterday’s discussion about savantism led me to continue to wonder on the power of naming that discriminates and punishes under the guise of simple labeling when it comes to defining what is “Normal” and what is “Average.”

When we categorize people against each other — we use “normal” as a cudgel to punish those unlike us and to shield the majority power from criticism that they are tamping down the ugly and the disabled. What is “normal?” The expected? 51%?

“She isn’t normal size” isn’t a compliment, it isn’t a fact; it is a qualitative value judgment meant to corner and dissect. Those who care about people and naming and words have started to use “Average” instead of “Normal” because that label punishes less, brings more meaning to the comparison and is quantifiable instead of qualitative.

“She is average height” is less punishing to those who are not than “She’s not normal height.” In our shared, social, memes, “Normal” has come to have greater meaning beyond truth and fact. Normal has an emotional attachment for us that indicates safety and levelheadedness. Those who are “not normal” are tainted, broken, dangerous and of lesser substance than those who are in the normal power majority.

Most people will fight to be labeled “Normal” while few have the same emotional and aesthetic attachment to “Average” — and that’s the point — using “Average” causes an immediate re-thinking of the labels we use to create accurate representations of meaning and context that do not tickle mystical feelings semantically created to instill fear in the middling mainstream mind.

16 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    The power of words to wound is phenomenal.
    Regarding your discussion of normal– the vicious labeling of gays as “abnormal,” “those people aren’t normal,” etc. comes to mind.
    I agree that “normal” is generally more harming than “average.” However, I think most would not want the word “average” used to describe their or their kids’ intelligence. They would argue for “above-average,” because to be “average” implies mediocrity and certainly they are above that, if only due to their abnormal egos.:D
    Donna

  2. Hey Donna —
    Right! Abnormality is dangerous — while “below average” creates pity and perhaps even empathy.
    I agree people want their children to be the best, only the best, and they will create new standards, certifications and celebrations to cement that fact in concrete.
    When it comes to the truly genius, my building Super’s daughter comes to mind. She was born into a lower class Dominican Republic family that immigrated to the USA. From the moment she touched a school her grades have been perfect. She has always been first in all of her classes and you know how hard that is because grades can be tempered by politics, personality and jealousy. She has never written one word wrong or missed any answers on any test given and that includes mandatory city and state evaluations. President Bush sends her a letter every year congratulating her on he brilliance. Last summer she attended pre-college at Fordham and this year she will attend pre-college at Georgetown. She has full ride offers from both schools. She is 14.

  3. Hi David,
    It sounds like the girl from the Dominican Republic and her family have an appreciation for this country that some born to this country do not have. In addition to her gift of intelligence, it seems she has applied herself and probably worked very hard to achieve what she has.
    I think very talented people have the ability to make things look so easy, like they barely make an effort, when in fact they often work very hard to achieve their goals.
    With those type of people, it is sometimes hard to tell where the IQ ends and the work begins.
    I am reminded of a student in Calculus in college. The rest of us took copious notes, studied a lot and were lucky to make a “B” on the exams. This student was on exchange from Japan. He was about 14. He read comic books during the lectures, turned in his tests in half the time of the rest of us, and always managed to make an “A.” Genuis, or hard work in his younger life?
    Donna

  4. Donna!
    I agree! She and her family realized the value of an American education and applied their dreams to the system and found great results.
    There’s no doubt she studied. Everyone has the possibility of never getting an answer wrong on a test because if you study you should already have the answer.
    I think your calculus friend is a savant! 😀

  5. Hi David,
    This reminds me of a talk author William Brennan gave at my law school about his book “Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives.”
    Brennan lists the various ways that people have renamed fellow human beings in efforts to oppress, enslave, and kill them throughout history and how words are used to justify oppression even in today’s society.
    Writes Peter Kenney in an Amazon.com review:

    The historical examples he offers are quite convincing as he traces the dehumanizing efforts made against women, European Jews, Soviet enemies, African Americans and Native Americans. Opponents of such groups often try to depict them as inanimate objects, waste products, nonpersons and even diseases.

    Brennan wrote a paper about how language has been used throughout history to oppress women in the journal, Feminist and Nonviolence Studies titled Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization.

  6. Hi David,
    The book by Brennan sounds like it needs to be in every library in our nation. We are taught from children up to segregate people into two categories. The “normal” and the “abnormal”. But by what scale are we to measure from? Who truly determined what “normal” and “abnormal” are? Who in this world is “normal” so that we may compare others to? In what category are we to put ourselves? Are we truly looking for perfection in individuals or searching for faults? These are very pertinent questions we all should ask ourselves.

  7. Right on target, Heartmelody69 —
    Labels and their application are created by the middling mainstream in order to preserve their power base. Anything unwanted or outside the realm of expectation is dangerous to their majority and so it must be discounted by words and immobilized by labeling.