One of the best parts of traveling is how it shows or reminds us that our own sense of normalcy is just one of millions. Being in a very different culture, in a different place on the planet can instantaneously reduce us to specks of near insignificance. In a very good way. When I was lost in a pushing throng of people clamoring to get on a train in southern China in 1990 after floods caused major delays right as millions were trying to return home after traveling for Chinese New Year; when I reached one of the highest plateaus I was able to climb to in the Himalayas, stopping to catch my breath and then lifting my eyes to the panorama of peaks that penetrated new levels of sky, unimaginable magnitude looming silently and stilly; when I was on a bus in Taichung, Taiwan alone, at the age of 19, pre-internet, just days after arriving in the country, trying to remember how to get back to an English school I’d been escorted to 2 days prior where I was hired to teach. (Il)literacy all of a sudden had a profoundly personal meaning, not being able to understand the language around me, nor read any aspect of it. In these moments my heretofore normal life had no meaning whatsoever.
I was transfixed for many reasons recently by Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, a fictional account of life in North Korea. In the world he portrays, normalcy includes threats of torture, abduction of loved ones without warning, and a forced expression of gratitude for a life driven by constant, paralytic fear. Not a normal I would ever want to taste, let alone acclimate to. We know that judging normalcy can be dangerous – it, and its counterpart “difference,” are a key ingredient in rationalizations for racism, colonialism, all kinds of oppression by one group over another. So when, if ever, it is appropriate or even a good idea, to judge normalcy?
In the 80’s and 90’s cultural sensitivity swept through academia and progressive politics, and ultimately seeped further into our cultural landscape. A modern balm for the wounds induced by historical judgment. (Could/should a western woman protest clitorectimies of women in the Middle East or Africa?) Then anti-political correctness backlash, just as access to technology began exploding. Anonymity and freedom to post enable people’s most banal and hateful feelings to go viral. Aside from outlandish wedding proposals and animal videos, messages of love, tolerance and peace rarely trump violence and hate in clicks.
So what about a normalcy in which violence reigns? Criticize it? Label it as “bad” or more tepidly, “unfortunate”? Perhaps we’re better off not limiting ourselves to one word/thought responses to it. Perhaps we might invoke just a touch of nuance, so we can acknowledge that peace is better than violence, but then go on to dissect why violence has become the norm. What role, if any, do we play in someone else’s normal being violent if ours is not? What role might we play in helping to bring more peace to other people’s normal?
exalt youth are often inured to violence. Crystal’s mom punched her in the eye before she came to class, Brian’s brother burned his room over an argument about stuff, Matthew described witnessing his friend get shot as “not a big deal” because he didn’t die. Chris was agitated, but not necessarily traumatized, that he got beat up by 6 police officers simply because he raised his voice. They do not yet know a less violent normal. It is our hope, our aim, our goal, to provide them with opportunities to experience other environments, other normals, not to make them feel bad about their own, but to inspire them by increasing their sense of possibilities.
Please help exalt provide transformative opportunities to more young people like those featured in this video. If you missed our event last week, we hope you’ll consider making a contribution now to our fiscal year-end campaign that ends June 30th. Your participation helps make more peace in the world for all of us.