June 05, 2020

The New Normal?

Myron Strong author photoBy Myron Strong

Over the past few months, the term “new normal” has been used as we adapt to some new norms and ways of life as a result of the pandemic. While these norms are the result of various changes in our society, I don’t see a new normal.

A new normal would imply a radical shift in social structure. Rather, what I see is a magnification of the many ways our society fails to equally distribute access and opportunities. The pandemic has not brought forward a new normal, but has allowed America’s structural oppressions and social problems to be highlighted.

As more stories emerge about anti-Asian racism, anti-blackness, domestic violence, health care inequalities, environmental racism, economic inequalities, recent social changes have seemed to exacerbate existing social problems.

As a social scientist, I approach the world by applying the scientific method and conducting research that adds validity to theory. Initially when I began to analyze the term “new normal,” I took a very scientific approach.

Then I watched the show God Friended Me, and while I was getting my feel-good cry on, there was a line that I couldn’t shake. As the main character's sister was in surgery, he read a letter that she wrote. She ended by writing, “Never lose your sense of wonder and keep your heart open to all possibilities.”

So this blog is less about appealing to scientific proof and more about appealing to the part of us who imagine a better future. I once read an interview with biologist George Schaller more than a decade ago, who discussed getting people to care about the environment by saying, “Can you put a value on a river? On the cry of an animal? Unless you can convince people of the spiritual value of the environment, the cause is lost.”

This “new normal” really isn’t new, rather it’s a reflection of the existing social problems. There has not been a cultural paradigm shift. I’m no safer now being Black than I was before. People are no more economically secure than before. I often fear that  many of the sheroes and heroes of COVID-19 will be denied a livable wage, adequate health care and housing the moment things “get back to normal.” I sympathize with people returning their children to a childcare system which is great for their intellectual and emotional growth, but financially strains all but the wealthiest. I fear for the perpetuation of how we socialize men, which is connected the violence inside and outside the home.

This “new normal” to me is just a reminder that in many ways the society is broken. While I recognize quarantine fatigue and the valid economic and social concerns, I also see the desire to return to normal rooted in ideas of consumption and shopping as a coping and numbing mechanisms. Some want to return to the blissful ignorance of before; the culture encourages this partly by connecting shopping as a way of dealing with issues, hence the term “retail therapy.” We are taught to deal with our issues and concerns by shopping them away.

This in part is done by presenting consumption as a magical, special event. In Enchanting a disenchanted world: continuity and change in the cathedrals of Consumption, George Ritzer argues that consumption is the new religion and places like amusement parks, malls, cruise lines, museums, casinos, world wide web among others, represent what he calls “cathedrals of consumption.” These cathedrals are built on replicating the enchantment of established institutions like churches and encourage us to stay longer and consume more. According to Ritzer, these cathedrals of consumption put us in a constant state of "enchanting the disenchanted," luring us through new spectacles with qualities that are both necessary and numbing at the same time. 

But if we truly want a new normal then we have to envision a better society. We have to not only imagine the possibility, but allow the wonder of kindness to open us to honest conversation. We have to care about others and dedicate ourselves to destroying systematic oppressions.  As Afrofuturists remind us, any change in the social structure happens only if we have the ability to first imagine that things can be better. My hope is that once we return old ways of living, the lessons magnified during the pandemic allow for real creation of a new normal, one that dismantles systematic oppressions, and is built on equality, egalitarianism, equal access, and freedom of imagination.  

Comments

Hello Myron, excellent points as current and past pandemics have exposed the inequalities in society. Even now as HIV ravaged many in the developing world, many in the developed has access to life-saving drugs.

Excellent article! Really expresses the thoughts I have had and not been able to articulate. Thank you.

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