Ways to love the ‘abnormal’, ‘different’ or ‘minority’

In my previous two posts:

  1. Normal isn't necessarily good; but denying abnormality isn't good either and
  2. Jesus was fully human but that doesn't mean he was totally normal

I have made the case that practically and theologically we need a spectrum of conceptual categories for something like 'normal', 'natural', 'common', 'usual', 'expected'. 

Some have pointed out how complex it is to pin down such concept and have said 'I am never going to use the word normal again!'. I don't think that will do. Some ideas are complex and hard to understand. Refusing to think about it doesn't make the issue go away!

Others have objected to the word 'normal' in particular, considering it something of an oppressive label. I'm not particularly committed to the word 'normal', I just started using it because the jump-off point for the original blog post was the unhelpful new term 'heteronormativity'. I do wonder whether there is any word that will cover the spectrum of meanings I'm trying to capture, that won't in the end sound oppressive to some.

But in this post, rather than arguing the case for a rich concept of 'normal'/'abnormal', 'usual'/'unusual', 'common'/'uncommon'... I would like to sketch out some of the ways to guard against some 'normal' group becoming harmful in their privilege... and some areas that need to be considered in caring for those who might be considered 'abnormal' in some way or another.

1. Acknowledge and name the fact of difference and diversity

It's awful to feel invisible. And it will be very unlikely that individuals and organisations will do the right thing by others, if they are thoughtless assuming everyone is the same as them.

2. Champion respect and celebrate the value of all people

I've pulled this out as a separate thing from a later point about celebrating DIFFERENCE itself. We don't need to celebrate someone in their points of difference in order to celebrate and respect all people as people. Do we think, pray, talk and behave as if all people are worthy of respect and honour as made in God's image? Not just the white, male, rich, healthy, members of nuclear families?

Now it's tricky, because to some extent our identity is interwoven with our characteristics, lifestyle and circumstances. How can you refuse to acknowledge anything distinct about what makes me, me... and yet claim to respect me? Yet there is a happy medium between these extremes.

This point stops us from dehumanising those whose points of difference we dislike in some way: I must also respect and celebrate the inherent worth, as well as any notable achievements of a prison inmate, terrorist, extreme right wing (or left wing) politician. I must honour my enemy as my equal.

3. Decry bullying and unjust discrimination

Violence, cruetly, oppression, name-calling and unjust discrimination is bad. You don't have to agree with someone's lifestyle to seek to defend them from violence or injustice.

Of course, I believe very strongly that not all disagreeable speech is actually bullying, nor are all forms of distinguishing treatment necessarily unjust discrimination.

4. Acknowledge and name the negative experiences of difference 

Some experiences of difference or unusualness or 'abnormality' are inherently negative: such as a physical disability or a chosen immoral lifestyle. Others are not an immoral thing or a disability and yet are possibly a kind of 'loss': such as unwanted singleness. Still others aren't inherently negative, but bring with them negative experiences because they make us 'different': being an ethnic minority or an introvert might be like this for some.

It can be a help to name the brute fact of difference. This doesn't solve much. But it is definitely unhelpful to ignore or deny these experiences. Sometimes naming something can give a permission to grieve the negative experience or the loss. Sometimes naming the fact can give you a vocabulary to explain your needs to others.

Now it's important to note that sometimes labels can become suffocating and limiting. A person can be 'reduced to a label' or 'defined by their disability'. So that's an important extreme to avoid!

5. Structure to give a voice to and provide support for the different

We as individuals and as organisations need to keep working at finding ways to give a voice to those who are not the 'normal' or 'common'. This can't be as simple as 'equal opportunity' or even 'proportional representation', because sometimes the disadvantages of the different person makes them 'handicapped' against taking advantage of such neutral fairness. We might have to help them speak louder and more often to be heard over the majority buzz that silences them.

So also structures of care and support might be required to fully involve different groups fully in community life. What structures are needed to involve the less-literate, the less-mobile, the intellectually or physically impaired, the cultural or ethnic minority, the poor, women, single people, the infertile, the divorced and so on? Again we might need to put more effort than simply 'equal access' to fully convey our welcome.

Such structures and voices may even be needed for those whose difference is considered a 'positive difference'. For example, the extremely intelligent child can become delinquent in the classroom if not stretched. Likewise, the elite athlete in our church will be disconnected from normal patterns of community life. 

6. Expose the privilege and biases of the 'normal'

I was listening to Hack last night on Triple J, and they were talking about the underrepresentation of women in the music industry. Two people called in and said that they didn't care about gender, awesome music was what mattered. But the radio host noted that both of these callers were men! I don't doubt their sincerity and lack of sexism. And yet they failed to grasp the social and instiutional factors that made it difficult for women in the music industry. A man has the luxury of saying 'gender doesn't matter', but a woman is reminded of her gender in sublte and not-so-subtle ways all the time.

Now we can throw the "objective truth" baby out with the "subjective bias" bathwater: it's not as if men (or white people or able-bodied people or extroverts or whatever) cannot see and speak true things. It's not as if 'different' people always accurately interpret their situation or discover the best 'solutions' to their plight.

But it is super important for those in power, and even just those who enjoy the privilege of 'normality' to recognise their blind spots and privileges and seek all sorts of ways to correct against these.

7. Celebrate some forms of difference and diversity

I don't think all forms of difference or diversity should properly be 'celebrated'. It is very misguided that some people are pushing for solutions to discrimination and bullying that basically assume that to respect people requires us to celebrate people. Some arguments I have heard for Gay Marriage, for example, argue that there will not be equality until gay relationships enjoy the same culturally celebrated value as straight ones: as if there is a "right to be celebrated".

Still, there are lots of forms of difference and diversity that can and should be celebrated. We should seek out opportunities to do just that. 

So for example, singleness is in some ways an unusual and often unwanted lifestyle. And yet the New Testament speaks very highly of the positive aspects of single life. Indeed the Lord Jesus himself was single. So while singleness may remain a different lifestyle, it is one that can and should be celebrated.

8. Find the good in the midst of undesirable difference 

There can be good things in the midst of bad, unwanted, immoral or negative experiences and circumstances. It can be helpful to highlight these.

God can bring all sorts of goods out of bad things, growth in character, empahty and unique new opportunities for love and learning. This should rightly be celebreated.

Certain things get highlighted by limitations: when someone is restricted, their perseverence and patience might shine all the brighter, or the few good deeds they are able to do can be glorified as a power in weakness. Consider how Jesus celebrates the widow's meager gift, while also denouncing the Pharisees who oppress widows, making them financially destitute!

Bad situations usually have lots of good in them. While I don't want to celebrate single parenting as a desirable norm for family life, I do want to celebrate the hardworking, love and devotion of single parents.

Indeed even sinful lifestyles usually contain in them lots of good. Two gay parents can be celebrated for their love and devotion.

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