We live in a culture that cultivates the art of pretending not to know. This could be one definition of privilege. In playing along, we the privileged beneficiaries of the system avert our eyes from injustice, greed, and inhumanity to take up residence in the collective pact of “shhhh, don’t talk about that.” Our lifestyles depend upon the fragile psychic borders we erect to keep the true costs of our comfort outside of awareness. This “not looking” is what we call normal.
Montana State University recently led a massive fundraising campaign to gather $18 million for an upgraded athletics facility. At a time when every scientific authority is screaming the warnings of imminent climate catastrophe, our bastion of public authority – higher education – is prioritizing our money, energy, and attention going to the greatest distraction modern humanity has ever known. We stand slack jawed before the spectacle of a ball violently moving around a patch of grass while the life support system of our planet is being destroyed by endless consumption. This is normal.
The average national student debt at graduation is $26,900 and students at MSU pay $2,727.08 per semester for health insurance. If that $18 million were divided up between the 12,846 full time students at MSU, each one of them could have $1401 to pay for just about half of their health insurance for a single semester. Strangely, that probably wasn’t a good pitch to the donors. The money could have also gone to bolster the pay of MSU’s adjunct faculty, many of whom have to work second jobs simply to afford living in Bozeman. Instead, we’ve got new dining and sports facilities – shiny objects to keep the endless quest for growth going. This is normal.
We’re all so damn practiced at disconnection that we can drive by the newly-fenced overpasses above the railroad tracks on the way to our super epic day at Bridger Bowl and fail to recognize that those fences exist to stop people who have no shelter from using the best available structure to shield themselves from the elements. Somehow, it has become acceptable to use our tax dollars to stop our fellow humans from adapting to extremely challenging circumstances. Rather than question the premises of a society that lets its citizens die in the streets, we simply try to ensure it happens where we don’t have to see it after a powder day. This is normal.
I was driving down 19th a few days ago and approaching Baxter Lane – the road my grandparents used to live on. I have fond childhood memories of walking along that road, in what were then the rural outskirts of Bozeman. At that 19th/Baxter intersection was once a large wetland and marsh filled with cat tails, ducks, and red winged blackbirds chortling their dawn songs. As I approached this intersection last week, I saw new construction shoved up against the ever-shrinking patch of natural life. It was a rectangle with the freshly-attached sign, “Buffalo Wild Wings.” Under the innocuous banner of “development,” we smothered another patch of beauty with a corporate chicken chain who undoubtedly source their “products” from mass-produced and abused chickens who never know life outside of a small cage. This is normal.
And speaking of “development,” it’s impossible to miss Bozeman’s newest proclamation of privilege, the Lululemon store that just opened downtown. A company built upon the ethics of Ayn Rand and her ode to selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, Lululemon preaches an overpriced health aesthetic while blatantly justifying their foreign, poverty-stricken factory laborers as a glowing victory of capitalism. With rent prices spiking around Bozeman due to developers like Andy Holloran, we are excluding local businesses and residents in exchange for those already rich enough to continue overtaking our local economy. And sadly, this too is becoming normal.
My beef is that deep down, we all know that normal is very abnormal but we play the game anyway. Other options seem impossible. We know that destroying far away places and communities so that we can have Keurig machines and iPhones is not okay. Deep down, we all recognize that our politicians are corrupt and in the pockets of corporations who aren’t paying taxes and that our system is working for fewer and fewer people. Most of us understand that we’re chained to a machine that shreds, pollutes, steals, and destroys life but we don’t see how it could be any other way. “Normal,” it seems, protects us from the unthinkably painful realities we’re a part of.
I’m writing this on a device that caused untold suffering in its creation. I will drive my car today. And still, I wish I didn’t have to. Still, I want to use my privilege to try to create something better. Humans have lived on this planet for hundreds of millennia, and for the vast majority of our history, we lived in a way that didn’t require a frenzied avoidance of reality. We had stories that gave us meaning, communities that supported us, and unmediated contact with inconceivable mystery. There was no looking away, no “normal” to hide behind. Deep in our bones, in our genetic histories, we know things could be different.
And so to continue the long and courageous legacy of the people who questioned normal through the centuries, we must collectively choose to look and decide to participate.
For real change to occur, we have to question the narrative that tells us anything is permissible in pursuit of progress. We have to identify and neutralize the hidden assumptions living inside that tell us this is just how it is and there’s nothing we can do. We have to get behind the stories that justify our life-destroying practices and see them for what they are: Pathological sickness and addiction.
And we also have to offer ourselves and each other compassion. This is a hard world to live in and only bold kindness will see us through the untangling of our shared trauma and confusion at this critical moment in history. Only radical care has a chance of creating a world we want our children to live in. May we find our way to a normal that really looks, that deeply cares, and that finally brings honor to the word “human.”
“This is Normal” was originally published by Bozeman Magazine for the column, “What’s your Beef?” in December of 2019.