Is Normalization Normal?
“Keep reminding yourself: This is not normal,” warned comedian John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. It was less than a week after Election Day, and the country was just beginning to process Donald Trump’s unexpected victory. Opponents of the president-elect were scrambling to discern what had changed in a world they thought they understood. For many of these voters, a Trump presidency wasn’t just an undesirable result; it was a unique threat. Oliver put it more bluntly: “A Klan-backed misogynist internet troll is going to be delivering the next State of the Union address. And that is not normal.” In those same early days, despite the unusual circumstances, political business continued as usual, writer and photographer Teju Cole wrote in The New York Times Magazine: “All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress.”
Oliver and Cole were just two of many using the words “normal,” “normalization” and “normalize,” which vaulted almost overnight into everyday American parlance. But these seemingly simple words have complex backgrounds. The word “normal” itself sprang straightforwardly enough from the Latin norma, a “rule” or “pattern,” and typically means conforming to a common standard. Its derivatives, “normalize” and “normalization,” also made ordinary entrances. According to Merriam-Webster, the verb “normalize” first appeared in the mid-1800s, describing “a return to normalcy,” and was reserved for medical purposes. It entered the political lexicon after World War I, when “normalizing” relations between nations became a goal, around which time Warren Harding adopted “Return to Normalcy” as his 1920 campaign slogan. In 1931, Polish diplomat Józef Lipski wrote, “English opinion considers the normalization of relations with Germany as a factor of utmost importance to European peace.”
Over the next century, “normalize” and “normalization” spread into academia, taking root in fields ranging from mathematics to psychology and evolving significantly in the process. By the time “normalize” was nominated for the American Dialect Society’s 2016 Word of the Year—it lost out to “dumpster fire”—its definition was quite different from what it had been in the past: It now meant to “render normal that which was previously deemed beyond acceptable bounds.” “This is a genuine recent development—as far as anybody can tell—but it fit the needs of the moment,” says Arnold Zwicky, a linguistics professor at Stanford University. He adds that the current usage is largely an expression of outrage by Trump’s opponents on the left. “In the public arena, words often pick up politically tinged senses and tones,” he says. “It’s no surprise that it went viral.”
But those familiar with the semantic war between Palestinians and Israelis may recognize an earlier political usage of “normalization” and be aware that the Middle East may well be one of the crucibles that helped forge the word’s new meaning. For decades, the term has been in use in the Palestinian and Arab worlds in regard to Israel: After the 1967 war, says Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, it became one of the tools used to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and to resist what was perceived as Israel’s revision of history. Soon after the war, the Arab League issued the Khartoum Resolution, which laid out the “Three No’s”: no peace, recognition or negotiation with Israel. The “Three No’s” became a “sort of anti-normalization declaration,” says Ibish. “With the Khartoum declaration, normalization becomes a great insult in Arab political discourse. ‘You want to normalize with Israel’—it’s one of the worst things you can say.”
Thus was born the anti-normalization movement, which evolved in different ways across the Arab world. In some contexts, “normalization” has been used non-pejoratively. But generally, anti-normalization involves “not being drawn into dealing with Israel until the Palestinians get their rights,” says Paul Scham, executive director of the University of Maryland’s Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. This attitude led to the coinage of a new derogatory epithet: “normalizer.” By the end of the 1990s, Scham says, “the word simply became a slur” to describe “people who were dishonorable enough to forget the plight of the Palestinians.”
The word “normalization” gained international traction when the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement adopted it and provided its own definition. According to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, normalization is a “‘colonization of the mind,’ whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only ‘normal’ reality.” BDS supporters argue that it’s wrong to characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dispute between two sides with equivalent concerns; instead, Israel must be labeled an oppressive and colonizing force.
To avoid normalization, any project with Israelis must be based on a resistance framework, says Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and cofounder of the BDS movement. Typically, that includes working to end the occupation, establishing equal rights for Israel’s Palestinian citizens and promoting the right of return for Palestinian refugees. “The Israeli side must recognize the comprehensive rights of the Palestinian people under international law and the relationship itself must be one of co-resistance to oppression, not a fake coexistence under oppression,” he says.
Yael Aronoff, director of the Jewish studies program at Michigan State University, believes that anti-normalization campaigns have serious consequences. Not only do they unfairly target Israel, they deepen existing divides. “There’s a demonization that goes on that prohibits or prevents a greater mutual understanding,” she says. “Without normalization, it is much easier for people and governments to demonize one another’s governments and/or peoples and treat them in a monolithic fashion.” Even within Arab and Palestinian circles, there are those who are convinced that anti-normalization stifles dialogue and makes it nearly impossible to deal with the reality at hand. “I hate the normalization discourse because it’s so anti-thinking,” says Ibish. “It’s not anti-intellectual; it’s anti-thought. It’s anti-consciousness. It’s very, very destructive in every aspect.”
At its core, says Ibish, the fear of normalization is an emotional reaction—whether it’s in the Middle East or in Trump’s America. “In both contexts, it is rhetorical self-medication,” he says. “Both are a hysterical response to what is perceived to be a catastrophic and wholly unanticipated upending of reality and the emergence of a new norm.” Based on his years of observing the Middle East, Ibish warns Trump’s opponents against relying on anti-normalization as a political strategy. But unlike the existence of the State of Israel, he believes the Trump phenomenon is reversible. “It’s more likely that Trump is a unique moment, rather than that he changes everything forever,” he says. He believes that the rallying cry “This is not normal” won’t reach Trump’s constituency. “They specifically voted against normal, so that doesn’t work with them,” he says. “What you have to say to them is: The traditional American values shared by left and right, by Republicans and Democrats, actually serve your interests.”
New York University linguist Erez Levon believes that there are benefits to talking about normalization: The term can help people control what they accept as status quo and what they accept as social or cultural convention. “Anti-normalization is useful as a political tool for raising awareness and visibility. I don’t think it deepens a communication divide,” he says. “It’s about highlighting the choice in all of this—and the fact that different choices are possible.”