by Miriam Frigerio
What is different, normal, not normal?
Words tell stories: stories about us, our worlds, our thoughts.
But words also tell us about themselves. And, with their stories, their sometimes alternating fortunes, their successes and their daily existence… once more they come to our aid, not only as our first choice for expression, but also for understanding reality.
Like any story, even the story of words starts with their birth, their etymology. Diversity is no exception and its root tells us many things.
Diversity derives from diverso (different), which is the direct evolution of the Latin divèrsus, the past participle of divertěre: it therefore refers to someone who is turning, turned, turned away – in short, someone who moves away from something that, in some way, represents an element of comparison.
Any reflection on diversity can only start from here, from a concept that is defined by difference with respect to something stable, certain, absolute – ‘normal’.
The history of the word ‘normal’ also tells an interesting story, with the Latin origin (norma) indicating the set square, hence the adjective normalis, whose first meaning is that of perpendicular or ‘straight’ (in the geometric sense, which later would also become figurative with the use of the term righteousness to indicate accuracy and regularity).
Today, defining someone or something as ‘different’ or ‘normal’ means to classify them in a rigid way, as though we were tracing a clear line of separation, determining what is right and what is not. Fortunately, the use of the term normal is increasingly rare in everyday language. Perhaps the time has come to abandon the use of different (diverso).
How, after all, do we establish what is normal and what is different? In Greece, a blond person is different; in Sweden, a person with dark eyes is different.
But why does a Swedish person consider it normal to be tall, blond and blue-eyed? The answer lies not in words, but in numbers: because most of those who live around this person have those characteristics. To Swedes, as to all of us, what seems normal is what we are most used to, which falls within the ‘Gaussian curve’ of distribution of a given attribute in a certain population.
I don’t intend to get into statistical and mathematical concepts, I prefer to go back to words: often what we define as ‘normal’ is nothing more than what seems to us more frequent. But something so frequent, so common, so widespread is not at all the most correct or the most important thing. And again: what is frequent in one place may be rare elsewhere, as in the case of black or blond hair.
The concept of diversity, therefore, is not only defined by contrast, but is also relative, as well as absolutely independent of a principle of value.
So, in everyday life, what words – adjectives, nouns, pronouns – do we use to describe this diversity?
Never more so than in this case, nomina sunt consequentia rerum: words are consequences of facts, but even more so than how we represent them in our minds. Hence the multiplication of periphrases, euphemisms, circumlocutions and low-grade and somewhat ridiculous ironies that fill speeches and thoughts: hearing impaired and visually impaired, differently abled and disabled, trans and fluid, non-EU, coloured and so on.
Defining something – or, even more so, someone – starting with a negation means to exclude them from our world, from our eyes, from our attention. The term non-EU originated in the juridical-bureaucratic sphere – also, I imagine, to avoid geographical generalisations or potentially racist definitions. But in common speech, non- excludes, sanctions distance – just as impaired or differently deny instead of affirming.
We are all who we are and what we know how to do, not what we lack. I cannot be called a non-blonde non-man simply because I am a brunette woman.
In Italy there is a National Association for the Blind: those who cannot see would never think of defining themselves starting from something they cannot do. So why talk about visually impaired (non-seeing, or non-vedenti in Italian) people?
Of course, the alternative between the brutal insult and impractical circumlocution is sometimes unclear: given that in 2020 no one dreams of saying ‘Mongoloid’ anymore, is it better – for the individual and for society – to define Matteo as ‘a Down’, ‘a person with Down syndrome’ or perhaps ‘a carrier of trisomy 21’?
I don’t know, I believe that the weight of words depends a lot on the intentions of those who use them, and their worldview. Words represent the world and reality; sometimes altering words is a way to try to escape from a reality that is scary or uncomfortable. Offence or respect lie above all in the intention of the speaker, just as diversity lies in the eyes of the beholder.
I think that the correct way to express what is different can only arise from knowledge. Only by expanding the boundaries of our normality, and therefore our Gaussian curve, will we become comfortable with everything that we aren’t and we will know – without even having to ask ourselves – what words to use.
If encountering reality is the way to represent it, full adherence to a reality that previously seemed different, in the end, cancels all fear and any concern about finding the right words. Words that do not offend anyone, that are respectful, that are appropriate. And then you find yourself talking to Bebe Vio, you come out with the Italian expression ‘mi cadono le braccia’ (I don’t know what to do anymore, literally, ‘my arms are falling off’), and she is the first to laugh: you understand that you are dealing with a character, an icon, a force of nature, who is at ease in her physical reality – which many would not accept – to the point of not asking herself or others to use words that do not reflect that reality. And, perhaps, this is one of the reasons why we have chosen her to endorse Sorgenia.
Words tell stories of reality as everyone experiences and feels it: beautiful, ugly, normal or different. This is why I don’t really believe in codified rules for defining people, cases and experiences; I strongly believe, instead, in the fact that language can only become inclusive if our thoughts become inclusive, capable of giving equal weight and value to the infinite identities of people.