With Donald Trump's election as the president of the United States, "the new normal" has suddenly become the phrase du jour. The meaning of this curiously sinister term may be explained thus: A man who glorified xenophobia, revelled in misogyny and made outrageous attacks on every liberal value on which democracy in the US had been founded has been given the mandate to rule by an outstanding margin. Ergo: he and his supporters must be what the nation wanted. Trump's beliefs must re-invent the foundations of civil society and political discourse in the future. Even if you staunchly refuse to accept what he brings in his wake, you have to "normalise" Trump's place in the national consciousness, being the president of the people, for you to be able to forge your way ahead, even if the latter involves opposing each one of his noxious principles.
Even if you staunchly refuse to accept what he brings in his wake, you have to "normalise" Trump's place in the national consciousness, being the president of the people, for you to be able to forge your way ahead
Indians, too, have been hearing this term being widely bandied about at least in two separate contexts in the recent past. First, when, just weeks ago, people in Delhi were suffocating from shocking levels of air pollution, exacerbated by vehicular traffic and bursting of firecrackers on the occasion of Diwali, but the public's outrage soon took a sharp turn in a few days. From condemning irresponsible civilian behaviour and failure of governance, the debates soon turned to air purifiers and pollution-control masks, about the best brands in the market, their relative merits and the ones that made the best economic sense to purchase. A moment when the sentiment of the masses could be harnessed to hold the government accountable for the mess in the air quickly slipped by and toxicity became the "new normal" — an unshakeable fact of life that could only be faced with resilience and fortitude.
The second instance of the term's popularity is of more recent provenance, following the Centre's move to demonetise high-value currency notes from circulation at a short and abrupt notice. As the people's mood turned from admiration for the prime minister's masterplan to curb black money to one of panic and then of despair and contempt for his decision, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, made it quite clear that the PM has created a new normal of transactions with white money. It did not matter that 60-odd people have died under different circumstances since the move was announced, trying to legitimise their cash holdings at banks or from sheer shock or simply for not being able to pay for medical treatment with currency that was turned redundant within minutes of the PM's declaration on television.
Soon enough the trials of demonetisation became the new normal. Once again, with a combination of their famous aptitude for jugaad and survival instinct, Indians devised ingenious ways of getting hold of cash or turning their black money into white.
Soon enough the trials of demonetisation became the new normal. Once again, with a combination of their famous aptitude for jugaad and survival instinct, Indians devised ingenious ways of getting hold of cash or turning their black money into white. The rich sent their minions to queue up at banks, some deposited a chunk of money into their staff's until such a time it could be withdrawn or transferred legitimately. In the rural areas, people resorted to the age-old barter system, while in the urban centres small business owners decided to extend credit to trusted customers.
Between the shrill defenders of the government's flippant gamble with a billion-odd people's personal finances and those struggling to manage its consequences, we had reached a situation where Jaitley's response had started making sense. This grim reality, which tried and tested the humanity of an entire nation so sharply, had become the "new normal" — where life without a smartphone, cashless transactions, debit and credit cards, bank accounts or chequebooks would cease to continue.
The closest approximation of the phrase "the new normal" is what used to be once called a reality check.
The closest approximation of the phrase "the new normal" is what used to be once called a reality check. It is a moment of reckoning — expressed euphemistically by the privileged as a call to wake up and smell the coffee and, less tactfully, as having one's face rubbed in the dirt for those who do not have the luxury of wordplay. The origin of the phrase, curiously, goes back to the economic recession of 2008, when globally people had the rug pulled from under their feet one fine day. Lifetime's savings dwindled as the markets crashed, real-estate values plummeted and employees were laid off a dime a dozen. Within months, the crisis itself became the new normal.
So, does the term then signify a permanent condition, a turn for the worse in the life of a nation, with no promise of ever recovering its cherished ideals? While the answer in the short-term may seem affirmative and without much hope, it may be worth remembering that every normal is a temporal, and in some cases a temporary, social construct, waiting to be challenged and upstaged by a newer articulation of the truth.
How did so many patterns of behaviour that were "normal" slide into the realm of the unacceptable?
Examples to substantiate this thesis abound. Globally, at a certain phase of history, heterosexuality was seen as the only normal and every person not conforming to its norms were judged as an aberration, a deviant from the norm. Thankfully, humanity has progressed far enough in most parts of the world to be able to accept differences and demolish the hegemony of only one kind of normal. Similarly, slavery used to be the normal once upon a time, just as women's right to vote was scoffed at and children were married off before they had reached puberty.
How did so many patterns of behaviour that were "normal" slide into the realm of the unacceptable? Through debates, with help from a robust intellectual discourse and via protracted rebellion against the establishment that wanted to set these practices in stone. There may have been lean phases — marked by overwhelming resignation, fatigue and hopelessness — but ultimately the scales of justice were tipped in the right direction, and are still tipping, however minutely, in many parts the world over. And so, the new normal need not necessarily be a call to brace oneself for the onslaught of a bleaker system, but rather an occasion to work towards building a new, more positive, order.
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