Our depressing norm

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Posted on: 28 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

At the heart of our society lurks a violent, ugly conformity

There's a man near to where I live who is what can be labelled as 'a bit odd'. He looks funny, dresses funny, moves funny and indeed acts funny, and when he talks, which is rare, he even sounds a bit funny. A few days ago, he was seen walking down the local high street, reading a Postman Pat comic. Some whisper in a low voice that he might be "a bit 'special needs'"

Now stop for a moment and ask yourself - what would your response be if you met this man? With the benefit of sitting in front of your computer, you can be cold and clinical about it and say you would show all necessary kindness to the man, all the while feeling a bit sorry for him.

In reality, you'd be nervous around him. Perhaps you'd make snide comments the moment he walked away or giggle nervously, engaging your inner moron.

The fact remains, there's nothing actually wrong with being odd. Normal people are more than capable of atrocities, after all; normality is, in practice, how much you're like the people you want to associate with - and by that yardstick, the Waffen SS was normal and so on. More to the point, The Postman Pat Picture Paper is a great read, up there with The Economist in terms of the weeklies. What's your problem?

Well, people need people to do down and pick on. Obviously, our society likes to think of itself as civilised, but really our social contract is about what you can get away with than what you ought to do in a given situation. Apparently fearing the unusual dates back to our common ancestry with the other Great Apes, though since gorillas don't use Twitter, you'd have thought we'd grown out of it by now.

Plus, there is an unwritten rule that if you transgress the norm, you've got it coming. Many an art student has received a brutal kicking on account of their hair colour or dress sense. Yes, you may giggle, but only because you're sort of complicit in the notion that it's OK to blame the punchbag. Talk to a victim sometime. You may well end up asking yourself some hard questions.

I do rather worry for my local eccentric. Consider for a moment the sad case of Winchester's local character, Ron Purse. An odd juxtaposition of Father Jack Hackett and nomadic garden gnome, Ron was neither employable nor particularly of this world. Needless to say, art students loved him. You can see where this is going. A few years back, a gang of kids kicked and punched him to the ground for a laugh. He wasn't the same afterwards and died two or three years later. He brought it on himself, you see. Look what he made them do.

Now, coincidence upon coincidence, the eccentric and I share a local watering hole. (It's cheap.) Right now it's bedecked with bunting and there's a certain frisson in the air, what with the royal wedding tomorrow. I'll be ignoring it, but strange things are happening. Or rather, 'normal' things. People are suddenly beginning to like the Monarchy, watch documentaries and avidly read about rich people they'll never personally know. Support for the status quo is up. Millions will tune in tomorrow to watch an abstract ritual. Everyone suddenly cares about Kate Middleton's dress.

The need to conform is all around. Not 'fitting in' is seen as an affront. Try going into a pub tomorrow and loudly telling everyone it's all nonsense. Bad things will happen, especially if there's been a fair bit of drinking. So I worry for my local eccentric. One night he might break an unwritten rule and someone will teach him a lesson. For reading Postman Pat and being harmlessly strange. There's something depressingly normal about violence.

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