If you didn’t know better, you’d think the world was coming to an end right now. Turn on your TV or tune into social media, and you’ll be bombarded with hysteria, turmoil, and even nationwide violence. Some are calling it yet another “new normal.”
Of course, it seems like we’re told there’s a “new normal,” a recent expression to describe world-altering changes, almost every other month now. How are we, as individuals in this alleged chaos, suppose to find clarity on who we are and where we’re going?
Most importantly, how have we, as societies, make sense of these bumpy times? And how would we know if they were really intensifying?
The Dawning of the Age of Chaos
Rewind the clock to the year 2000.
After much handwringing, Y2k has passed without any pandemonium, despite media hype predicting as such on a tremendous scale. The Dot-com bubble was crashing to an end, and Elián González was all over the news. Soon enough, toward the end of the year, voting recounts would make many question the integrity of our political institutions and our place in them.
With the Age of Information now well-underway, since the 1970s, a new era was taking shape in the collective conversation. And with it a new phrase.
The “New Normal.”
Although Wikipedia currently and incorrectly identifies the birth of this expression in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, its beginnings are somewhat earlier. And understanding this genesis, if we can, is important in understanding when our cultural perceptions pivoted to it.
As far back as 1994 in the New York Times, health journalist Jane Brody recognized “a new normal” for individuals using life-changing psychological strategies due to advances in cancer treatments. Brody herself had latched onto Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham’s own use of the term for her book After Cancer: A Guide to Your New Life.
Why is this important?
By the mid-90s, there was a nascent feeling that our perceptions of ourselves and our relationships were in greater flux than we had at first imagined. “Disruptions,” a word also on its way to buzzword-status, to our expectations were challenging what we thought possible about our world and ourselves.
Unsurprisingly, after 2001, the term was becoming widespread in a variety of media sources and related to far more than simply business, as Wikipedia believes. A quick survey of online media uncovers a range of uses.
By 9/11, we were again “Heading Toward the New Normal,” for healthcare treatments. In 2002, on reality TV, teens were experiencing “The New Normal” due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Through 2003, lawyers were pointing out a loss of liberty and destruction of the rule of law as a “new normal.” And crushing debt was changing the landscape of professional choices. Of course, by this time, politics, business, and art were permeated by new normals too.
A Catalyst of Confusion
Suddenly, by the very early 2000s, Americans were viewing the landscape of normalcy in a far different way than previously. Or at least they were talking about it as if that were the case.
If historic media is any indication, this feeling, possibly already growing due to compounding changes in human organization, was spurred on by the terrorist attacks in the United States.
I myself recall expressing to friends after 9/11 that a new era had been born, separate from post-modernism. Of course, they all found that amusingly stupid, although, as evidenced above, the conversation in major media shifted immediately following.
Now, it goes without saying that this event resonates in the minds of many Americas who either came of age or were adults at the time. The choice of targets was purposefully symbolic, and so, made to maximize the psychological impact in addition to the mayhem and death they would cause.
The impression imparted into the American culture would have been the violation of many previously held post-world-war beliefs, such as…
- The daily safety provided by the country’s institutions
- The inability of outside forces to have widespread effect on citizens
- The general worldwide acceptance of neoliberal ideology
- The long-term resiliency of the American economy and financial system
Shortly thereafter, the “new normal” was a fixture of the American discourse, both to describe the aftermath of 9/11 and more. And although they were once beyond debate, these beliefs were suddenly in major question.
Soon enough, they would be swept away entirely, replaced by more events once considered very unlikely.
The Velocity of New Normals
The recession of the early 2000s. The 9/11 attacks. Weapons of mass destruction. Endless wars. The 2008 financial crisis. School shootings. Covid-19. The financial collapse of 2020.
Fast-forward back to today, and you’ll find a slew of “unlikely” occurrences and concerns that have dominated the public discourse after 2001. And high among them, the crisis of 2008, considered by many in the financial community to be completely unthinkable before it happened.
It’s clear now that the “new normal” has become a passé way of describing how difficult it is to gauge and adapt to reality. Even as I write this, it’s unclear if regular people are supposed to still fear COVID-19 and maintain social distance or if the protesting and riots sweeping the nation right now mean it’s okay to be close to people. Which is the important event to respond to and how? Which is the new normal? Even as I write this, judges are denying citizens due process with indefinite holding due to a “crisis within a crisis.”
Although the list of events above is small, they are, in some sense, globe-shattering. You too probably have more, personal stories of niche public events once thought impossible but which came to pass. (My top event was the implosion of the Credit Suisse XIV fund, once considered an infinitesimally small possibility but which took down countless traders and wealth in 2018).
And this is where gauging the velocity of crisis becomes difficult.
What are we to count in our tally of significant events? And how might we prioritize them? Most importantly, is it possible for us to do so in the moment and not with the benefit of looking backward through history?
It’s not a secret, for example, that the United States has had its fair share of social unrest over the decades. What’s different this time, and why is the general consensus that things are happening more quickly than before?
Although the current riots are, by my knowledge, the first to consume many multiple cities through the United States, the country is no stranger to the other events. After all, we’ve been through financial panics, pandemics, and war, even at our own doorstep.
Why has the collective conversation shifted to believing these events are happening too quickly to process effectively? How quickly are things actually changing vs the past?
What do we count as significant enough to include in our velocity measure?
While I am unaware of any past term similar to “new normal,” it’s not hard to find considerable evidence, especially from turn-of-the-20th Century art, that people believed changes were rapidly reshaping their lives. And also, the potential and reality for catastrophe. After all, the World Wars and their corresponding violence were seen as globe changing.
Are we truly experiencing different times? Some say, “yes.”
Instead, I’d like to suggest another reading of our historic moment.
Dealing with Turbulence Then and Now
It’s not important whether we believe catastrophe is happening any more quickly than it was in the past. Although this very well may be the case, it is difficult, in retrospect, to identify what small changes might have big consequences and what may appear to dominate the airwaves today only to have little impact tomorrow.
So, what is important and what really is happening here?
In the past two decades, the American Empire has come to terms with a very commonplace idea. And that’s how, despite all the systems you put in place, sometimes because of them, you’re at risk of bad news.
None of these crises were actually unimaginable… not one of them.
We were, after the post-war period, simply too entitled to think they could ever happen to us and overwhelmingly because our experts insisted this was true. More so, we’ve come to believe we can seek refuge again in these very same experts, exacerbating the problem.
Through this issue, we’re now faced with the official narratives of what we should care about, focus on, or of what’s happening vs our on-the ground view of what we’re experiencing. Combine this fact with the unprecedented ability to both broadcast and access information, and you have a potent mix of fractured perspectives, many which have no relationship with reality.
Or what you might call, extreme information overload, information disconnect, and even information denial.
To an extent, the entire point of the term “new normal” is that what we would normally call a history-defining moment has a certain ephemeral about it. We’re not sure what we should care about at all or how long circumstances might last, let alone whether or not we’re acting in line with others or what’s best for anyone.
And that’s the defining, important feature of this term.
So, what are we to do? Outlining concrete strategies for dealing with trying times can be a challenge, but consider these strategies…
- Look to historical examples from waning empires – because what we’re facing does have historical precedent and there’s evidence our empire is reaching its end, delve into works that examine similar civilizational disintegration. You’ll be surprised at the practical knowledge you’ll attain simply by following this one strategy.
- Practice a more practical, information-neutral philosophy – you know something is awry when we have a rule like Poe’s Law to describe assessing information. Any person with even slight intelligence who’s investigated on their own can tell that the news is no longer factual. Rather than committing to any set of news sources, especially from one side, seek to verify information from multiple types of sources: official, fringe, on-the-ground, etc. And then develop your own analysis.
- Explore your information landscape more deeply – On that note, you might be surprised to learn just how many different types of information sources there really are out there. From alternative search engines to academic journals and government-approved data to financial dark pools, the landscape is more rich than you may realize. Dive in and discover more.
- Stop trusting experts invested in security theatre and hysteria porn – if there’s one thing that many regular people have learned, it’s about the failure of experts. And much of the commentary you’ll find is based on little more than making you feel safe or scared (or both) rather than getting to the root of an issue. By all means, read this junk but with a large grain of salt.
- Ground your own sense of normalcy – While plenty of people think of normalcy as something defined by your society, there’s nothing that says you can’t ground yours instead in your community or even your own developed standards. By turning off the TV once in a while and focusing on this sense of normalcy, you’ll find that things are far more stable than news junkies, in particular, believe.
- Cultivate alternative means of independence – one of the issues that makes the ever-changing “new normal” so anxiety-provoking for many is that they are dependent on the systems that dictate their quicksand-like normalcy. By cultivating your own means, you also reduce the risk of fallout from an “impossible” catastrophe in the future.
- Make more allies with people who share your values – you would think this one would be a no-brainer, especially in terms of reducing your risk. But more often than not, men in the US report having no or few friends, let alone support networks. The “new normal” has clearly brought with it challenges in connecting with others of like-mind. But they do exist once you start looking and make a regular effort to connect with them. With allies, real allies in your life, you get a more stable sense of normalcy.