A Tyranny of Averages

Much of the information in this post is my personal synthesis of an essay called “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century” by Lennard J Davis.  This essay serves as the first chapter of the Disability Studies Reader that Davis edited.  I find its information timely not just from a disability standpoint, but also given the ideological tension happening right now.

I encourage you to seek out the whole essay in its entirety, as I’m only going to touch on a few pages.

Just as we’ve begun looking at each thing in the shadow by looking at what’s in the light, I bring you the “normal” the “average” the “middle”.  Because we’ve looked at cultural default settings, we know that “default” is “normal”, and anything else is “other.”

“Normal” is a Recent ConstructImage result for normal is a dryer setting

I like the memes that say that “normal” is only a setting on the dryer.

When I worked at WebMD, the editorial team tried to define the kind of content that would do well across a spread of traffic channel. The way I summed it up for them was that our readers wanted to know “Am I normal? Is this normal? Is my kid normal?” and finally “Should I call a doctor?”

The widespread cultural anxiety of being or appearing normal was something we could bank on for traffic to the website.   But etymologically, the concept of the norm is a relatively recent creation.  Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, “norm” just referred to the carpenter’s square to measure a perpendicular angle.

It didn’t become a term we used for “normalcy” or “the norm” until it was created via the birth of statistics.

Statistical Fallacies

I often say that the two college classes I’ve used the most in my adult life are statistics and logic.  As an SEO professional, my paycheck relies on my understanding of statistics and data.   I didn’t know the history of these things, until now.

Statistics began with astronomy. Astronomers would measure and chart the locations of heavenly bodies, and after several measurements, they would decide which one was the official spot in the sky.  They used the “law of error” which looked very familiar to the modern eye – as a normal distribution bell curve.

Image result for standard bell curve

They essentially averaged their measurements to find the perpendicular line in the middle of the curve – or if using a carpenter’s square – the norm.

Adolphe Quetelet realized that the astronomer’s measurement tool could also be used for human measurements, such as height and weight. (He created the beginnings of what we still know as the BMI.) He created the concept of L’homme moyen – the average man – from this information.  For Quetelet, the demographically average man was the image of perfection. L’homme moyen was “the human being with his individual wishes and peculiarities canceled out, and thus entitled to represent the nation.”

The interesting thing is that this ended up creating a massive logical fallacy – the fallacy of Reification.  Reification happens when a hypothetical construct (l’homme moyen) is treated as if it were a concrete thing.  The map is not the territory.  As far as Quetelet was concerned no individual could ever be the average person he’s devised. People – individuals – were always deviations from the average.

Todd Rose has written a more detailed history of this on the Atlantic. “Quetelet’s invention of the Average Man marked the moment when the average became normal, the individual became error, and stereotypes were validated with the imprint of science.”

Political Arithmetic

When researchers began compiling information about the state in the mid-1700s, the word statistik was used to describe this data by Gottfried Achen-wall. It began being widely used for public health data in the 1800s.

As Davis writes of the social implication “In formulating the idea of l’homme moyen, Quetelet is also providing a justification for les clases moyens.” Davis includes a compelling argument for the construct of the middle class, and how it too, is a hypothetical creation.  One that was useful for politics and industrialization. And still is today.

The middle class was described as not having the excesses of the rich, or the laziness and illness of the poor. It was also an ideal – comfortable moderation.  The white, suburban middle class is still seen as the cultural default, and carries with it those same suggestions.

The average concept, particularly applied on the political level, is ubiquitous. From Marx to modern campaigns.

The Ideal is Also a Construct

In his essay, Davis uses the painting below as an example – François-André Vincent’s Zeuxis Choosing as Models the Most Beautiful Girls of the Town of Crotona

Image result for zeuxis choosing as models the most beautiful girls of the town of crotona

Davis points out that only the gods may obtain the ideal form. That the artist must use a composite of several beautiful girls to portray the perfection of Aphrodite.  “The central point here is that in a culture with an ideal form of the body, all members of the population are below the ideal. No one young lady of Crotona can be ideal. By definition, one can never have an ideal bod. There is in such societies no demand that populations have bodies that conform to the ideal.

After the average had been determined, enter Sir Francis Galton.  Galton rejected the idea of the “tyranny of the norm” that the proponents of l’homme moyen supported. He believed that the bell curve graph could be read from left to right. That those outside of the norm to the left were “less than” and those outside of the norm to the right were “greater than”.   It should not surprise you to know that Galton  invented the IQ scales we still use today.

With this further breakdown of average, less than average, and greater than average, the statisticians of the world created a state of the ideal.  One that perhaps is attainable by real people. One that has been measured as occurring in real people!

While that doesn’t seem significant, here’s the kicker:

Statistics Bred Eugenics

I’ll get more into what the consequences of all of this was for the world of disability in my next post. But for right now, I want to leave my reader with the unsettling notion that by creating the ideal and the notion that humanity could reach it, we also created some fairly horrific stuff on the cusp of ethics and medicine.

Galton was a cousin for Charles Darwin’s. The concept of survival of the fittest laid the ground work for eugenics and for “the idea of a perfectible body undergoing progressive improvement.” (Davis, 7).

Unhealthy Repercussions

Think back to the BMI invented by Quetelet.  The BMI scale we use today was based on athletes –  mostly runners. In reality, the data points in that calculation are what would be considered a fallacy of  “non-representative sample.”  Body-builders were not included, and they always have a high BMI, regardless of their overall health or fitness.

This is an example of a mythic ideal that appears to be attainable by the normal person. Never mind that the concept of Natural Selection takes generation upon generation, and the attainable ideal is measured in centuries.  We live with the possibility that the ideal is something we can and should strive for.

The painting of Aphrodite by Zeuxis was a composite of the loveliest girls in the village. Much like the photos we see of celebrities are photoshopped amalgams of what the designers felt was beautiful, and what layers of reality they could allow to peek through.

There is no such thing as average. There is no such thing as above- or below- average. There is no such thing as ideal, except in the face of the Divine. 

3 thoughts on “A Tyranny of Averages

  1. Pingback: Disability and Shame | Alicia K. Anderson

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  3. Pingback: Why I’m Getting Weight Loss Surgery – And Why I’m Talking About It. | Alicia K. Anderson

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