Oprah Winfrey's OWN network premieres a new show this week that makes me wonder if the star has lost her way. The show is called "Are You Normal, America?" And boy, howdy, what a dangerous question that can be.
Love her or hate her, there is no question that Oprah has spent years trying to be a force for good. After chasing the tawdry topics that other talk hosts used to fill the air, Oprah dropped the "pregnant nuns seeking paternity suits" shows for very different subjects. Heck, the woman got people to read actual books.
Once she killed her show last year, she opened the OWN cable network. Which is famously having a lot more trouble finding viewers than did her namesake program. (My wife is amongst the very faithful, which is why I've seen the promo for the new show. A lot.)
So what's "Are You Normal, America?" about? From the official website:
"Humans are strange beings, but at the same time, we're all taunted by the universal question, 'Am I Normal?'"
Taunted? Haunted, maybe. How will the show explore the questions?
"This lively game show will answer our most burning questions by using a highly scientific and deeply revealing poll, in addition to a 'jury' of real Americans, man-on-the-street polling, real life situations shot in the field and in-studio demonstrations. Each episode will feature contestants who will win big money in their quest to learn if they're normal or not. Along the way, audiences will be entertained, enlightened and ultimately comforted by the fact that we're all pretty abnormal...but that's what makes life fun!"
"Fun" to be labeled abnormal? Not so much, usually.
Why do I think Oprah has lost her way? It's the apparent failure to recognize the vital differences between normal, average, and right. (And therefore the distinctions between abnormal, unusual, and wrong.)
Encouraging this blurring is dangerous because it's already so common. How many people already suffer because they are different? They are considered "not normal" and therefore treated as wrong. And how many of us simply assume that something "normal" is a good thing?
It ain't necessarily so.
According to the promo videos on the OWN website and on the network, here are some of the questions to be addressed: Is it "normal" to pee in a swimming pool? Blame someone else for a fart? Wear handcuffs during sex? Have a signature dance move? Suck your partner's toes?
We don't have the answers to those examples. But the site does include several questions with the poll results:
Is it normal for a married woman to be disappointed with her wedding ring? Not normal. With 15 percent saying they were.
Do you change the music in your car before someone gets in to make yourself seem hipper? Not normal, Oprah says. With 35 percent saying they've done it.
And have you engaged in "make-up" sex after a fight? Normal, says the show. With 63 percent saying they've done it.
Let's unpack my problem with the concept. Leave aside the significant challenges about how one gets statically valid, accurate results from self-report questions like these. My problem is with the weighted way most of us understand the core words that drive the show.
"Normal" is good, yes? And who wants to be "not normal?" But there should be a big difference between how we use the words "different" or "unusual" and "not normal."
Earthquakes are unusual. But they're usually totally normal. Ditto for getting hit by lightning, buying a winning lottery ticket or seeing a double rainbow. These are all totally natural events -- unusual, but normal. A concert pianist displays unusual skill and artistry. But would you call it "not normal"?
This irks me in the same way that I'm bothered by the use of the word "natural." The Angel of Death mushroom is all natural. You want one in your salad? And what the heck is a "natural cut" French fry? As opposed to a supernaturally cut spud? I'd rather try that.
When your weatherperson talks about the "normal" weather for the day, he's actually talking about the average. If the temperature is hot enough to boil water or cold enough to freeze nitrogen, it's not normal for your home town. But whatever he's talking about? Probably normal.
Not everything that happens is normal, of course. An earthquake in a place where there are almost no quakes, and where fracking has happened? That's potentially "not normal." A venomous snake bite in your bed? As Sherlock Holmes would tell you, probably not normal. A suicide bomber in a Middle Eastern city? Normal or not?
Oprah's show is apparently defining "normal" by majority rule. Something that 15 percent of people do is "not normal."
If I were gay, this definition would give me the creeps. No matter which polls you like, the percentage of people with same-sex attractions isn't nearly 15 percent. Yup, they are different from the majority. But "not normal"?
There's plenty of evidence that same-sex attraction has been part of the spectrum of human responses for as far back as we have cultural history. Which would make it unusual but normal.
Is it right or wrong? That is an entirely different question. Choose your own moral or religious guide for that one. Whatever their position, I betcha that not many are using poll results to decide.
And here is the other danger: just as not everything done by a minority is necessarily wrong, not everything that's "normal" is necessarily right. If majority rule is the decider, overeating is normal for Americans. So is premarital sex. The use of some kind of recreational drug -- from booze to name-your-poison. The number of teens who text while they drive.
All normal, by the rules of the TV show. How many of those would you want to say are good? And do you want to use the polling to set your compass?
Maybe I need to have more faith in Oprah. The new show is apparently adapted from segments she did on her old program. Maybe the new show is actually going to help viewers accept the broad spectrum of human behavior in a way that will make them more tolerant of legitimate differences.
That would definitely be "not normal," by any definition.