Defining Deviancy Up


In a recent essay in The American Scholar titled "Defining Deviancy Down," Daniel Patrick Moynihan offers an arresting view of the epidemic of deviancy -- of criminality, family breakdown, mental illness -- that has come to characterize the American social landscape. Deviancy has reached such incomprehensible proportions, argues Mr. Moynihan, that we have had to adopt a singular form of denial: We deal with the epidemic simply by defining away most of the disease. We lower the threshold for what we are prepared to call normal in order to keep the volume of deviancy -- redefined deviancy -- within manageable proportions.

For example. Since 1960 the incidence of single parenthood has more than tripled. Almost 30 percent of all American children are now born to unmarried mothers. The association of fatherlessness with poverty, welfare dependency, crime and other pathologies points to a monstrous social problem. Yet, as the problem has grown, it has been systematically redefined by the culture -- by social workers, intellectuals and most famously by the mass media -- as simply another lifestyle choice. Dan Quayle may have been right, but Murphy Brown won the ratings war.

Senator Moynihan's second example is crime. We have become totally inured to levels of criminality that would have been considered intolerable 30 years ago. The St. Valentine's Day massacre, which caused a national uproar and merited two entries in the World Book Encyclopedia, involved four thugs killing seven other thugs. An average weekend in today's Los Angeles, notes James Q. Wilson. More than half of all violent crimes are not even reported. We have come to view homicide as ineradicable a part of the social landscape as car accidents.

And finally there is mental illness. Unlike family breakdown and criminality, there has probably been no increase in mental illness over the last 30 years. Rates of schizophrenia do not change, but the rate of hospitalization for schizophrenia and other psychoses has changed. The mental hospitals have been emptied. In 1955 New York state asylums had 93,000 patients. Last year they had 11,000.

Where have the remaining 82,000 and their descendants gone? Onto the streets mostly. In one generation, a flood of pathetically ill people has washed onto the streets of America's cities. We now step over these wretched and abandoned folk sleeping in doorways and freezing on grates. They, too, have become accepted as part of the natural landscape. We have managed to do that by redefining them as people who simply lack affordable housing. They are not crazy or sick, just very poor -- as if anyone crazy and sick and totally abandoned would not end up very poor.

Mr. Moynihan's powerful point is that with the moral deregulation of the 1960s, we have had an explosion of deviancy in family life, criminal behavior and public displays of psychosis. And we have dealt with it in the only way possible: by redefining deviancy down so as to explain away and make "normal" what a more civilized, ordered and healthy society long ago would have labeled -- and long ago did label -- deviant.

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Senator Moynihan is right. But it is only half the story. There is a complementary social phenomenon that goes with defining deviancy down. As part of the vast social project of moral leveling, it is not enough for the deviant to be normalized. The normal must be found to be deviant. Therefore, while for the criminals and the crazies deviancy has been defined down (the bar defining normality has been lowered), for the ordinary bourgeois deviancy has been defined up (the bar defining normality has been raised). Large areas of ordinary behavior hitherto considered benign have had their threshold radically redefined up, so that once innocent behavior now stands condemned as deviant. Normal middle-class life then stands exposed as the true home of violence and abuse and a whole catalog of aberrant acting and thinking.

First, family life. Under the new dispensation it turns out that the ordinary middle-class family is not a warm, welcoming fount of "family values," not a bedrock of social and psychic stability as claimed in conservative propaganda. It is instead a caldron of pathology, a teeming source of the depressions, alienations and assorted dysfunctions of adulthood. Why? Because deep in the family lies the worm, the 1990s version of original sin: child abuse.

Child abuse is both a crime and a tragedy, but is it 19 times more prevalent today than 30 years ago? That is what the statistics offer. In 1963: 150,000 reported cases. In 1992: 2.9 million.

Now, simply considering the historical trajectory of the treatment of children since the 19th century, when child labor -- even child slavery -- was common, it is hard to believe that the tendency toward improved treatment of children has been so radically reversed in one generation. What happened then?

The first thing that happened was an epidemic of over-reporting. Douglas Besharov points out that whereas in 1975 about one-third of child-abuse cases were dismissed for lack of evidence, today about two thirds are dismissed. New York state authorities may have considered it a great social advance that between 1979 and 1983, for example, reported cases of child abuse increased by almost 50 percent. But over the same period, the number of substantiated cases actually declined. In other words, the 22,000 increase of reported cases yielded a net decrease of real cases.

Note the contrast. For ordinary crime, to which we have become desensitized, we have defined deviancy down. One measure of this desensitization is under-reporting: Nearly two out of three ordinary crimes are never reported. Child abuse is precisely the opposite. For child abuse, to which we have become exquisitely oversensitized, deviancy has been correspondingly defined up. One of the measures of oversensitization is over- reporting: whereas two out of three ordinary crimes are never reported, two out of three reported cases of child abuse are never shown to have occurred.

Beyond the numbers and definitions there is a new ideology of child abuse. Under its influence, the helping professions, committed to a belief in endemic abuse, have encouraged a massive search to find cases, and where they cannot be found, to invent them. Consider this advice from one of the more popular self-help books on sex abuse, "Courage to Heal." "If you are unable to remember any specific instances [of childhood sex abuse] . . . but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did." And "if you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."

If your life shows the symptoms. In a popular culture saturated with tales of child abuse paraded daily on the airwaves, it is not hard to suggest to vulnerable people that their problems -- symptoms -- are caused by long-ago abuse, indeed, even unremembered abuse. Seek and ye shall find: The sins of the fathers are visible in the miserable lives of the children. Child abuse is the dirty little secret behind the white picket fence. And beside this offense, such once-regarded deviancies of family life as illegitimacy appear benign.

Let us look now at a second pillar of everyday bourgeois life: the ordinary heterosexual relationship. A second vast category of human behavior that until recently was considered rather normal has had its threshold for normality redefined up so as to render much of it deviant.

Again we start with a real offense: rape. It used to be understood as involving the use of or threat of force. No longer. It has now been expanded by the concept of date rape to encompass an enormous continent of behavior that had long been viewed as either normal or ill-mannered, but certainly not criminal.

"Some 47 percent of women are victims of rape or attempted rape . . . and 25 percent of women are victims of completed rape." So asserts Catharine MacKinnon on a national television news special. A Stanford survey claims that a third of its women have suffered date rape. The most famous and widely reported study of the rape epidemic is the one done by Mary Koss. Her survey of 6,159 college students found that 15 percent had been raped and another 12 percent subjected to attempted rape. She also reported that in a single year 3,187 college females reported 886 incidents of rape or attempted rape. At that rate, about three out of every four undergraduate women would be victims of rape or attempted rape by graduation day.

If those numbers sound high, they are. As Neil Gilbert points out in The Public Interest, the numbers compiled by the FBI under the Unified Crime Reporting Program and suitably multiplied to account for presumed unreported cases, yield an incidence of ++ rape somewhere around one in a thousand.

As for the college campus, reports from 2,400 campuses mandated by the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act of 1990 showed fewer than 1,000 rapes for 1991. That is about one-half a rape per campus per year. Barnard College, a hotbed of anti-rape and Take Back the Night activity, released statistics in 1991 showing no reports of rape, date or otherwise, among its 2,200 students. Same for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown -- and Antioch, author of the strictest, most hilarious sexual-correctness code in American academia.

How does one explain the vast discrepancy? One in 2 differs from 1 in 1,000 by a factor of 500. Deviancy has again been redefined -- up. Rape has been expanded to include behavior that you and I would not recognize as rape. And not just you and I -- the supposed victims themselves do not recognize it as rape. In the Koss study, 73 percent of the women she labeled as rape victims did not consider themselves to have been raped. Fully 42 percent had further sexual relations with the so-called rapist.

Now, women who have been raped are not generally known for going back for more sex with their assailants. Something is wrong here. What is wrong is the extraordinarily loose definition of sexual coercion and rape. Among the questions Ms. Koss asked her subjects were these: "Have you given in to sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because you were overwhelmed by a man's continual arguments and pressure? and "Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?" The Stanford study, the one that turned up one out of three female students as victims of date rape, rests on respondents' self-report of "full sexual activity when they did not want to."

It is a common enough experience for people (both men and women) to be of two minds about having sex, and yet decide, reluctantly but certainly freely, to go ahead even though they do not really want to. Call that rape and there are few who escape the charge.

With rape so radically defined up -- to include offering a drink or being verbally insistent -- it is no surprise that the result is an epidemic of sexual deviancy. And if there is no such thing as real consent, then all intercourse is rape. Who needs the studies? The incidence of rape is not 25 percent or 33 or 50. It is 100 percent. Then Naomi Wolf can write in "The Beauty Myth" that we have today "a situation among the young in which boys rape and girls get raped as a normal course of events." (Her italics.)

The third great area of the new deviancy is thought crimes.

This summer, I was visited by an FBI agent doing a routine background check on a former employee of mine now being considered for some high administration post. The agent went through the usual checklist of questions that I had heard many times before: questions about financial difficulties, drug abuse, alcoholism. Then he popped a new one: Did this person ever show any prejudice to a group based on race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, etc.?

I assumed that he was not interested in whether the person had been involved in any racial incident. The FBI would have already known about that. What he wanted to know about was my friend's deeper thoughts, feelings he might have betrayed only to someone with whom he had worked intimately for two years. This was the point in the interview at which I was supposed to testify whether I had heard my friend tell any sexist or racist jokes or otherwise show signs of hidden prejudice. That is when it occurred to me that insensitive speech had achieved official status as a thought crime.

Now, again we start with real deviance -- racial violence of the kind once carried out by the Klan or today by free-lancers like the two men in Tampa recently convicted of a monstrous racial attack on a black tourist. These are outlawed and punished. So are the more benign but still contemptible acts of nonviolent racial discrimination, as in housing, for example. But now that overt racial actions have been criminalized and are routinely punished, the threshold for deviancy has been ratcheted up. The project now is to identify prejudiced thinking, instincts, anecdotes, attitudes.

There is, of course, the now-famous case of the Israeli-born University of Pennsylvania student who called a group of rowdy black sorority sisters making noise outside his dorm in the middle of the night "water buffaloes" (his rough translation from the Hebrew behema). He was charged with racial harassment. A host of learned scholars was assigned the absurd task of locating the racial antecedents of the term. They could find none. (They should have asked me. I could have saved them a lot of trouble. My father called me behemah so many times it almost became a term of endearment. I don't think he was racially motivated.)

Nonetheless, the university, convinced that there was some racial animus behind that exotic term and determined not to let it go unpunished, tried to pressure the student into admitting his guilt. Penn offered him a plea bargain. Proceedings would be stopped if he confessed and allowed himself to be re-educated through a "program for living in a diverse community environment."

Consider: the psychotic raving in the middle of Broadway is free to rave. No one will force him into treatment. But a student who hurls "water buffalo" at a bunch of sorority sisters is threatened with the ultimate sanction at the disposal of the university -- expulsion -- unless he submits to treatment to correct his deviant thinking.

This may seem ironic but it is easily explained. Under the new dispensation it is not insanity but insensitivity that is the true sign of deviant thinking, requiring thought control and re-education. One kind of deviancy we are prepared to live with; the other, we are not. Indeed, one kind, psychosis, we are hardly prepared to call deviancy at all. As Senator Moynihan points out, it is now part of the landscape.

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The mentally ill are not really ill. They just lack housing. It is the rest of us who are guilty of disordered thinking for harboring, beneath the bland niceties of middle-class life, racist, misogynist, homophobic and other corrupt and corrupting insensitivities.

Ordinary criminality we are learning to live with. What we are learning we cannot live with is the heretofore unrecognized violence against women that lurks beneath the facade of ordinary, seemingly benign, heterosexual relations.

The single-parent and broken home are now part of the landscape. It is the Ozzie and Harriet family, rife with abuse and molestation, that is the seedbed of deviance.

The rationalization of deviancy reaches its logical conclusion. The deviant is declared normal. And the normal is unmasked as deviant. That, of course, makes us all that much more morally equal. The project is complete. What real difference is there between us?

Because once it becomes, to use Ms. MacKinnon's words, "difficult to sustain the customary distinctions between pathology and normalcy," the moral superiority to which bourgeois normalcy pretends vanishes.

Defining deviancy up also fills a psychological need. The need was identified by Senator Moynihan: How to cope with the explosion of real deviancy? One way is denial: defining real deviancy down creates the pretense that deviance has disappeared because it has been redefined as normal. Another strategy is distraction: defining deviancy up creates brand-new deviancies that we can now go off and fight. That distracts us from real deviancy and gives us the feeling that, despite the murder and mayhem and madness around us, we are really preserving and policing our norms.

These new crusades do nothing, of course, about real criminality or lunacy. But they make us feel that we are making inroads on deviancy nonetheless. A society must feel that it is policing its norms by combating deviancy. Having given up fighting the real thing, we can't give up the fight. So we fight the new deviancy with satisfying vigor. That it is largely a phantom and a phony seems not to matter at all.

This article, somewhat shortened, is taken from The New Republic.

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