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Defining Deviancy Down
June 16, 2004 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Defining Deviancy Down In 1993, one of our greatest statesmen, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D- N.Y.) published one of the most important pieces of social theory entitled "Defining Deviancy Down." Moynihan started from Emile Durkheim's proposition that there is a limit to the amount of deviant behavior any community can "afford to recognize" (called the "Durkheim Constant"). As the amount of deviancy increases, the community has to adjust its standards so that conduct once thought deviant is no longer deemed so. Consequently, if we are not vigilant about enforcing them, our standards would be constantly devolving in order to normalize rampant deviancy. Shortly after Moynihan's article, Charles Krauthammer offered his now-famous response to Moynihan's article in which he argued that the corollary is that society can also "define deviancy up."

Moynihan's theory has been applied to movies, courage, dress codes, sexual indiscretions, corporate behavior, and possibly even to webpages. One might feel compelled to ask, "Do standards even mean anything?" Today, the debate still rages about where we ought to be defeatist about the devolution of standards, or whether we can right the boat by establishing base principles and fight to raise standards up.
posted by Seth (63 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seth, thank you. I plan to browse all these links when I get home.

Excellent post.
posted by rocketman at 1:37 PM on June 16, 2004


Not much here for us pro-deviancy types....
posted by rushmc at 1:48 PM on June 16, 2004


now that's the way an axe ought to be ground!
posted by quonsar at 1:49 PM on June 16, 2004


Seth, this is a fantastic and very complex and well-thought out post. Thank you for sharing these links with us.
posted by anastasiav at 2:00 PM on June 16, 2004


Bravo! Touché! Other European words!
posted by squealy at 2:01 PM on June 16, 2004


Hubba hubba!

Put me on the pro-suits list.
posted by hama7 at 2:04 PM on June 16, 2004


Of course, I'm required by law to admit that "social acceptance of behavior that a few decades ago would have been firmly condemned" is in many cases a very good thing.

well constructed post, though.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 2:05 PM on June 16, 2004


So basically, so many people have nose rings and tribal tattoos that they are no longer deviant, and deviancy has been defined up to body mutilation and facial tattoos (excluding Ta Moko, which are culturally accepted, culturally defining even, if you're Maori)...

Does that frame the concepts?
posted by Shane at 2:06 PM on June 16, 2004


It'll all end in tight high collars and bowler hats, you mark my words.

*runs off to invest in antimacassars*
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 2:09 PM on June 16, 2004


ASCII has withstood the test of time. No word yet as to whether those other freaks will be sticking around. Some are already largely gone.
posted by Kwantsar at 2:10 PM on June 16, 2004


Seth, keep posting.
posted by loquax at 2:11 PM on June 16, 2004


Is it socially acceptable to have that many links in a first post?
posted by dash_slot- at 2:21 PM on June 16, 2004


Uh.... is this Mefi? I come in here expecting at least a snark or two about a FPP which includes a link to an article which starts off with a discredited bit of nonsense (this is in Charles Krauthammer's article, the 6th link):

In 1940, a survey was taken of teachers asking them to list the five most important problems in school. They were: (1) talking out of turn; (2) chewing gum; (3) making noise; (4) running in halls; and (5) cutting in line.

Fifty years later, the survey was repeated. The 1990 list was substantially revised: (1) drug abuse; (2) alcohol abuse; (3) pregnancy; (4) suicide; (5) rape.

One could cite a mountain of statistics. One could supply one's own anecdotal evidence. But this list will suffice to make the obvious point that there has been an explosion of deviancy in American society over the last fifty years. Things have gotten out of hand.


Please to see snopes. Thank you.

Any discussion which starts out with assumptions about what constitutes "decency" and whether "standars have declined" is surely asking for a bit of rigour in its research, no?

I have to say it: wtf?
posted by jokeefe at 2:28 PM on June 16, 2004


So does this mean that you can just do what you want as it will soon be normal?

But I too wish to patronise the newbie - very interesting links, well put together.
posted by biffa at 2:30 PM on June 16, 2004


So basically, so many people have nose rings and tribal tattoos that they are no longer deviant, and deviancy has been defined up to body mutilation and facial tattoos (excluding Ta Moko, which are culturally accepted, culturally defining even, if you're Maori)...

I've heard that the Hip Urban Crowd in India shuns piercings and tattoos. They associate such behavior with their conservative old grandparents and the ever-so-far-from-cool rurals.
posted by Kwantsar at 2:32 PM on June 16, 2004


Uh, let's see. The link to the Atlantic article in this FPP (One might feel compelled to ask, "Do standards even mean anything?") includes this gem:

Shortly before Bloom's article appeared, that same paper ran a news story about yet another instance of sliding norms—in this case, involving how the military deals with its deserters. I remember reading about a scholarly conference in Belgium some years ago on the subject of executions for desertion during World War I. One of the participants argued that it would be wrong to regard the fleeing soldiers as derelict in their duty; they weren't deserting, silly, they were "merely exploring the boundaries of consent and personal motivation in a democracy at war" (the boundaries being somewhat to the rear). That argument has now been embraced in spirit by the U.S. Army, which today—even under the Bush Administration and in time of war—almost never prosecutes deserters and, according to the news account, takes a "passive, good-riddance approach to its runaways." In 2001 about 5,000 people decided to simply up and leave the U.S. military. No American has been shot for desertion since 1945.

I find it shocking, shocking that the US military no longer executes deserters. Can social chaos be far behind?

One might feel compelled to ask: Is the idea that "things are getting worse" nothing more than an ideologically driven meme? Things don't get worse or better: they change. The two links I've seen so far here are hardly credible evidence of a "decline in standards".
posted by jokeefe at 2:40 PM on June 16, 2004


But I too wish to patronise the newbie

Can't tell if this is double-layered or triple-layered irony, but it sure is tasty.
posted by soyjoy at 2:43 PM on June 16, 2004


One might feel compelled to ask: Is the idea that "things are getting worse" nothing more than an ideologically driven meme?

"Things are getting worse" is a conservative meme. It suggests that if we don't get back to the good old values of our ancestors, things will just go to hell shortly.

"Things are getting better" is a progressive meme. It suggests that we must adapt to the brave new world in order to take advantage of all of the wonderful new opportunity.

It is easy to find specific examples that illustrate either meme. It is much harder to demonstrate that things are getting better or worse at the global scale.
posted by Kwantsar at 2:47 PM on June 16, 2004


Oh, and please to provide a definition of "deviancy". That would be much appreciated.

Seeing as the way I live my life (single mother, lotsa homo friends, ex-husband now living with current partner but not married, all of us friendly, me partaking in various pleasures that are more common amongst people half my age-- running off to Coachella for the weekend to stand in a crush of people just to see the Pixies, for example-- and sending my son to an alternative school that doesn't give grades or have exams) would have been seen forty or even thirty years ago as deviant, I have a bit of a vested interest in this.
posted by jokeefe at 2:49 PM on June 16, 2004


Things don't get worse or better: they change.

But isn't it possible for change to have a net negative effect on "hapiness" (for lack of a better word or phrase)? The problem is that saying a given trend is "bad" often feels uncomfortable. A teen pregnancy is a tough thing and the girl in question needs support, not lectures. But what to do about teen pregnancy the trend? One is left with something along the lines of "hate the sin, love the sinner" that we laughed at when it was voiced by previous generations.

Everything can be "normal" and we can have no standards so as not to offend those who fall outside our bounds, but there are consequences of that choice.
posted by yerfatma at 2:50 PM on June 16, 2004


Sigh. The fourteenth link is a book by Robert Bork, of all people. From the Publisher's Review:

Robert H. Bork sounds a very sobering alarm. We can accept our fate and try to insulate ourselves from the effects of a degenerating culture, or we can choose to halt the beast, to oppose modern liberalism in every arena. In the view of Robert Bork, an understanding of our problem and the will to resist may be our only hope.

I will argue that this is a bad FPP because it is essentially contentless. It starts from a highly doubtful premise ("standards are falling"), makes a quick leap of illogic ("deviancy", whatever that is, is a symptom of this decline) and comes to the quick conclusion (modern America = hell in a handbasket). This is "backed up" by anecdotal opinion pieces citing dubious (to say the least) statistics. This isn't really a post sharing the "best of the web"; it's a propaganda tract.
posted by jokeefe at 3:03 PM on June 16, 2004


"....our standards would be constantly devolving in order to normalize rampant deviancy." - this statement could be applied to the political or financial realms as well as to the overall cultural fabric.

That raises the question : whose definitions of the devolution of standards should society recognize ? Does the problem lie with Bono's use of the word "fuck", with the corporate traders of Enron joking of how they were jamming obscenely overpriced power up one of Grandma Millie's orifices, or elsewhere ?

But, I like this post for the fact that it poses a deep question which will never go away - it will only be wrestled over by contending societal forces.......

Forever.
posted by troutfishing at 3:09 PM on June 16, 2004


But isn't it possible for change to have a net negative effect on "hapiness" (for lack of a better word or phrase)?

No. I mean, not in the terms outlined by this post, which have to do with changes in social attitudes towards behaviours once considered "deviant". I'm not sure what even constitutes "deviancy" in this argument: deviancy for me involves the inability to see other people as human beings and to use, abuse or exploit them for personal gain or gratification. I'm not exactly sure what the "deviancy" referred to in the FPP is supposed to be.

The problem is that saying a given trend is "bad" often feels uncomfortable. A teen pregnancy is a tough thing and the girl in question needs support, not lectures. But what to do about teen pregnancy the trend?

The trend, in Canada at least, is that teen pregnancies are declining, mostly due to better education and access to condoms.

And it should feel uncomfortable to say that a given trend (and one has to be very careful about the perception of what is a "trend" and what is not) is "bad". It indicates sloppy thinking.
posted by jokeefe at 3:09 PM on June 16, 2004


My age forbids me from making statements over a few words long so I will just say that somewhere in all this there ought to be a reference to the notion of a Tipping Point, ie, when divorce was not socially acceptable, few divorced. Increasingly people divorced and now of course it is right to the point that some long-marrieds wonder if in fact there is something wrong with them.
posted by Postroad at 3:11 PM on June 16, 2004


jokeefe, are you saying we should "define deviancy up" to disallow propaganda tracts?
posted by timeistight at 3:13 PM on June 16, 2004


You don't have to be a "Conservative" to decry Defining Deviancy Down.
Tom Tomorrow toon on Salon, nuisance required to see last 3 panels
posted by wendell at 3:15 PM on June 16, 2004


My age forbids me from making statements over a few words long so I will just say that somewhere in all this there ought to be a reference to the notion of a Tipping Point, ie, when divorce was not socially acceptable, few divorced. Increasingly people divorced and now of course it is right to the point that some long-marrieds wonder if in fact there is something wrong with them.

And back when divorce was not socially acceptable, there were many, many, bitterly unhappy couples. Is it a bad thing that such couples can now be free of each other?
posted by jokeefe at 3:16 PM on June 16, 2004


Congratulations on your first post, Seth!
posted by scarabic at 3:18 PM on June 16, 2004


jokeefe, I do not want to moderate my own thread, but you have asked me several questions. I will only say this, because the post exists for you to arise your own conclusions at:

The post is regarding Moynihan's theory. It shows various applications of it. It shows one writer's counter-argument. It shows some that agree with Moynihan's theory, and some that don't. Some think it is a irreversible downward spiral (Bork), and some believe that our community can overcome (anything).

I know you are not used to seeing a post with various viewpoints, but that is what I tried to offer. It has no political leaning and doesn't relate specifically to any type of behavior. In other words, the post is not my endorsement of everything in every one of the links, but rather different views of it that you can choose from. It is not one coherent argument, but different glimpses of a theory.

But for what it is worth, how can something be contentless and propaganda?
posted by Seth at 3:22 PM on June 16, 2004


jokeefe, are you saying we should "define deviancy up" to disallow propaganda tracts?

Hey, timeis. How are you?

No, I'm not saying that, unless what you mean is that badly constructed Mefi FPPs should be considered deviant. I've already noted why I think the FPP is a bad post; but it would never occur to me to ask Matt to delete it.

Otherwise, let me look at this again.... if on the other hand you mean something along the line of disallowing propaganda tracts in favour of public discourse which is intelligent, well argued, doesn't rely on fear-mongering anecdotes to try to make its point, and has some respect for the intellect of the reader, I say bring it on. I'm happy to read Conservative or right-wing arguments if they're well made; in fact I think it essential in order to not become lazy in my own world view.

Anyway, I think I've said enough here. Anyone else?
posted by jokeefe at 3:25 PM on June 16, 2004


Occam's Razor - "Plurality should not be posited without necessity."

"The basic underlying truth is there," said Dr. Donald Wildmon. "The gist of the statistic would hold true."

Wildmon's Razor - Positivity should not be necessary without plurality.
posted by swell at 3:29 PM on June 16, 2004


And back when divorce was not socially acceptable, there were many, many, bitterly unhappy couples. Is it a bad thing that such couples can now be free of each other?

I think you're missing the point - the idea is that normative standards change. "deviancy" is just what it sounds like - a deviation from the normative standard. If the standards themselves are altered, then what was once deviant behavior becomes normal behavior. Divorce was once deviant; now it's normal. Is that good or bad? That depends on who you ask. Some people feel that when standards are lower, people will not try as hard, or take things as seriously - wrt marriage, people will get married too quickly because they know they can always get divorced, or they will divorce when they hit a bad patch instead of trying to work through it. Other people, the more liberal types, will say that people should not feel socially obliged to remain in a relationship which no longer makes them happy, and so what if people get married more easily or divorce more quickly? What makes that a bad thing in itself?

But those questions are secondary to the primary fact of cultural standards shifting over time. As we become increasingly pluralistic, we also lose some sense of community and a shared, cultural meaningfulness. social conservatives feel they lose something of the meaningfulness of their own god/marriage/etc, if it is culturally devalued, because they don't define the meaning purely as their personal experience, but additionally as the ritual and recognition of the community. If marriage is just something kids do for fun when they're bored, then it's harder to take the ritual seriously anymore. This is more obvious when you look at other cultures' weird rituals - like the coming-of-age mock war things some tribes do, etc. Rituals are granted gravity by the respect of a wider circle of people or the recognition of people hierarchically superior to you.
posted by mdn at 3:33 PM on June 16, 2004


jokeefe, I'm quite happy accepting the idea that there is a sort of conservation of deviancy, without accepting the idea that "deviancy" is a priori bad. In that light, I find this all interesting and even amusing, but I don't take it personally.

The sexual indiscretion link is especially interesting, since I would have said that in American politics deviancy has definitely been defined up in this area.

Tip o' the hat to wendell.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:37 PM on June 16, 2004


And it should feel uncomfortable to say that a given trend . . . is "bad". It indicates sloppy thinking.

This suggests a measurable uptick in baby rapes cannot be termed "bad". I'm not trying to be difficult, I'm just taken aback by the absolute declaration there can be no absolutes. That seems like sloppy thinking.
posted by yerfatma at 3:55 PM on June 16, 2004


jokeefe, I do not want to moderate my own thread, but you have asked me several questions. I will only say this, because the post exists for you to arise your own conclusions at:

(aside) I have to ask: is this really your first post? With user number 116? This is totally off-topic, but I'm wondering why you waited so long... none of my business, of course, really. :)

The post is regarding Moynihan's theory. It shows various applications of it. It shows one writer's counter-argument. It shows some that agree with Moynihan's theory, and some that don't. Some think it is a irreversible downward spiral (Bork), and some believe that our community can overcome (anything). I know you are not used to seeing a post with various viewpoints, but that is what I tried to offer. It has no political leaning and doesn't relate specifically to any type of behavior. In other words, the post is not my endorsement of everything in every one of the links, but rather different views of it that you can choose from. It is not one coherent argument, but different glimpses of a theory.

Not used to seeing a post offering various viewpoints? I'm not sure what you mean by that, but I don't think that various viewpoints are well represented here. And I can't quite buy the statement that the post has no political leaning: surely its premise-- the theory of 'Defining Deviancy Down' indicates a particular political stance and set of assumptions in and of itself (some of which I have tried to point out)?

You have linked to, besides the article I have already mentioned-- Bork and the Cullen Murphy piece in the Atlantic-- the following:

link #1: Durkheim's proposal is that 'crime must exist'; in other words that it impossible to have a society without crime. But Moynihan then equates 'deviant persons' -- criminals, to Durkheim-- to people engaging in 'previously stigmatized conduct'. Moynihan also cites statistics around births out of wedlock as one of the three major instances of the ill effects of the 'normalizing' of so-called deviancy, while using inflammatory language ('vast social calamity', 'a serious social problem', 'the disadvantages associated with single-parent families', 'For a period there was some speculation that, if family structure got bad enough, this mode of deviancy would have less punishing effects on children'). So Moynihan first equates criminal activity with socially stigmatized activity, and then goes on to cite de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, single parenthood and births out of wedlock (and remember, births out of wedlock just means that the parents aren't legally married; they are more than likely living together) and violent crime as the three main indicators of 'defining deviancy down'. Moynihan also insists on drawing a direct correalation between single parent families and violent crime, relying heavily on anecdotes to sway his audience. I can't say I think much of this 'theory' in terms of intellectual rigour, as it seems to possess none. Anyway, onto the other links:

#2: bio of Moynihan; #3, repeat of link #1.

#4: bio of Durkheim

#5: bio of Charles Krauthammer

#6: Column by Krauthammer, which you described as 'now-famous'-- I already noted that his intitial paragraph is disproved by Snopes; you go on to say that Krauthammer posits that deviancy can be 'defined up'. I would have to note here that we are very far from Durkheimer, but let's move on

#7: Movies-- a review of American Beauty, describing it as 'utterly vile' and an 'exercise in depravity'. Representative quote: Indicative of the film's flavor is that the only two characters portrayed at all as amicable and "adjusted" are the homosexuals who share a house on the block, both named Jim (isn't that cute?).

#8: Moynihan's commencemt address to USC, on the subject of 'courage': In our excessively psychoanalyzed society, sharing one’s secret fears with others is considered courage. So does escaping a failed marriage. So does “having it all,” a career, children and leisure. Refusing to help enable a loved one indulge a ruinous vice is considered an act of courage. We say it takes courage to be different from the mainstream in our preferences in fashion, music, the length and color of our hair. Here is what real courage looks like. I’m sure you’re all aware of the inspiring story of Pat Tillman, who gave up a successful professional football career to enlist in the Army after Sept.11. He served one combat tour in Iraq, and then another in Afghanistan where he was killed in action.

I'll spare you my loathing of such patriotic/nationalist discourse, but I feel my bile rising whenever anyone desribes a death in war as a noble act. Death in war is a tragedy, not glory.

#9: A 'Miss Manners' question and response piece about dress codes in a lawyer's office-- I'm not sure I see the point here, to be honest

#10: An article about politicians who have been exposed as being unfaithful to their husbands or wives. The complaint is that adultery in itself isn't as roundly condemned as it should be, and that the politicians involved are mostly worried about their careers. I'm not sure how this has changed in the last 150 years, but whatever.

#11: An article about corporate behaviour. The quibble I have here is that corporate behaviour is not individual behaviour, so perhaps a different set of criteria are necessary to describe it

#12: A opinion piece about corporate culture and behaviour; anecdotal.

#13: Cullen Murphy's Atlantic article. I already addressed this.

#14: Robert Bork's book: Amazon link.

#15: Speech by Moynihan, in which he states: Over on the West Side we made a fuss about Hell's Kitchen and its street gangs, but in truth the neighborhood was, in a way, almost idyllic. In 1943 there were exactly 44 homicides by gunshot in the entire city of New York. Last year there were 1,499. The fact that the availability of guns has everything to do with this is not mentioned

#16: Inspirational poem.

I don't see anyone disagreeing with Moynihan here, but perhaps you can expand on that.

But for what it is worth, how can something be contentless and propaganda?

'Contentless' here for me meant that the intitial premise of the post was not well served by the links you provided. There are instances of various agendas citing Moynihan, but I would argue not in any really productive way. I don't feel that I have a sense after reading these links or this post of how Moynihan's theory has affected political discourse in America; only that a number of columnists have borrowed a reductive version of his idea and used it to illustrate everything from how much they hated a movie to why single parenthood a supposedly major cause of violent crime. Progaganda is contentless because it is nothing but assertions and manipulations, directed at swaying feelings rather than engaging the intellect.
posted by jokeefe at 4:35 PM on June 16, 2004


what jokeefe said, mostly.

and also, Seth, to define Moynihan as one of America's "greatest statesmen" is very, very generous. for many, he will be remembered

the prodigal neocon,

the one who managed to turn against his fellow liberals again and again, even though he returned to the fold, on his own terms, ending his career with a passionate denunciation of what he insisted on calling the "repeal" of welfare.
Someday a vicious biography will be written of Moynihan, undoubtedly by a liberal. It will catalog his opportunism, his flip-flops, and moments when he seemed more interested in being right (or getting the credit for being right) than in getting things done.


not to mention, his drinking problem. or his role in the East Timor slaughter.
posted by matteo at 4:35 PM on June 16, 2004


And it should feel uncomfortable to say that a given trend . . . is "bad". It indicates sloppy thinking.

This suggests a measurable uptick in baby rapes cannot be termed "bad". I'm not trying to be difficult, I'm just taken aback by the absolute declaration there can be no absolutes. That seems like sloppy thinking.


Uh... an uptick in 'baby rapes' can't really be described as a trend, can it? It's crime. The 'trend' referred to earlier was the supposed increase in teenage pregnancies-- and I think 'bad' here is just too loose a term for behaviour which covers a wide spectrum of situations and individuals. Rape and violent crime requires a different vocabulary.
posted by jokeefe at 4:39 PM on June 16, 2004


what jokeefe and matteo said. And people shouldn't think this is a balanced post because it refers to Moynihan's theory, and has a lot of links attached. Here's my take on this post (it was more applicable there, being just a restatement of that post to begin with)
posted by amberglow at 4:42 PM on June 16, 2004


And back when divorce was not socially acceptable, there were many, many, bitterly unhappy couples. Is it a bad thing that such couples can now be free of each other?

I think you're missing the point - the idea is that normative standards change. "deviancy" is just what it sounds like - a deviation from the normative standard. If the standards themselves are altered, then what was once deviant behavior becomes normal behavior. Divorce was once deviant; now it's normal. Is that good or bad? That depends on who you ask.


Thank you mdn. This I can get my head around: a definition of "deviancy" that I can understand, and a description of the process of changing standards which is not ideologically driven or loaded with judgements about 'morality'.

Cheers. I will read the rest of your post with close attention.


posted by jokeefe at 4:43 PM on June 16, 2004


Christ, a fellow makes a sincere effort to post an interesting idea to the front page, an idea that hasn't been presented on MeFi previously, an idea that probably hasn't been consciously known to most people who just read it, though it has probably always been a factor in their behaviour and attitudes in real life...

...and the fellow gets shat all upon.

Can't win for losing on MeFi.

Seth, despite finding you annoying in MeTa, you done good. Put your money where your mouth is, and done good.

Thank you.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:45 PM on June 16, 2004


I don't see much shitting, fff. The criticism here seems reasoned, focused, and appropriate.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:14 PM on June 16, 2004


Well, I am wondering if all of the negative commentators are aware of the cat fight which spawned this post. This is a damn fine post and an even better response to the valid criticism that seth was complaining about front page posts without ever having made one. This post is definitely some fine axe honing. The standards we are discussing are the standards of the blue, not some abstract moral standards in society, or perhaps not. That is what makes this such a great post.
posted by caddis at 6:59 PM on June 16, 2004


mr_roboto/fff: I think the criticism that this was a bad post has mostly come from one person. I'd say they were being harsh, disagreeing with the arguments presented in the FPP links doesn't necessarily mean that it's not interesting to see the argument presented. I thought these were a good link to an idea that I haven't seen enunciated previously.

soyjoy: ;)
posted by biffa at 1:08 AM on June 17, 2004


Aah! How this post makes me long for the "good old days" when everyone wore rose colored glasses and "unmentionable" societal ills were quietly swept under the rug, just like they never happened.

Didn't Moniyhan wear a bow tie and have the alcoholic's blush? Yeah, I remember him, he ain't exactly a "great statesman", more an opportunist and blowhard.

One person's deviant is another person's savior. Just ask Mel Gibson.
posted by nofundy at 5:17 AM on June 17, 2004


But isn't it possible for change to have a net negative effect on "hapiness" (for lack of a better word or phrase)? The problem is that saying a given trend is "bad" often feels uncomfortable. A teen pregnancy is a tough thing and the girl in question needs support, not lectures. But what to do about teen pregnancy the trend? One is left with something along the lines of "hate the sin, love the sinner" that we laughed at when it was voiced by previous generations.

I think the question of normativity is really the key, though. Teen pregnancy is by no means a tragedy in a tribal culture, eg; it's the norm for people to get married at an age we associate with high school, and to start having children right away. In fact, it would be tragic for someone to be 25 and childless in a lot of these cultures.

So what it comes down to is what the society expects of its members. A person can be happy as an american who has a child at 17, but it's much, much harder. You are taking a different route; you are straying from the norm, and many people will see it as a very sad situation. This is basically because procreation is in itself not the most important part of our culture. Individual achievement and falling in love tend to be held higher; procreation is usually only consideredd positive in america when it's done in conjunction with a person you're in love with. In other cultures, the continuance of the tribe is more important than your particular relationship to the other parent. And equally important is the notion that one "do something with her life" - that she finish school and enter a profession and contribute something to the culture as a whole.

I'd bet that even in america, a pretty sizable percentage of people would probably feel it to be a greater tragedy to never have kids than to never distinguish oneself professionally, though.

This suggests a measurable uptick in baby rapes cannot be termed "bad". I'm not trying to be difficult, I'm just taken aback by the absolute declaration there can be no absolutes. That seems like sloppy thinking.

What's "bad" is what most people think is bad. some things change according to the times and the details of a culture (ie, agricultural, face to face, vs. industrial, mass media, etc). Other things are more central to being a human being.

We don't want to be murdered or raped, so those things are bad; in the modern world our understanding and empathy with other cultures means that we extend this to every human being. But in some less information-based societies, the murder and rape of the other guy was considered okay (we still consider of the murder of the other guy okay, but it's less okay, less a sign of heroism and more a sober duty we must engage in to protect democracy etc. And rape is no longer 'okay' as a spoil of war etc).

Of course, we can always say, well, they were wrong to think it was okay to rape the women or torture the men of the group they were battling. To which I'd say, well sure it's wrong - from our cultural context. And you might say, no, it's just wrong, absent any cultural context. And I'd respond, how can anything be right or wrong outside of a cultural context? How can morality exist without interacting people?

We can claim, this cultural context will work the best as a world wide foundation and should be given primacy over the smaller, more selfish cultural contexts that used ongoing conflict and abuse to determine relations of power etc, but that's an active decision, not a timeless truth. Basically, we can say "let's spread this cultural context" which I think is perfectly legitimate.
posted by mdn at 8:00 AM on June 17, 2004


in the modern world our understanding and empathy with other cultures means that we extend this to every human being

If only. :-(
posted by five fresh fish at 8:43 AM on June 17, 2004


But to what extent is it possible to explore the legitimacy of cultural contexts outside of your own cultural context? Aren't you effectively using a perspective inside your own cultural context to justify selecting that as the cultural context to spread? This perspective sounds more legitimate when comparing your own cultural context with that of a 'smaller, more selfish' context, but how easily does your context bend when meeting a context that doesn't easily fit that criterion. How would a US context compare with a European context for example? (I don't wish to imply that either is more selfish than the other, but use the two as examples of cultural contexts were different social priorities apply.) What scope does one cultural perspective have for change in response to other ethical/moral 'solutions'?
posted by biffa at 8:48 AM on June 17, 2004


As MDN says, most of you are missing the point. According to my Sociology professor friend Kevin:

"very interesting site and discussion. they are ALL missing the point: deviance is neither good nor bad. it is judgementless. durkheim's point IRT the constancy of deviance ban be easily illustrated thus:

two kids behind the barn smoking cigarettes in 1951. (or james dean in rebel without a cause, or whatever). according to society, they are being deviant. another kid wanders by. he tells them that they are being deviant. they turn up their noses and tell him off by calling him "a square." bingo. deviance is constant. the smoking becomes "cool" or "hip" or even "normal" while the third kid becomes defined as "uncool," a "sqaure," and therefore "abnormal.""
And Sociology professor friend Dean offers this insight:

There are some sorts of deviancy which are never normalized. The society itself filters out behaviors that are damaging to the larger organism; for example, suicide bombers in Iraq are not supported by nearly as large a portion of the population as that which opposes the idea - in fact, most Iraqis wish that the US or some other authority would find a way to stop the behavior, even if it means pulling out completely. It is too fracturing/damaging a behavior to Iraqi society - and thus cannot be made normalized.
posted by luriete at 9:05 AM on June 17, 2004


sorry, should be "cannot be normalized" at the end.
posted by luriete at 9:18 AM on June 17, 2004


Thank your friend for us, luriete...as opposed to the premise of this post, and the links within, your friend (and some of us here do too, especially mdn and jokeefe) doesn't see all deviance as bad, but as things that happen because people are living their lives and behaving differently, thus causing the changes to become widespread and "normed".

The supposedly threatening nature and wrongness of the mainstreaming of deviation is almost all in the opposer's heads. Look at the recent "civilization will crumble if gays marry" shit. Or look at the biased wording of this very post: ...be defeatist about the devolution of standards, or whether we can right the boat by establishing base principles and fight to raise standards up.
posted by amberglow at 9:19 AM on June 17, 2004


MeFi members missing the point? Say it isn't so!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:27 AM on June 17, 2004


What's "bad" is what most people think is bad.

Howard Becker coined the phrases labeling theory and moral entrepeneurs when he used marijuana smokers as an example in his Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance.

Howard Becker's approach to the labeling of deviance, as described in Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, views deviance as the creation of social groups and not the quality of some act or behavior. Becker criticizes other theories of deviance for accepting the existence of deviance and by doing so, accept the values of the majority within the social group. According to Becker, studying the act of the individual is unimportant because deviance is simply rule breaking behavior that is labeled deviant by persons in positions of power. The rule breaking behavior is constant, the labeling of the behavior varies. Becker describes rules as the reflection of certain social norms held by the majority of a society, whether formal or informal. Enforced rules, the focus of Becker's approach, are applied differentially and usually facilitate certain favorable consequences for those who apply the label. In short, members of the rule-making society may label rule breaking behavior deviant depending on the degree of reaction over time.

Becker views those people that are likely to engage in rule breaking behavior as essentially different than members of the rule-making or rule-abiding society. Those persons who are prone to rule-breaking behavior see themselves as morally at odds with those members of the rule-abiding society. Becker uses the term "outsider" to describe a labeled rule-breaker or deviant that accepts the label attached to them and view themselves as different from "mainstream" society. Deviants may consider themselves more "outside" than others similarly labeled. Deviant outsiders might view those rule making or abiding members of society as being the outsiders of their social group.

Becker details the process of how these deviant outsiders become involved in secondary deviance. Primary deviance is the first "step", and this primary act may be either intentional or unintentional. Becker believes that most people think or fantasize in a deviant manner, and the study of why certain people conform while other give in to deviant impulses is crucial. The process of being caught and labeled deviant by a person in position of authority is the most crucial step on the road to secondary deviance.

The second "step" on the way to secondary deviance and a career in crime involves the acceptance of the deviant label. Becker describes how certain rule-breakers come to accept the label of "deviant" as their master status. The master status is the role to which one most relates the view of oneself. The rule breaker that identifies with the deviant label as their master status becomes an outsider and is denied the means of carrying on with their everyday lives. Becker makes it clear that not every rule breaker progresses in this manner and that certain people have alternative paths to take. An outsider, denied the means to carry out daily routines, turns to illegitimate means to make a living.

The final step in the creation of a career delinquent involves the movement of a rule breaker into a deviant subculture. The affiliation of the labeled deviant with an organized provides the person with moral support and a self-justifying rationale. Becker describes how those involved in an organized crime may learn new forms of deviance through differential association.


The drug war is, of course, the classical example of labeling theory in action. By criminalizing behavior better treated as a medical problem, society has labeled drug users as criminals at an enormous cost to society in terms of public moneys and private lives wasted.

Not satisfied with the drug war, we are currently in the midst of marginalizing tobacco smokers into a new class of criminals. Like the drug users before them, smokers tend to be from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, with less education, income and political power than those labeling them.

In his The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugsin the United States, Charles Whitebread of the USC Law School writes:

Let's just try the marijuana prohibition as a quick one. Who do you think was arrested 650,000 strong two years ago for violation of the marijuana laws? Do you think it was all minority group members? Nope. It was not. It was some very identifiable children of US — children of the middle class. You don't have to answer my opinion. No prohibition will stand — ever — when it comes back and penalizes our children — the children of US who enacted it. And in fact, do you have any real doubt about that? Do you know what a fabulous sociological study we will be if we become the first society in the history of the world to penalize the sons and daughters of the wealthy class? Unheard of.

And so, yeah, we will continue the War on Drugs for a while until everybody sees its patent bankruptcy. But, let me say that I am not confident that good sense will prevail. Why? Because we love this idea of prohibition. We really do. We love it in this country. And so I will tell you what I predict. You will always know which ones are going out and which ones are coming in. And, can't you see the one coming right over the hill? Well, folks, we are going to have a new prohibition because we love this idea that we can solve difficult medical, economic, and social problems by the simple enactment of a criminal law. We adore this, and of course, you judges work it out, we have solved our problem. Do you have it? Our problem is over with the enactment of the law. You and the cops work it out, but we have solved our problem.

Here comes the new one? What's it going to be? No, it won't be guns, this one starts easy. This one is the Surgeon General has what? --determined -- not "we want a little more checking it out", not "we need a few more studies", not "reasonable people disagree" -- "The Surgeon General has determined that the smoking of cigarettes will kill you."

Now, all you need, and here is my formula, for a new prohibition every time is what? We need an intractable, difficult, social, economic, or medical problem. But that is not enough. There has to be another thing. It has to divide by class --- by social or economic class, between US and THEM.

And so, here it comes.

You know the Federal Government has been spending a lot of money since 1968 trying to persuade us not to smoke. And, indeed, the absolute numbers on smoking have declined very little. But, you know who has quit smoking, don't you? In gigantic numbers? The college-educated, that's who. The college-educated, that's who doesn't smoke. Who are they? Tomorrow's what? Movers and kickers, that's who. Tomorrow's movers and kickers don't smoke. Who does smoke? Oh, you know who smokes out of all proportion to their numbers in the society — it is the people standing in your criminal courtrooms, that's who. Who are they? Tomorrow's moved and kicked, that's who.

And, there it is friends, once it divides between the movers and kickers and the moved and kicked it is all over and it will be all over very shortly.


Shorter version: People like us make the rules for people like them.

See also the Volstead Act. Think what Prohibition did to help create organized crime.

The major crimes that are usually analyzed in the public order category include (in no particular order): prostitution, deviant sex (paraphilias), precocious sex (underage sex), homosexuality, pornography, alcoholism, liquor law violations (underage drinking), driving while intoxicated, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, drug offenses (opiates, heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, marijuana), and cigarette smoking. There are a number of other crimes and deviant acts, such as vagrancy, panhandling, homelessness, helmet and seat belt violations, gambling, abortion, suicide, and witchcraft that are not fully discussed here for sake of brevity.

Thankfully, no one as yet is seriously proposing bringing back the Scarlet Letter?
posted by y2karl at 10:46 AM on June 17, 2004


Out of curiousity, y2k, do you have a job? How in the hell do you find time to root up all this stuff? Why?!
posted by five fresh fish at 12:17 PM on June 17, 2004


Becker's book was written in 1963--I must have read it sometime in the 70s. I've linked to Charles Whitebread's speech before. It was maybe five minutes worth of Googling to find and post that. There's nothing remarkable in looking up names and titles one already knows.

From Whitebread's section on The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937:

Now, in doing this one at the FBI Academy, I didn't tell them this story, but I am going to tell you this story. You want to know how brief the hearings were on the national marijuana prohibition?

When we asked at the Library of Congress for a copy of the hearings, to the shock of the Library of Congress, none could be found. We went "What?" It took them four months to finally honor our request because -- are you ready for this? -- the hearings were so brief that the volume had slid down inside the side shelf of the bookcase and was so thin it had slid right down to the bottom inside the bookshelf. That's how brief they were. Are you ready for this? They had to break the bookshelf open because it had slid down inside...

In the Senate there never was any debate or a recorded vote, and the bill went to President Roosevelt's desk and he signed it and we had the national marijuana prohibition.

Well, now once you buy it, the ball is going to roll like crazy.


Fools rush in, indeed.
posted by y2karl at 12:33 PM on June 17, 2004


"very interesting site and discussion. they are ALL missing the point: deviance is neither good nor bad. it is judgementless."

Reread the comments. That idea was expressed or implied several times. I would say deviancy is value-neutral rather than judgementless though you may have stumbled on an embryonic word. It's a value-neutral term because it describes a position relative to the rest of society. Abolitionists were deviants, as was the temperance movement, and homosexuals as well.

A search for "Durkheim constant" (which is actually more of a threshold) yields some amusing results.
posted by euphorb at 1:45 PM on June 17, 2004


Deviation is standard.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 2:54 PM on June 17, 2004


The first caveman who tamed fire was a deviant. Eliminate deviance and eliminate progress.
posted by pyramid termite at 3:10 PM on June 17, 2004


Oh, and minus points for using a Dylan Thomas poem in a context that has nothing to do with the poem.
posted by pyramid termite at 3:12 PM on June 17, 2004


Rituals are granted gravity by the respect of a wider circle of people or the recognition of people hierarchically superior to you.

Yet another reason to be deeply suspicious of rituals, it seems to me.

I don't see much shitting, fff. The criticism here seems reasoned, focused, and appropriate.

I'd go further than that; I'd say it's mostly been superlative and some of the best I've ever seen in a thread here.
posted by rushmc at 5:01 PM on June 17, 2004


What's "bad" is what most people think is bad.

Rather, what's "deviant" is what most people think is deviant (anyway, their perceptions will often be congruent with the actual statistical record). "Bad" is something else altogether and is demonstrably independent of what the majority believes.
posted by rushmc at 5:05 PM on June 17, 2004


Joe Keefe was spot on in his structural analysis of it as a post, however. The guy makes his first post with the training wheels still on and people act like it's Moses parting the Red Sea. Despite the asskissing praise, it's a fairly pedestrian set of links. And links stitched together by quotes from context, at that. Pretty much the standard format hereabouts.

And the links--Charles Krauthammer? Oh, please, an op-ed by a gasbag? An Amazon link? This is new and different from the guy who complains about links from Salon? Give me a break! The Dylan Thomas poem was especially precious--one envisions Seth linking it with Woody Allen's voiceover in the opening scene to Manhattan in the background --The city *type, type*... was like a woman... Wow, I'm really hot now!

But, the ax being ground was provided economically enough and the discussion was good, I'll grant you that.

/snark ;)
posted by y2karl at 8:36 PM on June 17, 2004


"As MDN says, most of you are missing the point. According to my Sociology professor friend Kevin:

"very interesting site and discussion. they are ALL missing the point: deviance is neither good nor bad. it is judgementless." " (luriete)

Well, I did say (towards the beginning of the thread) "...That raises the question : whose definitions of the devolution of standards should society recognize ?"

Same point. I should just stop commenting. it's pointless.

Off, into the pointless forest......
posted by troutfishing at 9:00 PM on June 17, 2004


reminded me of a debate i was in up on worldchanging a while back! to quote tu quoque :D
i read recently (i forget where :) that privacy is a function of normalcy. meaning the extent to which one values privacy depends on how close-to or how outside the norm one is. (or maybe it was speech? i dunno, whatever :)

anyway, the "norm" has different axes, but the ones i'm thinking of are social and ethical. if one is 'deviant', say having an incurable fabric softener fetish, then practising such behaviour away from prying eyes holds a certain cachet.
like it's sort of along the lines of luriete's point! that "there are some sorts of deviancy which are never normalized," i.e. behaviours that compromise the integrity of society, unethical behaviour, that i would surmise renders it difficult to categorise 'deviancy' as value-neutral (at least along some moral 'axes'!)
posted by kliuless at 9:00 PM on June 17, 2004


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