The Politics of Deviance
Encounter Books 2002
Occasionally a book is published that examines the dogmas of the dominant culture with such clarity that the gatekeepers can only regard it as subversive. Anne Hendershott's "The Politics of Deviance" is such a book.
Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, follows the lead of former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who warned in the 1965 speech "Defining Deviancy Down" that "[society] has chosen not to notice behavior that would be otherwise controlled, disapproved, or even punished." Moynihan's warning proved true. Behaviors once considered deviant are now considered normal.
Hendershott's focuses on how advocacy groups manipulate language and social structures to redefine deviant behavior as normal. Women's groups, the gay rights lobby, euthanasia advocates and activists in the medical profession fall under her critical gaze. She discusses how traditional ideas about personal responsibility are being displaced and the corrosive effects this has on the culture.
Hendershott quotes social theorist Philip Jenkins who argues that modern society is like a supermarket where the activists compete to win buyers for their products. Advertisers create emotional appeals to convince the consumer to buy a newproduct even though the one he already own works just fine. The advocates work the same way. They create emotional appeals to convince people that they need a new definition of deviance even though they never realized it.
In the past deviants were at the margins of society but inthe new post-modern order, the deviants are increasingly defined as those in the center. Public discourse about morality relies less on reason and commonsense and more on "human will and desire as mediated through advocacy groups." Conventional morality is displaced with the post-modern morality ofthe advocate.
Hendershott is a sociologist, not a moral philosopher. She focuses practical concern on how the advocacy groups try to win influence. The chapter titled "Celebrating the Sexually Adventurous Adolescent" for example, chronicles the tragic case of the Conyers, Georgia teens featured in the 1996 PBS Frontline series The Lost Children of Rockdale County.
Officials in Conyers, an upwardly mobile suburb where many successful families landed in order to escape the problems of the city, noticed a disturbing rise in syphilis infections that involved more than 200 teenagers.On closer examination health officials discovered a core of young girls, most between 13 and 15 years old but some as young as 12 involved in sexual encounters, often in groups, with slightly older boys.
You would think that adults would be alarmed at what happened in Conyers. Not so, writes Hendershott. PBS received some stinging criticism from moral progressives. Feminists were especially critical for "sensationalizing the story." Others praised PBS but not out of any sympathyfor the troubled teens. They were pleased that the network admitted that the "young women have sexual desires and fantasies similar to young men."
The problems in Conyers ran deep. The "nonjudgmental,value-free sex education [that these children] have received in school since their elementary days" miserably failed them, Hendershott writes. Conyers had a comprehensive sex-education program where abstinence was offered, but it was presented in a flood of alternatives advocating promiscuity. Cleary these children got little moral guidance to challenge the "value free" training theyreceived.
The normalizing of deviancy seen at Conyers occurs across the board. Homosexual activism is portrayed as a civil rights struggle to remove the stigma on homosexual behavior. Drug addiction and other behaviors are medicalized to avoid apportioning blame. Feminism creates an ideology of rape in order redefine gender relationships. Death advocates redefine the language of suicide and death in order to normalize killing. Pedophiles call sex with children "inter-generational sex" as the first step in normalizing child molestation. Hendershott examines these topics and more in detail.
She examines her own field of sociology to illustrate how far her discipline has strayed from its moral origins. Sociology emerged during the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution swept across Europe. The early scholars were concerned with questions about the social order and the common good, and studied how societies maintain stability in the face of dramatic change.
"From the [earliest times] onward, until the upheavals of the 1960's, sociologists continued to assert that social stability is founded on moral order — a common worldview that binds people to their families, their communities, and to the larger economic and social institutions," writes Hendershott. "Integral to this moral order is shared concept of deviance, and a willingness to identify the boundaries of appropriate behavior."
"But today," Hendershott continues, "compelling pleas for a rational response to deviant behavior are often drowned out by the more emotional appeals — and political cunning — generated by advocacy groups. In 1965 Senator Moynihan tried to warn us of the impending problems in the inner cities when he predicted that chaos would result from single-parent households. He was correct— yet for the past thirty years, instead of attacking the problem of fatherless children in inner cities, social scientists have been more likely to attack Moynihan and any other sociologist who dares to 'blame the victims' of poverty."
Hendershott's critique can be applied to different areas of society including religious institutions. Following the lead of their secular counterparts, many clergy recklessly embraced the post-modern normalcy. Religionis beyond the scope of Hendershott's analysis. Nevertheless, when religious leaders normalize deviancy — when clergy teach that right is wrong and wrong is right — the moral barriers that protect society are seriously weakened.
Resistance is growing to this effort to normalize deviancy. Ordinary people offer the greatest hope because they suffer the real world consequences of the elite imposition of the new deviancy. The communities that have been broken by failed welfare policies or families that have fallen apart because of teenage pregnancy or divorce, are speaking out against the moral chaos that has destroyed neighborhoods, families, and individuals.
What should be done? We need to "remoralize" social discourse. Right and wrong exist. All behaviors are not created equal. Allowing deviancy to be defined byadvocacy groups is a model that society must reject if it cares about the greater good.
Language is the crucial battleground. Changes in language alter changes in perception. Any change in moral perception begins with a linguistic assault that is based on individual desires rather than moral categories. "From the rights-based, pro-choice rhetoric of those promoting assisted suicide, to the medical jargonof those promoting the disease model of addiction, advocates for redefinitions of deviance know that the side that wins the linguistic high ground generally wins the debate," Hendershott says.
Hendershott warns that the more society becomes captive to the advocate and his agenda, the more the potential for evil increases. Asociety that "defines deviancy as disease or refuses to acknowledge and negatively sanction the deviant acts that common sense tells us are destructive, is a society that has lost the capacity to confront the evil thatcan dehumanize us all,"
Twenty-five years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said thatwe need moralists to challenge the self-destructive and dehumanizing drift of western culture. Anne Hendershott, in this valuable and courageous book, reveals why we need them.
Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego and author of "Moving for Work" and "The Reluctant Caregivers" among other works.
Copyright © 2002 Johannes L. Jacobse. Rev. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.