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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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He is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative.

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Irish Elk
Thursday, October 31, 2002  
Defining deviancy down

The Oct. 28 edition of National Review features a review of Anne Hendershott's The Politics of Deviance by Carol Iannone, who writes:

A play about a man in love with a goat wins the Tony award. A prime-time TV game show features a totally naked woman throwing a little football at a large screen. A mainline Protestant church encourages homeless people to live in cardboard boxes on its steps. College students consume and create pornography for credit. Such is little more than an average week's news in the blandly decadent America of the 21st century, and, as each new wave of bizarreness unfurls, practically the only condemnation we hear is against those who dare to be offended.

Hendershott -- a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego -- explains how the act of defining deviant behavior was once seen as a staple of sociological study, and also an ordinary and necessary aspect of a sound society.

But with the rise of the "radical egalitarianism of the 1960s," and the "growing reluctance to judge the behavior of others," all discussion of deviance became "obsolete." Social scientists convinced themselves that the sociology of deviance was actually the "construction of deviance," i.e., "the imposition of selective censure by the dominant elements of society".

This has consequences. Calling a behavior deviant can help lead to some specific solution; denying the very reality of deviance precludes any remedy. The older approach respected the humanity of a troubled individual even as it addressed his dysfunctional behavior; under the new dispensation, the individual becomes a victim, his problem an open-ended claim of entitlement and the very source of his identity...

Thus we have the Homeless Guy blog, whose seemingly articulate and computer-savvy creator is able to maintain an attractive web site, but not, he says, a job or a place to live for 20 years. Why not Hobo.com? Tramp.com? How about Bum.com?

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail describes the soft-focus lens through which the local media has viewed a Toronto squatters' camp:

"Over at the Toronto Star, they also waxed outraged and romantic. They even printed a seven-page special section to commemorate the people of Tent City, as if they were brave soldiers or Olympic athletes. 'It took Dave, the squatter, four months to build his dream home,' the special section began. Like Tent City's other free spirits, he longed to escape the conventions of bourgeois society. His dream home was just a shack made out of rubbish, but he 'lived like a pioneer.' Proving that not all journalists are as gullible as the ones at the CBC, the story also reported that Dave's live-in girlfriend, Donna, keeps a nearby subsidized apartment with a balcony and hot running water, just in case.

"In fact, everyone at Tent City had some place else to sleep, even if it was only a city shelter. They just didn't want to sleep there. And although the shortage of cheap housing is a pressing social problem in this city, one thing I can say for sure: Tent City is not a story about homelessness in an uncaring society.

"It's a story about defining deviancy down.

"This useful phrase was coined by the formidable social thinker Daniel Patrick Moynihan to describe how a culture comes to accept and tolerate (and reward) destructive behaviour. Then we congratulate ourselves for being so compassionate."

By the time [Moynihan] summed up the disaster in his famous phrase, Iannone writes, we were casually and daily countenancing things that would have driven our ancestors to take out the pitchforks.

In Tuesday's dispiriting gubernatorial debate in Massachusetts, the candidates of the two major parties vied to prove their commitment to a woman's "right to choose." Shannon O'Brien, the "Catholic" candidate, touted her "impassioned defense" of abortion rights and her endorsements by Emily's List and NARAL, and her support for lowering from 18 to 16 the age at which a teenage girl can procure an abortion without parental notification. Mitt Romney, the candidate of conservatives, pledged to mount no challenge of any kind to the abortion license, while hailing the courage of his mother as a 1970 political candidate advocating legalized abortion.

Iannone: Conservatives as well as liberals have subscribed to what can be called the normalization of deviance. A few years ago a friend of mine had dinner with several conservative Episcopalians, higher-ups at a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic parish that preserves an all-male priesthood, and was shocked to hear them stoutly defend unisex bathrooms in college dorms. Somehow one doubts that decades ago these solid citizens sat in church mulling over the necessity for a young female college student to step out of the shower and find a strange young man standing at the toilet. Yet despite their liturgical traditionalism, they had obviously imbibed from the larger society the prevailing egalitarianism that finds sexual differentiation unacceptable.

And so, at a time the traditional family is under siege, a Catholic argument that carries weight is missing from the electoral dialogue in Massachusetts. A Catholic voice is absent from the political debate in one of the most political and Catholic states in the nation.

And Lake Street is in no position to advance a countering vision. That is one of the great shames of the clerical abuse scandal, and all the more reason for a thorough changing of the guard in the Brighton chancery.


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