THE POLITICS OF DEVIANCE by Anne B. Hendershott Encounter Books, 2002 194 pages, $26.95 To order: (415) 538-1460 or http://www.encounterbooks.com
Most sociologists today deem the study of deviance an academic irrelevancy. In The Politics of Deviance, Anne B. Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, seeks to put it back in the curriculum.
“[F]or the majority of sociologists today,” Hendershott writes, “the only reason to study deviance is to dissect a long-dead discipline in order to understand why so many sociologists once deemed it important.”
“Most of the sociology textbooks today,” the author continues, “are critical of the notion of defining deviance and even more critical of any sociologist who might suggest that the concept was ever useful in helping us understand social order.”
The reason for the silence – and the premature reports of the passing of a discipline – is that, as Hendershott writes, “For today's postmodern sociologists, conceptions of deviance cannot exist in a society that has been so dramatically changed by shifts in values, politics and social relations. The commitment to egalitarianism, along with a growing reluctance to judge the behavior of others, has made discussions of deviance obsolete.”
Wishful thinking on their part. For, unfortunately, deviance is very much alive, and likely to be so for as long as man is – even if it is politically incorrect to say so.
As Hendershott shows, to claim that deviance is dead is to avoid a whole panoply of issues most fair-minded academics don't want to touch – and certainly do not want to pass judgment on: homosexuality, promiscuity, adultery. The list goes on.
“In the aftermath of the radical egalitarianism of the 1960s,” Hendershott writes, “merely to label a behavior as deviant came to be viewed as rejecting the equality – perhaps the very humanity – of those engaging in it.”
As Hendershott sees it, the erasure of deviance has blunted society's ability to condemn certain choices. In fact, they are not even choices anymore.
Take drug abuse as an example. In a damning chapter, Hendershott explains how the problem has become largely medicalized, to the extent that former baseball star Darryl Strawberry's drug addiction is presented as akin to his cancer. When actor Robert Downey Jr. was arrested on drug charges (again) weeks after receiving an Emmy award, the media scrambled to blame his genes, his upbringing, his environment – anyone and everyone but him.
Hendershott writes: “Instead of holding the actor responsible for his latest lapse into substance abuse and addiction, the media offered to transfer any blame for Downey's problem to Hollywood itself ... One Boston Globe critic claimed that most people believe that Hollywood should have given him space after his release from prison and that producer David E. Kelley did him no favors by featuring him on the television series ‘Ally McBeal.’”
What happens when there is no recognition of the existence of behavioral norms within a society? It becomes difficult to condemn even the most despicable acts or to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions.
This is not just a what-if scenario, by the way. Look at the crime of pedophilia, for example. It's already being referred to by the intelligentsia under the euphemism “intergenerational intimacy.” In other words, sure, it's wrong when it is forced, but who's to say that it is objectively wrong?
Destigmatization efforts make pedophilia, according to Hendershott, “a behavior whose status now appears to be in transition.”
Hendershott's prescription for waking up from this sort of societal delusion? We must regroup and “draw from nature, reason and common sense to define what is deviant and reaffirm the moral ties that bind us together.” That's a tall order, but, as she shows in these pages, there's still time to fill it.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.