Tuesday, December 19, 2017

review of Hendershott's "The Politics of Deviance"

As a Christian, an economist, and a public policy analyst, this was an interesting book for me to read and review. In a word, this slender volume ably describes how categories of deviant behavior have changed in recent decades.

Hendershott opens the book by describing the “the death of deviance” within the sociology profession. The topic had been one of their most important fields into the 1960s and a popular staple in undergraduate curricula—as a set of provocative topics ranging from addiction to serial murder. But under post-modern influences, sociologists began to argue that deviance was defined by society’s dominant groups, largely for the purpose of censuring other groups. Ironically, in essence, the intelligentsia was claiming to use their power to free previously ostracized people.

In any case, today, powerful interest groups are clearly playing a dominant role in defining deviancies away—or into existence. The implications of this change have ranged from the ascendance of “political correctness” to the reformulation of cultural norms. As a result, the modern understanding of deviance often parallels the contemporary use of the term “tolerance”—i.e., in large part, those who hold to traditional norms are believed to be deviant and, ironically, their views are no longer tolerated. For example, homosexuality was almost universally considered deviant, but is now rivaled in deviancy by “homophobia”—with the latter defined in the contemporary terms of “tolerance”, where mere disapproval is cast as hatred and fear.

How does society define “normal”—both in the sense of “ordinary” (what people typically believe and how they typically act) and in terms of the “norms” that society expects individuals to meet.  Moreover, how and why do these definitions change over time? Economists tend to focus on the material incentives associated with responses to individual preferences and government institutions. But Hendershott is covering a realm in which non-material incentives are important and are determined in communal settings. Obviously, religion and beliefs about “absolute standards” can play a key role here—but other factors are also important. Take two examples. First, why did individuals behave morally in the 1950s? To what extent was their behavior driven by Christianity or other internal beliefs about morality rather than a reflexive conformity to social norms or a desire to avoid the costs of social stigma? Second, to what extent was the post-Saddam looting in Iraq due to the impact of Islam, poverty, Saddam’s dictatorship, or the absence of law enforcement. To make a more specific application: how much looting would there be in the average American city if there were no police available?

After her introduction, Hendershott turns to a variety of contemporary applications. Her first topic is the role of medicine in defining deviance—in particular, by promoting disease over decision. And beyond reducing personal culpability, what was previously considered “sin” is now often viewed as benign. In a word, many formerly deviant behaviors are now considered neutral and if the behavior is still considered unfortunate, it is also viewed as largely out of the person’s control. (She spends most of this chapter talking about various addictions, but one can also easily see this within the debate about homosexuality.) Is it “biochemical determinism” or “free will” with some inherent tendencies to behave in a certain manner? The former has always seemed a strange position for one to advocate. Where is the dignity, self-efficacy and empowerment of having absolutely no control—or at least, in making that claim? In the Christian tradition, blame-shifting goes back as far as Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:8-13). But it always seems like a high price to pay for pity and an excuse. In any case, the evidence that people do change belies the claim of the determinists.

Hendershott continues by talking about the “normalization” and de-institutionalization of the mentally ill. She notes that, by normalizing mental illness, the definition was prone to expand. As a result, we find assault redefined as “rage”, temporary insanity copped as a plea, and ADHD and Ritalin taking the place of character flaws in children and parents. Today, more than six million children are defined as mentally ill, with parents now even requesting the diagnosis. Noting that doctors wrote nearly 100 million prescriptions for anti-depressants in 2001, she concludes soberly that “the practice of medicalizing deviance has encouraged the dangerous fantasy that life’s every passing imperfection can be clinically diagnosed and alleviated, if not eliminated, by pharmacological intervention through push-button remedies.”

Hendershott also discusses sexual abuse by Catholic priests—and how it relates to pedophilia, homosexuality, celibacy, and the sometimes contradictory agendas of the tolerance-mongers. The media have been reluctant to identify most of these incidents with homosexuality, instead focusing on pedophilia and trying to connect the abuse to celibacy. Of course, celibacy (for priests and other singles) is now largely viewed as deviant, having been replaced by a social norm of promiscuity. At the same time, some within psychiatry have been seeking to normalize pedophilia. (She cites an article the APA Psychology Bulletin and notes that in 1994, the DSM was revised to say that pedophilia by itself was not sufficient to “be indicative of psychological disorder”.)

One of the strengths of Hendershott’s work is her use of contemporary cultural and political examples to illustrate her points. She points to the influence of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in de-stigmatizing mental illness. She critiques A Beautiful Mind, but she would have better served in complementing it, at least in contrast to As Good as It Gets. While the love and long-suffering of John Nash’s wife are essential to his recovery, love and “tolerance” are not portrayed as sufficient. Nash also emphasizes the importance of his “diet of the mind”— abstaining from certain destructive thoughts. In addition, Hendershott points to the late Senator Patrick Moynihan’s warning about “defining deviancy down” in the early 1990s as the catalyst for the popular reconsideration of deviancy as a doctrine—focusing on illegitimate births, welfare dependency, sexual promiscuity. She argues that the election of Rudolph Guiliani in New York City signaled a recovery in traditional understandings of deviance. And she also discusses the role of 9/11 in redefining and solidifying traditional moral judgments.

Finally, all of this begs some separate but related questions. Which “deviant” behaviors should we allow people the freedom to engage in? To the extent that we allow such freedoms, how does society continue to indicate that the behavior is, in fact, deviant? I agree with Hendershott that cultural change largely determines legal change. Drunk driving, cigarettes, sexual harassment, and date rape have all been stigmatized in recent years—and within more traditional moralities this is a good thing. In the movies of the 1930s, drunkenness, adultery, and wife-beating were all glorified—but over time, the culture has stigmatized them all. Although law may serve some role, the long and slow but ultimately more successful approach is to emphasize cultural change—one life, one family, one community at a time.


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