Defining Deviancy Up

November 26, 1993|By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER

In a recent essay in The American Scholar titled ''Defining Deviancy Down,'' Daniel Patrick Moynihan offers an arresting view of the epidemic of deviancy -- of criminality, family breakdown, mental illness -- that has come to characterize the American social landscape. Deviancy has reached such incomprehensible proportions, argues Mr. Moynihan, that we have had to adopt a singular form of denial: We deal with the epidemic simply by defining away most of the disease. We lower the threshold for what we are prepared to call normal in order to keep the volume of deviancy -- redefined deviancy -- within manageable proportions.

For example. Since 1960 the incidence of single parenthood has more than tripled. Almost 30 percent of all American children are now born to unmarried mothers. The association of fatherlessness with poverty, welfare dependency, crime and other pathologies points to a monstrous social problem. Yet, as the problem has grown, it has been systematically redefined by the culture -- by social workers, intellectuals and most famously by the mass media -- as simply another lifestyle choice. Dan Quayle may have been right, but Murphy Brown won the ratings war.

Senator Moynihan's second example is crime. We have become totally inured to levels of criminality that would have been considered intolerable 30 years ago. The St. Valentine's Day massacre, which caused a national uproar and merited two entries in the World Book Encyclopedia, involved four thugs killing seven other thugs. An average weekend in today's Los Angeles, notes James Q. Wilson. More than half of all violent crimes are not even reported. We have come to view homicide as ineradicable a part of the social landscape as car accidents.

And finally there is mental illness. Unlike family breakdown and criminality, there has probably been no increase in mental illness over the last 30 years. Rates of schizophrenia do not change, but the rate of hospitalization for schizophrenia and other psychoses has changed. The mental hospitals have been emptied. In 1955 New York state asylums had 93,000 patients. Last year they had 11,000.

Where have the remaining 82,000 and their descendants gone? Onto the streets mostly. In one generation, a flood of pathetically ill people has washed onto the streets of America's cities. We now step over these wretched and abandoned folk sleeping in doorways and freezing on grates. They, too, have become accepted as part of the natural landscape. We have managed to do that by redefining them as people who simply lack affordable housing. They are not crazy or sick, just very poor -- as if anyone crazy and sick and totally abandoned would not end up very poor.

Mr. Moynihan's powerful point is that with the moral deregulation of the 1960s, we have had an explosion of deviancy in family life, criminal behavior and public displays of psychosis. And we have dealt with it in the only way possible: by redefining deviancy down so as to explain away and make ''normal'' what a more civilized, ordered and healthy society long ago would have labeled -- and long ago did label -- deviant.

* * *

Senator Moynihan is right. But it is only half the story. There is a complementary social phenomenon that goes with defining deviancy down. As part of the vast social project of moral leveling, it is not enough for the deviant to be normalized. The normal must be found to be deviant. Therefore, while for the criminals and the crazies deviancy has been defined down (the bar defining normality has been lowered), for the ordinary bourgeois deviancy has been defined up (the bar defining normality has been raised). Large areas of ordinary behavior hitherto considered benign have had their threshold radically redefined up, so that once innocent behavior now stands condemned as deviant. Normal middle-class life then stands exposed as the true home of violence and abuse and a whole catalog of aberrant acting and thinking.

First, family life. Under the new dispensation it turns out that the ordinary middle-class family is not a warm, welcoming fount of ''family values,'' not a bedrock of social and psychic stability as claimed in conservative propaganda. It is instead a caldron of pathology, a teeming source of the depressions, alienations and assorted dysfunctions of adulthood. Why? Because deep in the family lies the worm, the 1990s version of original sin: child abuse.

Child abuse is both a crime and a tragedy, but is it 19 times more prevalent today than 30 years ago? That is what the statistics offer. In 1963: 150,000 reported cases. In 1992: 2.9 million.

Now, simply considering the historical trajectory of the treatment of children since the 19th century, when child labor -- even child slavery -- was common, it is hard to believe that the tendency toward improved treatment of children has been so radically reversed in one generation. What happened then?

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