Jewish World Review August 29, 2002 / 21 Elul, 5762

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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The Summer of Deviance | Call it the summer of deviance. Young girls abducted from their bedrooms, snatched from their front yards, victims of crimes too horrible to imagine. A serial murderer stalking the streets of Baton Rouge, La., a co-ed in her twenties and two middle-aged women among the dead. Near round-the-clock coverage of a California trial of a child-killer whose cache of child pornography included the types of pictures the Supreme Court recently decided to protect on First Amendment grounds. Two popular disc jockeys paying a couple to have sex in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The stories still have the power to shock us in varying degrees. But are we losing the very words to describe such despicable acts and the moral code by which to judge them? That's the argument Anne Hendershott makes in her new book, "The Politics of Deviance" Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, claims that decades of political pressure by advocacy groups and ideologues have left us with the inability to recognize deviance when we see it, nor do anything to curb it.

Until deviance itself became a forbidden subject, Hendershott says, aspiring sociologists routinely studied "topics ranging from promiscuity and cheating on exams, to addiction, pedophilia, deviant subcultures, organized crime and serial murder, in an effort to understand how groups draw boundaries around acceptable behavior and punish violators." Emile Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, notes Hendershott, "saw that moral unity could be assured only if all members of a society were anchored to common assumptions about the world around them; without these assumptions, a society was bound to degenerate and decay."

However, for the majority of sociologists today, Hendershott says, the only reason to study deviance is to try to figure out why so many in the past erroneously thought the topic was important. Deviance, in this view, is simply a means "by which the powerful exerted control over the powerless."

Hendershott catalogues a variety of deviant behaviors from drug abuse to pedophilia that have been "normalized" in recent years. In 1994, for example, the American Psychiatric Association revised its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual so that neither pedophilia nor child molestation could be considered indicative of psychological disorders. "To qualify as disordered," Hendershott reports, "molesters must feel 'anxious' about the acts or be 'impaired' in their work or social relationships." Meanwhile, drug abuse is "medicalized" to ensure that those who take drugs not be stigmatized or held morally responsible for their actions.

She notes that not only does this phenomenon lead to confusion about culpability, it also fuels what others have dubbed "moral panics." Since most people have an innate sense of revulsion at certain deviant behavior, "[m]oral panics are most likely to erupt when traditional norms and values no longer appear to have much relevance to people's live but there is little to replace them. People's awareness of this vacuum," Hendershott says, "makes them all the more susceptible to panic-mongering." She cites examples from the satanic-cult panic of two decade ago, when Americans became obsessed by stories of day care workers allegedly sexually abusing young children in satanic rituals. Some innocent people went to jail, despite no real evidence of abuse, and many lives were ruined on the basis of false memories fostered by overzealous and unscrupulous therapists.

Though the recent child abduction cases themselves are real, unlike the alleged satanic rituals of the 1980s, the current obsession with these sensational stories may be yet another example of moral panic. Near constant media coverage gives us the sense that predators lurk on every corner and there is little we can do to protect our children, despite evidence that child abductions by strangers have actually been declining in recent years, including this year. "When a society's moral boundaries are sharp, clear and secure, and the central norms and values are strongly held," Hendershott writes, "moral panics rarely take hold."

Hendershott's book is a sobering examination of both the moral confusion that shrouds deviant behavior from proper scrutiny and opprobrium and the moral panics that lead us to imagine deviant behavior everywhere.

Linda Chavez serves on the board of directors of ABM Industries, Inc., a publicly held company.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate