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 generate 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
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.