Standard deviance

Interview | Author Anne Hendershott on the redefinition of bad behavior as "normal"

Issue: "Simpsons: Fair or Foul?," June 11, 2005

Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, boldly uses in the title of her latest book, The Politics of Deviance (Encounter, 2004), a word that many dare no longer speak.

WORLD: Is anything deviant anymore?

Hendershott: We have become reluctant to label behaviors "deviant." Drug abuse, promiscuity, abortion, and even homosexual acts are all behaviors that in the past were viewed as quite deviant. Today, in many cases, these behaviors have been normalized-or, as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, we have "defined deviancy down."

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I was curious how that happened and decided to look closely at some of these behaviors to understand the process of redefinition. I found that in the current politics of deviance, the power to label-and remove labels from-deviant behavior has moved away from the religious realm and been seized by influential interest or advocacy groups. Women's groups and gay-rights organizations, for instance, now have the ability to silence speech by those with whom they disagree. Health-care professionals and advocates have succeeded in medicalizing drug abuse and other behaviors.

WORLD: What's wrong with viewing drug addiction as a disease?

Hendershott: On the surface, medicalizing drug abuse is viewed as compassionate. In some "treatment" programs, such as methadone maintenance or harm-reduction programs in which hypodermic needles are supplied to IV drug users, the addict is enabled to "live safely" with his or her addiction. Yet, the reality is that drug abuse is a moral problem and needs to be addressed morally-not medically. This is why faith-based drug treatment programs are often much more successful than the medicalized programs.

WORLD: And meanwhile, we are medicalizing many behaviors.

Hendershott: Yes, many that in the past were viewed as disruptive, eccentric, or simply "bad." The new mental illness designation given to unruly children and adolescents has now progressed from Attention Deficit Disorder to Oppositional Defiance Disorder-replete with medication protocols. Adults, too, are increasingly being labeled. In San Diego, we had a case in which a surfer claimed "surf rage" when he was arrested for nearly beating a fellow surfer to death for invading his "surf space."

Behaviors like "shopping addiction" have been identified. A woman in San Francisco successfully sued her company for its unwillingness to make reasonable accommodations for her compulsion to wash, brush, and then rewash her hair for up to three hours each morning if it did not feel right. The 9th Circuit Court ruled that when her employer eventually fired her for being late, it was without cause-because of her mental illness.

WORLD: And some also want accommodation for what you call the "sexually adventurous adolescent"?

Hendershott: I chose that chapter title after reading about the social science response to a major syphilis outbreak among suburban teenagers in Conyers, Ga. In Conyers, a large number of very young teenagers were engaging in promiscuous sexual behaviors-some with more than 100 partners. The behavior led to a syphilis epidemic in the upscale suburb. While shocking, the response from some women's groups and sociologists was even more shocking. Deborah Tolman, a research scientist and director of the Adolescent Sexuality Project at Wellesley College, suggested that girls are entitled to their own sexual desire or sexual pleasure and that "good" girls or "nice" girls are depriving themselves of a full life. Ms. Tolman's article, "How Being a Good Girl Can Be Bad for Girls," is a classic redefinition of deviance in which what has been regarded as "good" is recast as "deviant" and what was seen as bad becomes "normal."

WORLD: Can Christians do anything to remoralize public discourse?

Hendershott: Some religious leaders have become reluctant to speak publicly of morals at all-and in their place, a powerful advocacy community stands ready, willing, and able to redefine deviance for us.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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