Thursday, August 09, 2018

Defining Deviancy

In sociological discourse, we encounter the term "defining deviancy down." This phrase refers to behavior that used to be condemned but now is tolerated. It's an academic way of grumbling, "Society is going to the dogs." Profanity and obscenity in what used to be called "mixed company," for example. Open sale of sexually explicit literature. "Four-letter-words," extreme gore, and onscreen sex in movies. Going to houses of worship or expensive restaurants without wearing a coat and tie or a dress (as appropriate). (In my childhood, it was frowned upon for a girl or woman to shop at an upscale department story without dressing up.) For boys, wearing a T-shirt to school (the crisis in one episode of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER centered around this transgression); for girls, going to school in pants instead of skirts. Individuals of opposite sexes living together outside of marriage. Unmarried women becoming pregnant and having babies openly instead of hiding their condition in shame. Ubiquitous gun violence in the inner cities—in WEST SIDE STORY, the introduction of a gun into the feud between the rival gangs was framed as a shocking escalation of the conflict.

In many respects, however, we've defined "deviancy" upward since what some people nostalgically recall as the good old days of the 1950s. Smoking, for example. In my childhood, most adults smoked cigarettes, and they did it anytime almost everywhere. In grocery stores! At the doctor's office! Air pollution by big-engined, gas-guzzling cars that used to be status symbols is now disapproved of. So are the racial slurs often heard in casual conversation back then. Dogs nowadays don't run loose in our communities like Lassie and Lady (my main sources of information on dogs until my parents acquired one, who didn't act nearly so intelligent as Lady, the Tramp, and their friends). Leash laws didn't become widespread until my teens. Alleged humor based on physical abuse of women by men used to be common in the media. Ralph on THE HONEYMOONERS regularly threatened to hit his wife ("to the moon, Alice!"), though he never did so on screen, and in THE QUIET MAN, John Wayne spanked Maureen O'Hara in the middle of the road. Public intoxication, including drunk driving, was also casually treated as funny, as in many of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories and the novels of Thorne Smith (author of TOPPER). Most adults seemed to regard bullying as a commonplace childhood rite of passage that kids had to learn to cope with, as long as it didn't cause significant injury. As far as safety features such as seat belts in cars were concerned, there was no law requiring passengers to wear them, because they didn't exist.

Where some societal changes are concerned, factions differ on whether they constitute improvement or deterioration. Some contemporary parents wouldn't think of letting their children visit friends, roam around the neighborhood, or ride a bus on their own at ages that were considered perfectly normal until recent decades. Conversely, if adults from the 1950s could witness today's trends, most of them would probably consider "helicopter parenting" harmful as well as ridiculous. Are the emergence of same-sex marriage, dual-career households, and legal access to abortion good or bad changes? The answer to that question depends on one's political philosophy. Does a decline in church and synagogue membership mean we've become a society of secularists and atheists, or does it simply mean that, because we no longer have so much social pressure to look "religious," for the most part only sincere believers join religious organizations? (C. S. Lewis noted that an alleged "decline" in chapel attendance among university students in fact reflected a sudden drop as soon as attendance became optional instead of compulsory.)

Whether you think current trends in behavior, customs, and morals are mainly positive or negative probably influences whether you believe Steven Pinker, for instance, is right or wrong when he claims in ENLIGHTENMENT NOW that we're living in the best of times rather than the worst.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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