When Deviant Behavior Gets Respectable

How Academia Refined Away Social Problems

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SAN DIEGO, California, SEPT. 27, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Last Aug. 6 marked the 10th anniversary of John Paul II's encyclical on themes related to moral theology, "Veritatis Splendor." In the introduction the Pope observed: "No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil?"



It was a timely encyclical, given the worrying tendency under way to redefine harmful behaviors and break down traditional moral boundaries. And that trend has continued unabated, if Anne Hendershott's 2002 book "The Politics of Deviance" is any indication.

In her book the sociology professor at the University of San Diego argues: "The reluctance of sociologists to acknowledge that there are moral judgments to be made when discussing a subject like deviance shows how far this discipline has strayed from its origins."

Hendershott explains that up until recent times sociologists were concerned about the questions of social order and the common good. Up until the 1960s this involved maintaining that social stability is founded on moral order. "Integral to this concept of moral order is a shared concept of deviance, and a willingness to identify the boundaries of appropriate behavior," she observes.

Deviance as a concept helps to define the framework within which a group can develop a sense of its own cultural identity and social order. This is not a rigid process, the book adds. In fact, challenges to existing norms can be positive, as when people stand up to socially accepted racism.

Now, however, deviance is being redefined. Starting about 20 years ago, Hendershott observes, courses on deviance were deleted from the academic programs of many sociology faculties, and most current sociology textbooks reject the idea of defining any behavior as being deviant.

The culture of victimhood

Changes in academy have in turn influenced the media and popular views. An example of this is how drug addiction is judged. It is now common to consider addiction as "a condition in which substance abusers are gripped by a disease they have acquired through no fault of their own," Hendershott comments.

The media, through films, documentaries and magazine features, repeat that drug addiction is a disease or allergy, or that drug-taking is a response to how a person's brain responds to the chemical involved. Often ignored in this type of analysis is the person's responsibility for having decided to start taking drugs.

The next step, continues Hendershott, is that addicts go on to claim that drug use is a human right and that the government has a responsibility to make it safer to be an addict. Hence the decision in some countries to provide injecting rooms with clean needles -- and to forgo any attempt to wean addicts off their habits.

Turning to the subject of pedophilia, Hendershott comments that at the same time Catholic priests were being vilified for their abuses, academic groups were busily engaged in promoting what is termed "intergenerational intimacy." A 1991 collection of essays, "Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological and Legal Perspectives," was penned by an international group of scholars, many in important teaching positions. In works such as these, pedophiles are no longer seen as deviants, but as "border crossers." Many of the essays seek to normalize underage sexual practices by proposing a neutral terminology that seeks to eliminate "the bias against pedophilia."

In 1994 the American Psychiatric Association revised its "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual" so that neither pedophilia nor child molestation would in itself necessarily be indicative of psychological disorder. To qualify as disordered the molesters must feel "anxious" about their acts or be "impaired" in their work or social relationships. Then in 1998 a study released by the American Psychological Association argued that sexual abuse of children does not cause emotional disorders or unusual psychological problems in adulthood.

Heterosexual relations among teen-agers have also been redefined. The book cites examples where sexual promiscuity among adolescents is now seen as perfectly normal. According to this view, the real problem is with programs that promote abstinence. Proponents of promiscuity allege that such programs contribute to deviant behavior, intolerance and a dangerous failure to use contraceptives.

Another area of behavior now being targeted for change is suicide. Taking one's life, explains Hendershott, has traditionally been seen as a deviant act because it devalues human life. But euthanasia campaigners are trying to change opinions by portraying suicide as an issue of "choice" and talk about "the right to die."

And at the academic level it is increasingly common to talk about two types of suicide: those that need to be prevented, and "rational" suicides that should be respected and even helped. At the time the book was written, there were about 100,000 sites on the Internet dedicated to the theme of suicide.

Changing language

Redefining language referring to human behavior is part of a larger campaign to change perceptions, concludes Hendershott. In the suicide debate, changing the terms from "disturbed" or "crazy" to "dignity" or "autonomy" is an important move. She notes that we are in the age of experts whose views are promoted as being more reliable than those of traditional morality and the churches. Combined with this is the influence of cultural relativists who call for the rejection of the concepts of good and evil.

But, Hendershott warns, a society that "refuses to acknowledge and negatively sanction the deviant acts our common sense tells us are destructive, is a society that has lost the capacity to confront evil that has a capacity to dehumanize us all."

Her words echo those of John Paul II in "Veritatis Splendor": "By acknowledging and teaching the existence of intrinsic evil in given human acts, the Church remains faithful to the integral truth about man; she thus respects and promotes man in his dignity and vocation" (No. 83).

This mission is essential in today's society, which often repeats Pilate's question: "What is truth?" The Pope noted that today the bond between truth, the good and freedom is often overlooked. Too often truth is not accepted, "and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil" (No. 84).

"Veritatis Splendor" also deals with a common objection to moral norms, namely, that defending objective precepts is often seen as intolerant or not taking into account the complexity of an individual's particular situation. But, explains John Paul II, upholding the truth does not mean the Church is lacking in compassion. The Church is both a mother and teacher, and concealing or weakening moral truth is not consistent with genuine understanding and compassion.

"Still," the encyclical points out, "a clear and forceful presentation of moral truth can never be separated from a profound and heartfelt respect, born of that patient and trusting love which man always needs along his moral journey, a journey frequently wearisome on account of difficulties, weakness and painful situations" (No. 95).

Setting limits to what is acceptable behavior and maintaining the force of negative moral norms that prohibit evil, continues the encyclical, is a valuable service. "By protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being they help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development" (No. 97). The Pope calls for personal, social and political life to be "open in truth to authentic freedom" (No 101). Hendershott might hope that that message isn't lost on sociologists.