by Quin Hillyer
In a famous essay, former social scientist and U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it “Defining Deviancy Down.” This is what happens when society no longer self-regulates to enforce standards of acceptable behavior. Judging from two columns in the Wall Street Journal last week, society in the world’s two most important bastions of ordered liberty, the United States and Great Britain, no longer self-regulates. In Great Britain, deviancy may even have been defined completely out of existence. We’re all in trouble.
What Moynihan meant is that societies will allow themselves to acknowledge only a certain level of anti-social behavior, because to do otherwise is to acknowledge societal failure to such an extent as undermine their own sense of legitimacy. If anti-social behaviors increase, then society either A) cracks down on them or B) redefines what is and isn’t anti-social so that formerly unacceptable behavior now becomes accepted as “normal.” The latter, of course, is the path of least resistance. In his words, “we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized.”
On April 21, Wall Street Journal essayist Peggy Noonan described much the same phenomenon. In a piece called “America’s Crisis of Character,” she wrote of the Secret Service prostitution scandal, of federal employees partying in Las Vegas on the taxpayer dime, of the beating of a tourist in Baltimore while young witnesses laughed instead of helped, and of 16 New York public school teachers who can’t be fired even after atrocious behavior including “sex with students, stalking students, and, in one case, standing behind a kid, simulating sex, and saying, ‘I'll show you what gay is.’”
In deliberate understatement, she writes, “Something seems to be going terribly wrong.”
A day earlier, the Journal carried a piece by cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple called “The Ugly Brutishness of Modern Britain.” What he describes is perhaps even worse than what Noonan does – but it seems to portend conditions in the near future in the United States, too, unless we correct our course.
Great Britain, now overwhelmingly secular and even anti-religious, is in bad shape, he writes: “[I]ncreasingly, the English are a people who know neither inner nor outer restraint. They turn to aggression, if not to violence, the moment they are thwarted, even in trifles. And those who are neither aggressive nor violent are by no means sure that the law will take their side in the event of a fracas…. Recently, for example, three people stripped naked a vulnerable young man of low intelligence, tied him to a lamppost, covered him in food, insulted him and left him there for four hours, then cut him down so carelessly that he banged his head on the ground (by the time he reached the hospital he was in a state of hypothermia). They were not even sent to prison. In other words, practically no behavior is now beyond the pale for the British state. Sadly, the freedom to behave badly is almost the only freedom valued by, or left to, young Britons.”
When Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York, he fought against this by adopting the “broken windows” rule of enforcement, which insisted on cracking down on seemingly minor violations (broken windows, vandalism, etcetera) in order to signal that standards would indeed be maintained. It worked. The incidence of all crime, including violent crime, fell remarkably.
But not every offense is, or should be, criminal. Government should not be so overbearing as to criminalize behavior that is merely uncouth. The vast majority of societal standards traditionally have been enforced not by police but by parental discipline, private admonishments, and social pressures including community acceptance (on one hand) or ostracism (on the other).
Yet too many of us fail broadly at this responsibility. It is evident in little things such as casually littering out of the car window. It’s evident in the way so many people dress in public – teenage girls boarding airplanes in cleavage-baring pajamas, youths walking the streets with underwear or even buttocks hanging out – and even in the way so many drive: bright lights in heavy traffic, no use of turn signals, flagrant tailgating, cluelessness to ordinary courtesies while blabbering on cell phones.
Popular culture, meanwhile, always has been troublesome. Yet at least parents once tried to dissuade children from mimicking the excesses of rock stars; now mothers go out of the way to buy their daughters paraphernalia from trampy performers like Britney Spears and even hold up Madonna as some sort of idol of female “empowerment.” Worse, it’s now called a “lifestyle choice” to casually bear children out of wedlock, while sexual activity is portrayed as such a “right” that it merits public or third-party subsidies.
One need not be either a “prude” or a “culture warrior” to be aghast. To be aghast, and to fight back. Start with changing our own behaviors. Then have the guts to politely but firmly admonish others when they coarsen the culture – when they use profanity in front of children, when they litter, when they are grossly rude.
Each little bit helps. We must start somewhere. Civilization demands it.