Defining Deviance — Up and Down

November 9, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the increase in economic inequality over the past two or three decades comes from the enormous growth in money going to the very rich.  David Brooks attributes that growth in part to a change in culture.*
You see a shift in social norms. Up until 1970 or so, a chief executive would have been embarrassed to take home more than $20 million. But now there is no shame, and top compensation zooms upward.
It’s what Daniel Patrick Moynihan nearly two decades ago (1993) called “defining deviancy down.”  Things which had once been a matter of shame have become acceptable. Norms change.

But they don’t change all by themselves – as though they were part of some “low-pressure system” or “cold air mass” moving into the region.  And the change is not always towards looser standards.  Moral entrepreneurs campaign to define deviancy up, and sometimes they succeed.  If we were back in the pre-feminist, “Mad Men” world of the 1950s, Herman Cain wouldn’t be having his current problems.**  But women – those pesky feminists – in just a few decades, have changed the dominant public judgment about men using a position of power to get laid.  Once accepted, maybe even admired and envied, it’s now something a guy doesn’t want other people, even his friends, to know about. 

“Mad Men” shows us some other examples of deviance defined up.  Look in on an ad agency today and you won’t see anyone smoking. A few souls may go out to the street for a cigarette break, but we see their smoking not as pleasure but as addiction, something to be pitied. Nor will you see anyone coming back drunk from a three-martini lunch or pouring himself a tumbler of Canadian Club in his office. Score one for the anti-tobacco and anti-drunkenness forces.

Besides moral entrepreneurship, norms can change as a matter of invidious social comparison – when those lower down the social scale take cues from those above them.  Fashions in clothes or names filter down through the class structure. So do ideas of unacceptable behavior. In the 18th century, new canons of manners started with the court, then the aspiring gentry, and eventually even commoners were embarrassed by the audible belch or fart. In the 21st century,  it’s not that we suddenly realized that drinking at work or smoking is harmful. Rather, as my British friend once said, “it isn’t done” – meaning that it isn’t done by people of our social position. In fact, moral entrepreneurs might be more successful if instead of trying to convince people that something is wrong, they tried to convince them it is low class.

As Oscar Wilde said,
As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular. (HT: Mark Kleiman)

*  Brooks is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. But his liberal counterpart on the Times op-ed page, Paul Krugman, years ago offered a similar explanation for the skyrocketing pay of those at the top.

** For those who might not remember: in 2011, when I originally posted this, Herman Cain, a business executive, was a candidate for the Republican nomination for President, and some of his female former employees had accused him of sexual harassment.

1 comment:

PCM said...

Just back from Egypt, which has been defining deviance "up" for about two decades. Now you don't see those hussy women in public walking with their heads uncovered or going into a downtown movie theater.

Meanwhile ignorant bearded motherf**kers preach intolerance on TV.

It's a bit scary when deviance in defined by religious conservatives and enforced by sexually repressed youth.

"Deviance," as you well know, just like society's norms, can be both a force for good and for bad.