Half a Look at Our Cultural Predicament

Book cover
The Politics of Devianceby By Anne HendershottEncounter Books. 310p; $26.95

Deviance, by definition, presupposes a society’s way of life bounded by norms and values that justify institutions and induce people to enact institutional and private roles. This makes any study of deviance controversial, both politically and morally. When that study is sociological, the controversy is compounded, for sociology is a quintessentially modern, relativizing mode of thought, and as such is great for diagnosis but unavailing for prescription.

This has not deterred Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, who believes political advocacy groups have morally corrupted American society. In The Politics of Deviance she argues for the need to reinstate what she terms a traditional definition of deviance so that Americans can reaffirm the moral ties that bind us together. At first blush this goal may seem laudatory, until one realizes that the problem and its solution are inextricably linked with the very fabric of modernity. Her nostalgia clouds her focus, and she forgets, perhaps understandably but nevertheless incorrectly, that American culture has fundamentally changed. Our new, skeptical moral order, based as it is on corporate consumer conditions, requires the enjoyment of bread and circuses to justify its power arrangements. The problem runs much deeper into the structure of this society than she suggests.


Nevertheless, she makes some fine points in what I would call a half-book half because her focus, oddly for a sociologist, is exclusively on deviance in the realms of sex, drugs, suicide and mental illness in the individual sphere. She completely dismisses larger forces and issues of political, economic, institutional elite deviance, what the great American sociologist C. Wright Mills called the higher immorality. Thus Enron, WorldCom, globalization, immoral warfare and the like are beyond her ken. By excluding large-scale deviance, she undermines her valuable insights and reveals the right-wing or corporatist politics behind her analysis of the politics of deviance.

Her chapter on Medicalizing the Deviance of Drug Abuse is insightful, within limits. She correctly argues that in many cases the real power to define and control deviance has moved into the medical realm. Her critique of a culture that promotes irresponsibility and determinism by classifying many forms of behavior as diseases or disorders is good. She champions individual freedom and intelligently attacks the increasing medical model of the human being. Yet she refuses to analyze the institutional forces behind this trend. Her bogeymen are influential interest or advocacy groups, by which she does not mean wealthy and powerful elites. While wanting to defend individual freedom over against the medical, genetic, biological determinists, she vaguely suggests that a coterie of deviant advocacy groups, rather then large institutional forces, are behind this movement.

So too with the issue of mental illness. As the deviance of mental illness was downgraded, it was inevitable that the definition of mental illness would be expanded, and the condition would even be celebrated. This is true, yet who is behind this development? Not you or I. Not some fringe advocacy group, as Hendershott suggests. Who is behind the 700 percent increase in the use of Ritalin for the phony diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Who is behind the 96 million prescriptions for serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of anti-depressants including Paxil? Who is behind the drugging of the American populace? Yes, Hendershott says that mental health practitioners and the pharmaceutical companies are, yet she refuses to see the large and powerful drug companies as part of a power elite, which they surely are.

When it comes to the clerical sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, not only does Hendershott play down the numbersisolated cases, some abuse, few serial molestersbut she refuses to consider the church’s social structure as implicated in the problem. Rather, she points the finger at reformist left-leaning Catholics. And indeed, she writes, it is hard not to conclude that ripping up the entire institutional garment of Catholicism is what such critics desire. This is ideological nonsense, not sociological analysis. And while she is highly insightful on the moral panic of the 1980’s involving the recovered memories of children in day care centers, her conflation of that issue with the current priest sex scandal is illogical and misleading. The Church, she writes, has been profoundly damaged by this crisis, just as the day care centers and workers were stigmatized by recovering memories.’ While true in one sense, this is intellectual legerdemaini.e., a misleading half-truth suggesting that the sex abuse charges are just as false as recovered memories. Even Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, considered by many to be at the heart of the problem, is deceptively portrayed as having moved so decisively against accused sex offending priests that he fanned the flames of what some regarded a fading panic. I am reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledee: Contrariwise if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.

The problem with the entire book is Hendershott’s exclusionary logic. While astutely analyzing many important issuesthe medicalization of drug abuse, mental illness, pedophilia, cultural sexualization, suicide, date rapeshe will not situate such issues within the larger frame of institutional and social structures. Like a number of academics and intellectuals, she lets her intellectual and moral biases blind her to seeing and telling the whole story of our cultural predicament.

Like many half-books, this could arouse a number of passionate arguments. For that reason it is worth reading. Sadly, however, if one allowed Hendershott’s parameters to restrict the argument, one would be befuddled in a Cyclopean world. Our society’s moral predicament deserves full vision, not narrow focus. To ponder deviance without linking it to the power of economic and political institutions and their symbols of moral justification is to fetishize the normative order and rig one’s conclusions in advance. Ironically, Hendershott has written a book that is an example of what she criticizes: the politics of deviance.

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