Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(5) (1994) 99-112
* This article is a revision of a paper delivered at the meeting of the Northeast Association Of Criminal Justice Sciences in Newport, Rhode Island, June 1994.
** Dr. Andrew Karmen is an associate professor in the sociology department of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University in 1977. He is the author of Crime Victims: An Introduction To Victimology, 2nd Edition (Wadsworth, 1990) and has written articles about victims, auto theft, vigilantism, drug abuse, police use of deadly force, and the 1950 Rosenberg atom spy case. [End page 99]
"Defining deviancy down," the clever alliteration coined by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.), is rapidly becoming part of the political rhetoric heard in discussions that are currently raging about the crime problem. Moynihan's phrase is catching on quickly, and will surely appear in textbooks for courses in Introduction To Criminal Justice, Deviance, and Criminology. Soon, students and faculty will be employing the term in freewheeling debates in college classrooms. Clearly, the Senator has struck a responsive chord in some circles. Leading commentators are giving him credit for coming up with an expression that captures the essence of one of the most disturbing trends in the United States today, the decline in the "quality of life," due in large part to the cancerous spread of the crime problem.
The rapid incorporation of this phrase into popular culture is an unfortunate development. The cynical, pessimistic, and anxiety-ridden spirit of the 1990s accounts for its glib acceptance. "Defining deviancy down" is a seductive expression that masquerades as a self-evident, uncontestable truism, but it is actually a loaded phrase with severe limitations. Although it contains a kernel of truth, the insights come packaged with a highly politicized coating. The expression is not intended to be an objective, impartial, unbiased social scientific description of a process or trend bringing about social change. It is a partisan campaign slogan which is meant to serve as a weapon to beat down the opposition in debates over social policy. The way the phrase is applied by the Senator and his allies is highly selective; if all the examples that fit the phrase's formulation were enumerated, its political impact as a "vote getter" would be blunted, if not entirely lost. Furthermore, if more people became aware of its opposite, "defining deviancy up," then "defining deviancy down" would be exposed as a misleading, one- sided, unidirectional mischaracterization of the contemporary social and political scene.
Moynihan (1993) offers a simple typology with three "categories of redefinition." The first is "altruistic" redefinition by "good people who try to do good," however unavailing in the end. He illustrates this tendency by recounting the deinstitutionalization of mental patients, who now roam the streets and don't get the care they need. The second type, "opportunistic" redefinition, Moynihan identifies as allowing deviancy to grow in order to justify a transfer of resources, including prestige, to those who control the deviant population. Interest groups develop strategies to redefine the behavior in question as "not all that deviant, really." To illustrate this type of "defining deviancy down," Moynihan raises the issue with which he has long been identified, the increase in the percentage of children born in the United States to families headed by an unmarried mother. The third, and most relevant to criminologists and criminal justice practitioners, is the "normalizing" redefinition which Moynihan likens to psychological denial. He draws on the work of sociologist Kai Erikson (who applied Emile Durkheim's insights about deviancy) to derive the proposition that "the number of deviant offenders a community can afford to recognize is likely to remain stable over time."
Moynihan quotes from his own article in the magazine "America" (1965), in which he predicted that a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in "broken families" dominated by women is asking for chaos. "Crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure" has come to pass, just as he warned, and yet the public's response is curiously passive. Although the crime problem from time to time is at or near the top of opinion polls as a matter of public concern, Moynihan cites a judge's observation that "the slaughter of the innocents marches unabated." Since there is no expectation that things will change, in effect, the crime level has been normalized. To clinch this point, Moynihan cites news media coverage to show [End page 101] how incidents of mass murder today routinely exceed the death toll of the notorious St. Valentine's Day massacre of four gangsters in 1929, and how the shooting of a teacher is normalized when it is called the "first" of the current semester, implying that more will follow. The senator concludes his article with these political characterizations: Liberals have traditionally been alert for upward redefining that does injustice to individuals. Conservatives have been correspondingly sensitive to downward redefining that weakens societal standards. Given the manifest decline of the American civic order, too many people are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for a society; more people should become alarmed at the "trivialization of the high crime rate."
1) The editors of the New York Times (1994) used the phrase to condemn the Mayor's interference in the running of the city's public radio station.
2) The Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal (1994) illustrated the term by pointing to cops who don't arrest brazen street level drug sellers and judges who preside over plea bargains in murder cases.
3) The editors of the New York Post (1994) employed the term while praising the police department's arresting of homeless men who clean car windshields.
4) New York's Mayor Giuliani (1994) used the term to explain why he ordered the police to go after these "squeegee pests" who allegedly urinate in public and spit at those who don't pay them. [End page 102]
5) New York's former Mayor Koch (1994) cited the acceptance of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam as an example of "defining deviancy down."
6) New York's Police Commissioner Bratton (1994) used the term to justify his department's new get-tough policies.
Evidently, Moynihan's "defining deviancy down" is the updated 1990s equivalent of "permissiveness," the buzzword of the 1970s and 1980s that seems to have dropped out of political parlance in recent years. As an epithet, "permissiveness" neatly summed up what many people found objectionable about the way the criminal justice system allegedly operated. It bestowed "unwarranted leniency" upon "undeserving" offenders, granting them second chances (suspended sentences, [End page 103] probation), short stays in "country-club" detention facilities, and early release (parole), among other "bleeding heart" and "muddleheaded" indulgences of "hardened criminals." "Defining deviancy down" captures this same disgust many people feel after several generations of supposed "permissiveness" have taken their toll: apparently there are "no standards anymore" and "anything goes." Actually, what Senator Moynihan is campaigning against used to be denounced by the phrases "coddling criminals," "being soft on crime," or "moral decay," and his exhortation of "No surrender" formerly was called "restoring law n'order."
Granted, Moynihan's phrase calls attention to a trend worth examining: the redefinition of what is tolerable and intolerable, which has been underway during the last 30 years, a period of rapid social [End page 104] change. But why limit the discussion to the rather short list he provides to dramatize his concerns? Even more interesting than the examples he cites are the examples he omits. Perhaps he leaves them out because mentioning some of these other illustrations of "defining deviancy down" would undercut the consensus he is trying to build to fuel the political mobilization that he desires. For instance, he does not mention the substantial rethinking regarding homosexuality. Gays and lesbians used to be much more stigmatized than they currently are, but Moynihan didn't dare call for a new intolerance towards same-sex relationships. In fact, except for condemning out-of- wedlock pregnancies, he side-stepped the entire issue of the "new morality" since the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. It would be politically unwise to denounce lovers "living together in sin," young people engaging in pre-marital intercourse, authority figures endorsing safe sex, married persons committing adultery, and women getting abortions.
Moynihan also ignored certain trends over the last generation involving alcohol and gambling, in which pointing out how deviancy was defined downward would be politically unwise. Condemning the de-criminalization of public drunkenness across the country would remind people that the old practice of jailing skid row alcoholics -- "throwing" them into "the tank" to "sleep it off" -- was medically unsound, class biased, and downright inhumane. Denouncing the role of revenue- starved governments in "defining deviancy down" by legalizing the "forbidden pleasures" formerly monopolized by organized crime syndicates -- casino gambling, off-track betting, and lotteries -- would not go over well during the current "taxpayers' revolt." And yet, the partnership between state government and the gaming industry in commercially exploiting non-stop risk-taking/reward-seeking normalizes a type of addiction, pathological gambling, that is still widely defined as deviant behavior.
Moynihan's phrase implies that downward definition occurs across-the-board. That impression is inaccurate. Examples of the public's "holding the line" contradict the belief that these days people are allowed to get away with things they were punished for a generation ago. The most striking illustration is the declining support for the legalization of marihuana among high school and college students, not to mention their elders, according to public opinion surveys since the late 1960s (see Maguire, Pastore, and Flanagan, 1993: 226-227). In fact, as the rhetoric about the "war on [End page 105] drugs" continues unabated, the government has never been tougher on marihuana offenders (Schlosser, 1994), and state and federal penalties for selling and possessing other controlled substances are reaching unprecedented levels of severity.
So far, the criticism of Moynihan's phrase has centered upon the partisan way he applied it. He selected "politically safe" examples (in terms of their vote-getting appeal) and omitted controversial and divisive examples. Now, an even greater flaw in his thesis looms: the implication of unidirectionality. Not only did Moynihan turn a blind eye towards examples that did not fit his theory, he entirely overlooked the opposite tendency: "defining deviancy up."
There are many examples of behaviors that went unpunished in the past but are now subject to formal social controls, including civil lawsuits and criminal proceedings. To the groups and movements that fought for these changes, the new policies represent improvements and victories (at least on paper, and in theory; in reality, however, enforcement remains a problem).
Since the 1960s, the common theme running through campaigns to "define deviancy up" has been to hold people of higher, privileged status more accountable for their irresponsible, dangerous, and anti-social behavior vis-a-vis people of lesser or subordinate status. One way to describe the process of "defining deviancy up" is to note that certain groups of victims have been "rediscovered." "Rediscovery" refers to a process through which victims of harmful acts are able to improve their standing. The prefix "re" in re- [End page 106] discovery emphasizes that the victimization was known about for a long time, and was even outlawed ages ago. But the situation was allowed to fester until these victims were "rediscovered" by political movements and the news media, and organized into a movement by activists and self-help support groups (see Karmen, 1990).
For example, take the plight of children who are physically abused by their parents. During the 1960s, what had been called "cruelty towards children" was rediscovered, and these battered youngsters began to receive the attention and assistance that they deserve. Mandatory reporting requirements were imposed, child protection agencies were given resources and authority to investigate and bring charges, and court procedures were reformed to take into account the special needs of young witnesses. As a result, abusive parents began to be held accountable for their excessively punitive measures that were formerly considered appropriate, even necessary ("spare the rod and spoil the child"). Now, parents can no longer discipline children as they see fit. Contemporary standards of conduct backed up by law draw a line between appropriate methods of discipline and unacceptably harsh punishments.
A similar case can be made for the rediscovery of indiscriminate and excessive corporal punishment meted out by teachers against students. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporal punishment did not violate the Constitution, the children's rights movement and the student movement used lawsuits and prosecutions to establish boundaries that teachers and deans cannot cross when dishing out paddlings and other physical punishments. In both these examples, subordinate groups (children and students) have gained rights and now are protected against excessive punishments dished out by members of relatively more powerful groups (parents and teachers) who used to impose their will with impunity but no longer can do so. Deviancy has been defined up, since what was tolerable as recently as the mid-1960s is no longer acceptable.
Once this pattern of defining deviancy up and rediscovering victims is recognized, many examples come to mind.
--With the coining of the term "elder abuse," senior citizens dependent upon their grown children no longer have to live in silence and fear if they are neglected, abused, or [End page 107]
--With greater awareness of the plight of battered women, wives no longer have to endure beatings by their domineering husbands. Now they have recourse to the legal system, orders of protection, shelters, pro-arrest policies, and other criminal justice reforms.
--With the popularization of the term "date rape," women no longer have to acquiesce to the sexual impositions of men, especially on college campuses. The victims of these sexual assaults can seek support at women's centers and rape crisis centers, can bring their attackers before campus disciplinary committees, and can use the machinery of criminal justice to pursue arrests and prosecutions.
--With greater appreciation of the threat posed by drunk drivers, DUI and DWI offenses are taken much more seriously these days, and those injured in crashes can exercise the rights of crime victims, which exceed the rights of accident victims.
--With heightened consciousness about sexual harassment, subordinates no longer have to put up with the innuendos, lewd suggestions, or explicit ultimatums made by people higher up in the organization. The perpetrators of harassment can be sued in civil court.
--With the recognition of hate-motivated bias crimes, members of minority groups no longer have to endure acts of intimidation and terrorism by bigots from more powerful groups.
--With the expansion by the Supreme Court of the category of "defendants' rights," the most dramatic of all the shifts in the balance of power has occurred. Landmark decisions have improved the relative standing of accused persons and of convicts vis-a-vis agents of the state. The police are not allowed to beat suspects whom they take into custody and cannot give them the "third degree" during interrogations, as they did routinely in the past; today police brutality is taken more seriously by civilian complaint review boards and by judges and juries in criminal and civil courts. Similarly, guards cannot beat prisoners [End page 108]
as they used to do, without administrative and legal repercussions. The attempts to hold officers of the law more accountable for any excessive use of their legitimate authority to employ force represents one of the clearest examples of how deviancy has been defined upward.In every one of these examples, abusive behavior by persons in more powerful and privileged positions that was considered tolerable or acceptable just 20 or 30 years ago is currently forbidden by law and punishable in criminal or civil court.
As Senator Moynihan noted at the very outset of his article, Emile Durkheim (1966) observed more than a century ago that "crime is normal" in the sense that no society can be free of illegal activities, that lawbreakers serve a function by calling attention to the line between deviancy and normality and by providing an internal enemy for law-abiding folks to rally in solidarity against, and that if "serious" crime didn't exist it would have to be created. Kai Erikson (1966) advanced this line of thinking, and [End page 109] argued that deviance is not a property inherent in certain forms of conduct but is a judgment imposed by an audience. The rate of deviation in a community was, at least in part, determined by the size and complexity of its social control apparatus, roughly indicated by the number of its prison cells, hospital beds, policemen, psychiatrists, courts, and clinics. The conflict school of thought and labeling theorists go even further, and develop the relativist argument that deviance is merely a designation that elicits condemnation when successfully imposed upon individuals and their activities by more powerful persons, groups, and organizations. Defining deviancy upward or downward reflects boundary maintenance, a periodic process of drawing the line between tolerable and intolerable behavior. Stigma contests indicate that redefinitions are being attempted, and break out whenever deviant groups fight for respectability and acceptance, or when the activities of formerly respectable groups are re- evaluated. Moral entrepreneurs contribute to the redefinition process by crusading against perceived evils, sounding an alarm, mobilizing their followers, and translating their political power into legislation. The law is wielded as a weapon in the highly politicized, high stakes game of trying to impose standards of conduct. The machinery of criminal justice serves as a formal mechanism for those in power to try to control the behavior of others, if informal methods fail to deter condemned acts.
The future remains a battlefield between what is and what could be and should be, between haves and have-nots, between those in charge and those seeking to regain control over their own lives. The result is a power struggle that takes the form of a cultural war over America's "changing mores." Social conflicts over wealth, power, prestige, and privilege are the driving forces that bring about the redefinitions of what is deviant behavior and the rediscoveries of victimized groups. In years to come, many people will lament loudly that deviancy has been defined downward, and that "There are no standards anymore; 'they' are getting away with conduct that never would have been allowed in the good old days." But other people will complain quietly to each other that deviancy has been defined upward, and that "Standards are much too high these days; people like us can't do that any more without getting into trouble." [End page 110]
Durkheim, E. (1966). Rules of the sociological method. (Translated). New York: Free Press.
Editors, New York Post (1994). "Don't cry for the squeegee pests." New York Post, February 10, p. 24.
Editors, New York Times (1994). "Radio free patronage." New York Times, February 23, p. A18.
Erikson, K. (1966). Wayward puritans: A study in the sociology of deviance. New York: Wiley.
Giuliani, R. (1994). Speech before the Citizen's Crime Commission; Reported on WCBS Newsradio 88, June 3.
Karmen, A. (1990). Crime victims: An introduction to victimology (Second edition). Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth.
Koch, E. (1994). "You can't segregate good from bad in a racist demagogue." New York Post, March 11, p. 2.
Maguire, K., Pastore, A., and Flanagan, T. (1993). Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Moynihan, D. (1993a). "No surrender." City Journal (Manhattan Institute), (Summer).
----------- (1993b). "Defining deviancy down: How we've become accustomed to alarming levels of crime and destructive behavior." The American Scholar, (Winter).
Rosenthal, A. (1994). "God help New York." New York Times, April 5, p. A21.
Schlosser, E. (1994). "Reefer madness." The Atlantic Monthly, 274, 2 (August): 45-63; 3 (September):84- 94. [End page 111]
Scull, A. (1984). Decarceration: Community treatment and the deviant - A radical view (Second edition). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. [End page 112]