How We Defined Deviancy Down and Got a Culture of Violence
“Was there a part of you that was like, this isn’t real, this would not happen in my school?” A ghoulish ABC television reporter asked a Santa Fe High School student this, expecting a stock answer that would fit the conventional wisdom.
“No there wasn’t,” she replied coolly. “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here too. So, I don’t know. I wasn’t surprised. I was just scared.”
Against our will, we are getting used to the carnage. This time, a spurned fatty given to black Goth-ish clothing and video games fatally shot 10 students and teachers and injured 13 others near Houston. “Surprise!” he shouted, as he jumped from the closet into a classroom, mowing down classmates and a would-be girlfriend.
On national television last weekend, National Rifle Association president-elect Oliver North tried to move public soul-searching towards prescribed drugs and the “culture of violence,” spinning what happened at Santa Fe away from mounting pressure for more gun restrictions. But what does this inadequate phrase even mean? Does North understand what he’s talking about?
“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor of education and sociology and then U.S. senator, in his celebrated 1993 American Scholar essay “Defining Deviancy Down.” The nation had been “redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard,” Moynihan wrote.
Altruism was one broad public response to deepening social pathology, marked by denial, kindness, pity, or guilt, he noted, using as an example the closing of mental hospitals and rise of the homeless. Opportunism, he continued, was a second response, anticipating the advancement of government programs and vast, often lucrative social service, therapy, and diversity franchises, all of which would be “jeopardized if any serious effort were made to reduce the deviancy in question.”
This self-interest led to “assorted strategies for redefining the behavior in question as not all that deviant, really,” and to a third response, normalization, adapting to crime and violence, getting used to widespread coarseness and nihilism.
Moynihan wrote his essay 25 years ago. The insane and wayward—increasingly freed from stigma and shame—today terrify functional America even more so than in his time, on account of their shamelessness as well as increasing prevalence.
Homicidal gun violence is to a large degree a ghetto affair. Illegal and unlicensed handguns are the nation’s major killing machine. School menace is embodied in the angry lout in the suburban high school parking lot and seething introvert in the darkened bedroom. His ear buds are on, and his smartphone is turned up full-blast to hate rap.
Music is a leading indicator of the “culture of violence.” Primer 55’s Introduction to Mayhem, for example, produced in 2000, is a heavy metal classic from the Island Def Jam Music Group, standard teenage boy fare. The cuts include “Dose,” “The Big Fuck You,” “Violence,” “Hate,” “Tripinthehead,” “Loose,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “Supa Freak Love,” “Chaos,” “Pigs,” “Stain,” and “Revolution.”
The “culture of violence” is box office. And if Island Def Jam has been selling socio-cultural poison like this for two decades, isn’t legendary record producer and Malibu guru Rick Rubin, 55, who is worth an estimated $250 million, worthy of at least disgrace, not Hollywood and public adulation?
Violent music, video games, and depraved entertainment are cash machines. Electronic tools provide America’s youth—and their parents—with easy, possibly irresistible portals to the dark side. The weakening of families and religion-based communities contribute to the void. So do social media and porn. Unstable adolescents, if they are identified and treated, get medicated on the chance that anti-depressants or uppers will do their mood magic. Drugs—legal and illegal and everything in between—are palliatives for Americans of all ages.
Sometimes there’s official neglect or bad local policy, as with Parkland student Nikolas Cruz. But most educators are doing their best. The really damaged kids, the heartbreakers and the throwaways, the deranged and the dangerous, are given over to social workers, foster parents, or the police, but under the circumstances no one expects much to come from the interventions.
I wasn’t surprised, the Santa Fe High School student said. I was just scared. And, really, shouldn’t we all be feeling the same way?