At any time in history, society tolerates behaviour that earlier had been considered deviant, abnormal or downright offensive. Sometimes this change of attitude is sensible and rational.
We would struggle to find anyone today who would seek to justify burning witches, hanging homosexuals, transporting thieves to penal colonies on the other side of the world, forcing unmarried mothers to be enslaved in laundries or institutionalising the unemployed in workhouses.
This trend in society – which is liberalising or, when wrongly applied, degenerate – was identified in a seminal essay 30 years ago by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a US senator. Earlier he had been a professor of sociology at Harvard, a domestic policy adviser to president Richard Nixon and an ambassador to the UN under president Gerald Ford.
Writing in The American Scholar in 1993, Moynihan argued: “(We’ve) been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatised, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behaviour is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”
His argument applied to the US, but it also could have applied to most other Western polities. He gave some telling examples.
He wrote a report for the Johnson administration in 1965 pointing out that family life among black Americans was in danger of breaking down because a fifth of black children were born illegitimate; this happened to only one-40th of white children.
Within 30 years, the number of black children born out of wedlock had risen to two-thirds – in their community it had indeed become “normal” – and by then a fifth of white American children were illegitimate.
Moynihan had said “we are getting used to a lot of behaviour that is not good for us”. By 2018, more than 70 per cent of black children were illegitimate, 29 per cent of white children and, overall, 40 per cent of all American births occurred out of wedlock.
Such behaviour apparently has become acceptable, despite its links to poverty, crime and underachievement, as prominent black American scholars Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele and Walter Williams have documented. But then crime and underachievement, too, have come to be accepted as normal in many Western societies.
Too many governments prefer to tolerate crime than to tackle its main causes: the drug trade, poverty bred by underachievement and, indeed, family breakdown.
Poor outcomes at school are aggravated by poor or sometimes almost non-existent parenting, but also by an ideological refusal of teachers and other educationists to insist on academic rigour. This is in case it disadvantages those children who are naturally less cerebral, or those whose parent(s) failed to prepare them for school life.
Western societies tolerate these failures, partly to avoid confrontations with social radicals. And they degrade society further by providing generous welfare systems to support the casualties of these ideas.
Another facet of this decadence is the refusal of Western governments to tackle the gangsterism associated with drugs. This has led to the widespread acceptance of gun violence, in all its manifestations – whether criminal rivals in narcotics gangs slaughtering each other, or the deaths of innocents caught in the crossfire, or the normalisation of gun use that leads to countless mass shootings, first in the US but now, in copycat form, in other societies. One wonders how lethal this problem must become before progressives and conservatives alike realise that it must be tackled head-on.
However, the sort of serious political debate that might lead to such problems being tackled is increasingly prevented by the coarsening of public discourse. Conduct by the political class that a generation ago would have been regarded as unacceptable is now regarded as normal.
One only has to think of the shameless lying of Donald Trump, his disgraceful behaviour after the 2020 election through January 6 and his attempt to belittle and degrade his political opponents rather than engage in serious discussion with them, to see how drastically this has evolved. Somewhere, Moynihan would agree: the way Americans are defining democracy itself down is among the most depressing collapses Western society faces.
It would be wrong, however, to think the right has a monopoly on endorsing what was hitherto considered deviant behaviour. For Trump’s opponents to drag lawyers and the courts into the presidential race to banish their rival from politics also damages democracy. Western society, moreover, is still enduring an assault by the left on freedom of speech. Coupled with its endorsement of gender ideology and identity politics, illiberal activists in the name of progress wreck lives, families and communities, divide society, and cause people to live in suspicion and resentment of each other.
Black Lives Matter – an essentially Marxist organisation dominated by white people – exploited the death of George Floyd in 2020 to pursue not ideals of racial equality but of revolution. But few in authority dared contradict them or question their motives. After the hounding and bullying that have become part of what’s called cancel culture, people fear to question actions and assumptions that are obviously ludicrous, such as biological men participating in women’s sports because they identify as female.
Similarly, so-called environmental activists, such as Extinction Rebellion, are overindulged when they cause enormous economic damage and disruption. Because they received so much tolerance, they start to imagine it is their right to behave in this way.
And our high schools make a bad situation worse by allowing students to abstain from the classroom and protest in the streets in the name of climate justice.
There is an astonishing hypocrisy inherent in much activist behaviour. Those who have been demanding safe spaces for those minorities they regard as important want nothing of the sort for those they regard as unimportant.
In some US universities, teachers live in fear of their students and kowtow to them.
The world recently was treated to the spectacle of three presidents of leading American universities – Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania – refusing to condemn genocide, patently because the welfare of Jews is despised by many of their students. One of them, Penn’s Liz Magill, who is white, at least had the decency to resign after an outcry.
Harvard’s Claudine Gay, who is black, also should be in trouble, not only because her university has lost a megadonor as a result but also because she has been accused of plagiarism. Yet there has been no student outcry and the Harvard fellows have rallied behind Gay, not least because she champions the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. (Read: racial and gender-preference policies take priority over administrative experience and scholarly credentials.)
Harvard’s dilemma shows the perils of identity politics. “Once you lower standards for hiring administrators or admitting students, you are forced to lower standards for evaluating their conduct and performance,” argues commentator Jason Riley, who delivered this year’s annual Centre for Independent Studies lecture. “For purposes of window-dressing, people who have no business running elite institutions such as Harvard have been put in charge of people who have no business teaching or matriculating there. What could go wrong?”
Meanwhile, students seek to cancel those whom they imagine violate their safety – and usually the violation consists simply of the violators holding a point of view different from that of the self-defined mainstream – who themselves are, in truth, a vocal and unrepresentative minority whose values seem warped to a majority. So illiberal has campus life become that even Malcolm Turnbull, the most left-leaning Liberal leader in living memory, has been cancelled by University of Sydney activists.
Such people heavily influence the political class, leading to virtue-signallers makingridiculous claims such as that people who are not women (that is, men) can menstruate. Or biological men winning Women of the Year awards. How any of this helps the cause of biological women is far from clear but the example provides more evidence that Western society is accepting as normal conduct what would be considered abnormal by any earlier standard.
Such idiocy indicates how there ceases to be a dividing line between the serious and the frivolous: the premium is increasingly on attention-getting sound bites; the provocative and outrageous are highlighted. Although it’s true the rapid digitalisation of communications allows non-mainstream media outlets to reach an audience sans cultural gatekeepers, there is no question that people are now exposed to a lot of nonsense, not only on social media channels but in the mainstream media itself.
As a result, absurd arguments are accorded respect by those too intimidated to question them. For instance, when Noel Pearson told ABC’s Radio National Breakfast program that, as a leader of some “redneck celebrity vortex”, I pulled Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s strings – I apparently found a “black person to punch down on blacks” – as if this politically brave and intellectually sound Aboriginal senator were incapable of independent thought about the voice referendum, there was no pushback from the presenter.
The phrase “defining deviancy down” also seems perfect to describe the conduct of many voice proponents this year, mainly on the left of the ideological and political spectrum: when Yes activists egged Price’s parents and vandalised their home on the night of the referendum’s landslide defeat and bombarded Price herself with the most revolting messages, so-called progressives were strangely silent.
But they also, once again, demonstrated their shocking hypocrisy: imagine the leftist outrage if No activists egged Linda Burney or vandalised her home or publicised her mobile phone number so that her (anonymous) critics could racially taunt the Indigenous Australians Minister.
Finally, the way the Covid pandemic was handled has damaged society. It further entrenched the idea of paying people to do nothing. It introduced a level of state control unprecedented except in wartime. But even worse were the effects on public morale.
The decision to force people to isolate for many months in 2020-21 had a dire effect on social coherence and the economy, especially young people. In many schools across the Western world, the lockdowns contributed to a collapse in standards that was already under way because of the baleful effects of educationists.
So, three decades later, it is sadly evident that Moynihan’s thesis, Defining Deviancy Down, has been vindicated intellectually: far from facing up to worrisome moral declines, society has lowered the threshold of acceptable behaviour. To the extent these trends continue, society’s proper judgments will be skewered in ways that could haunt future generations.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.