The Breakfast Table

Defining Deviance Up

Dear Ester:

I am not certain whether we were to wrap up our conversation yesterday or today, however, I will send at least one more message. The quote from your last message is, of course, the crux of the issue that Alan Wolfe raised and has been at the core of much of my thinking.

I, too, view myself as a religious person; however, I’ve been mostly out of the church since I left a Lutheran seminary in 1958. Having studied Christian existentialism, indeed all existentialism, avidly in college and seminary, I was wrestling with the idea of freedom from secular and religious institutions in terms of my personal morality quite early. And, for me, morality is a very personal issue. Over time, however, as the power of authoritative institutions waned–church, state, even family–I was increasingly struck by the reality that while many have handled their “moral freedom” responsibly, many others have used lack of external constraints to exploit and prey on others–personally, financially, sexually, violently, etc. Moreover, I became persuaded that society’s reluctance to come down on such persons for minor incivilities and offenses, in one sense, trapped these people–especially young persons–into believing that there were no consequences for anything. So, we decriminalized virtually all minor offenses, we refused to confront young persons meaningfully for minor offenses–in New York City even burglary was for all practical purposes decriminalized (police didn’t even bother investigating it)–and to use Moynihan’s phrase, we “defined deviance down.” To get into trouble, one really had to be a “bad-ass”–that is be outrageously confrontational and violent. Authority was a bad joke to them until they ran into “three strikes, you’re out”: the disastrous outcome for both society at large and individuals when society fails to meet its responsibility to take preventive actions early–both nurturing and controlling actions.

So, I still wrestle with your phrase about moral authority. How can society maintain civility when everybody is “free” to define personal morality on their own terms, while some members of society are eager to use this “freedom” to intimidate, exploit, and prey on others?

To provide an answer to my own question–“Why now” does the “great disruption” seem to be receding?–I would suggest that society in broad terms came to an understanding in the late 1980s that we had largely lost control of a relatively large number of youths and public spaces. And, a new idea developed: We had to enforce a balance between individual liberty and personal responsibility–certainly with nurturing and moral authority, but even with state authority.

Anyway, I hope that sometime we can really have breakfast. I hope that your kids are well. I checked on my grandchildren (four) yesterday, and all seem to be doing well. (One refused to be seated in the school bus, and consequently ran into a massive assertion of parental authority.)

Be well,