Disturbing Behavior

This new consensus, however, only reopens another debate: Which values do we choose to promote. A thoughtful investigation into the limits of what our society should accept–and expect–from its members could help us navigate these choices. And such an analysis is what University of San Diego sociology professor Anne Hendershott advertises in the introduction to The Politics of Deviance. Calling for a “willingness to discuss behavior such as homosexuality, teenage promiscuity, adultery and addiction,” Hendershott writes that we should “adopt standards of conduct that derive from reason and common sense.”

Alas, this is pretty much the last evidence of either. The rest of The Politics of Deviance merely apes the blundering, shoddy polemics that dominate the bestseller lists today, from the paranoid rants of Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg on the right, to the lame hyperbole of Michael Moore on the left. Between them, these straw-man-battering tomes prove that the culture war has been fought to an odd stalemate: Both sides, eager be the underdog, pretend to have lost. That this style of argument has come to encompass even nominally academic participants like Hendershott–who has previously written a well-received book on caring for Alzheimer’s patients–is distressing in its own right. That Hendershott does not notice how her own claim of victimhood undermines her advocacy of individual responsibility is doubly so.

Hendershott’s belief in the power of “elites” to distort the accepted categories of normal behavior is unshakeable. Throughout her book, Hendershott argues that a recurring cast of feminists, gay-rights activists, and academics has successfully “destigmatized” deviant behaviors while, simultaneously, “redefining as crimes those behaviors they find offensive.” Everything is evidence for this: the growing tolerance of homosexuality, clearly, but also the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandals. The “moral panic” behind false accusations of child abuse, and the persecution of those who would dare protest these things. The acceptance of addiction as an illness. The belief that there is such a thing as date rape. And she is not afraid to get more specific. Hendershott blames the failed manhunt for Andrew Cunanan–the murderer of Gianni Versace–on a kind of pink Trilateral Commission. Fearful of powerful gay activists, you see, law enforcement officials ignored the “plethora of clues provided by his gay lifestyle.”

Still, buried deep in her invective are a few salient points. She correctly lambastes the tabloids for their tender coverage of stars’ perpetual recoveries from addiction, for instance. And she finds fault with sex educators who treat teenage sexuality as simply uncontrollable rather than merely difficult to control. But sometimes these are sturdy arguments only because others have taken the time to prove them; she cites Dorothy Rabinowitz’s reporting, for instance, on the spate of exaggerated or even fabricated allegations of sexual abuse in day-care centers.

For the most part, Hendershott’s own evidence repeatedly undermines her central argument. She blithely glides over instances in which those powerful “special-interest groups” would seem to be working at cross purposes. To take one example, she argues that omnipotent gay rights advocates have normalized pedophilia, citing as evidence the “instant credibility” of the National Man-Boy Love Association. Yet if pedophilia is so accepted, then how to explain the recent success of “feminist dissidents” in “exaggerat[ing] claims” of sexual abuse by priests? Even more to the point: how to explain the passionate public outcry in response to these claims, however exaggerated they may be?

Hendershott’s thinking on the shifting definition of mental illness is no more robust. Somewhat conspiratorially, she notes that while “we are told that the mentally ill are ‘normal’ (or at least ubiquitous), we are also told that those with whom we may disagree”–she cites the famously xenophobic and sexist John Rocker–“are ‘crazy.'” But rather than admit that this very observation is strong evidence that the power of the American Psychological Association to influence public opinion may be less than absolute, or even that something more complicated than the pulling of public strings by “elites” may be at work, Hendershott can only bleat, “It is ironic.”

Hendershott’s main problem is that her format doesn’t allow for subtlety or ideological give-and-take. As with her rhetorical brethren (Coulter, Goldberg, Moore), Hendershott is convinced that the only way to make progress in the culture war is to maintain that you’re losing. That mindset–and not “irony”–is what really explains the inconsistency of The Politics of Deviance. Because Hendershott objects to both sex education and the concept of date rape, it doesn’t matter that the feminists who favor “‘equal access to sexuality’ for teenage girls” can hardly share the date-rape activists’ view “that defines all men as potential rapists and all women as potential victims.” All she needs to know is that the feminists are winning.

This call to the conservative mattresses, as it were, carries more emotional punch than a more nuanced critique of, say, campus sex-crime codes and courts–institutions with their roots in feminist activism, yes, and that raise civil liberties questions, yes, but that also address real concerns about the chronic underreporting of rape. Similarly, Hendershott is probably correct to contrast the massive diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in white, upper-middle class American school children–now taking drugs for “brain dysfunction”–with the deinstitutionalization of thousands of indigent, mentally ill adults in the 1980s. But neither “mental illness chic” nor “destigmatizing” explain why the children suddenly became crazy while the adults suddenly became sane. Perhaps the difference is that the pharmaceutical companies pushing the drugs to treat ADHD know that the children are in the care of someone who can pay for treatment, while the agencies behind deinstitutionalization knew that homeless schizophrenics were not.

Hendershott refuses to see contradictions and paradoxes as sources of questions–not when special interest groups are the answer to everything. Which is too bad. The popularity of Hendershott’s style of discourse bodes ill for the hope that disagreements are fodder for compromises–and sometimes even solutions. At a point at which we could use a guide, all Hendershott wants is a soapbox.