Defining Decency Up: How to Repair Our Deviant Culture

By: - April 3, 2024

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“A society that loses its sense of outrage is doomed to extinction.”

So stated New York State Supreme Court Justice Edwin Torres over 30 years ago in a private communication. From the bench, Judge Torres added this lament: “The slaughter of the innocent marches unabated: subway riders, bodega owners, cab drivers, babies; in laundromats, at cash machines, on elevators, in hallways.”

We find the judge’s remarks, which read like today’s headlines, cited in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1993 article “Defining Deviancy Down.” By normalizing what was once abnormal, Moynihan argues, we eventually ensure “the manifest decline of the American civic order.” He uses as his data points soaring rates of crime and gun violence, disintegrating families, a chaos of ideas about sexual practices and marriage, failing schools, and the closure of facilities for the mentally ill.

Moynihan outlines his argument in this way:

I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation … the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining 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….

Let me, then, offer three categories of redefinition in these regards: the altruistic, the opportunistic, and the normalizing.

The first category, the altruistic, may be illustrated by the deinstitutionalization movement within the mental health profession that appeared in the 1950s. The second category, the opportunistic, is seen in the interest group rewards derived from the acceptance of “alternative” family structures. The third category, the normalizing, is to be observed in the growing acceptance of unprecedented levels of violent crime.

Now, flash forward 31 years.

Those of us old enough to remember the 1990s may recollect that time as idyllic when compared to our present troubles. The Soviet Union had collapsed; the national debt in 1993 was around $5 trillion compared to today’s more than $34 trillion; our southern border was relatively secure. San Francisco was famed for its beauty rather than for its homeless population, crime rates in New York City were declining and would continue to do so over the next decade, and drug overdose deaths in 1993 were less than 10 percent of what they are today.

Fortunately for the future of our country, some Americans of all ages are in fact outraged by today’s cultural radicalism and deviant behaviors.  In “Culture Shock with Lindsay Wigo,” for instance, the young, eye-rolling Ms. Wigo brings us a man who claims deep suntans are racist, a woman who boasts about being a stalker, and another woman who identifies as a pig. In the 1990s, our society would have looked on this trio as oddballs at best and, at worst, as suffering from mental illness.

Another negative take on our decline into deviancy —and there are countless others, both online and in conversations with our families and friends—can be found in Naomi Wolf’s “Broken in What Way?” Here, Wolf recounts at length a recent visit to New York, a city she loves but which now seems to be in ruins. “I think if one lives here day to day,” she writes, “the shocking decline of the city is not so obvious. But to me, the change in the city was like seeing a beloved friend, who had formerly been beautiful and enchanting and witty, in a hospital bed, on an IV drip, half-unconscious.” Here Wolf puts a finger on another reason for our demise: the gradualism that moves society from condemnation of an idea or a practice first to tolerance and then to acceptance.

So, where do we turn if we wish to reverse this decline into deviancy? In 1993, Senator Moynihan recommended several political solutions, yet given the federal government’s increasingly dismal performance in the 21st century—the massive debt, the lost wars, the broken border, the malfunctioning domestic programs—that rutted roadway promises only more failures.

No—if we are to reverse our present decline, we are the ones who must take action. In some instances, such as reducing the deviant federal deficit, most of us have only a vote as our weapon. In other cases, however, such as combating neighborhood crime, seeking the best possible education for our children, or opposing society’s attacks on marriage and the traditional family, our power to effect change vastly improves.

Here we must begin by reviving the old-fashioned concept of decency, which one online dictionary defines as “behavior that conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability.”

Those standards derive from our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian heritage, but they have been shoved aside in the last 50 years in favor of relativism, which is no standard at all. We find one glaring example of this sea change in the recent phenomenon of drag queen story hours in our public libraries. Billed as family-friendly events promoting diversity and foisted off on communities by the American Library Association, these performances for children aim at subverting the family, normalizing deviancy,  and confusing preschoolers about gender and sex.

At the same time, we must recognize that accepting deviancy as a norm comes with a tremendous cost. In many of our large cities, for example, crime and murder are now accepted as everyday events. The weekend casualty counts, assaults, and robberies out of places like Chicago and New York receive due notice in some media, but little if any effort is put into reducing these tallies of murder, rape, and theft.

Once we understand that the deviant behavior found across the board in today’s culture is neither normal nor desirable, and we have the heart and the spirit to do something about it, we can take action.

The field of education more easily demonstrates this power of the individual or a group of citizens to make a difference. More families are homeschooling now than ever before, and private academies of all sorts are springing up around the country. Parents are voting with their feet and leaving government schools.

The Dylan Mulvaney Bud Light ad and the subsequent backlash that caused Anheuser-Busch InBev to take a major hit in sales was yet another demonstration of our power to make change. The lesson there was to stop supporting companies that are intent on radical cultural transformation.

Public libraries have also become battlegrounds in the culture wars. From Prattville, Alabama, Lori Herring writes “How to Save Your Local Library From Cultural Marxists.” Pratt and a group of concerned parents spent nearly a year working to divest their public library’s children’s section of pornographic material, but they finally succeeded. Courageous people like them are making a difference.

To take charge of our lives rather than looking to government is a tradition as old as America itself, and it can be applied to everything from cleaning up our city streets of trash to crime prevention. Participating in local elections, voting, becoming candidates ourselves, volunteering, staying engaged in local affairs—in these ways and more, citizens can have a direct effect on culture and community. Stout hearts, willing hands, and a sense of common decency can heal any number of the wounds inflicted on our society.

Enough, then, of defining deviancy down. Let’s start defining decency up.

Image credit: Pexels

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