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Defining Deviancy Down
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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Defining Deviancy Down (Part 1)

By: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Among the many and diverse responses to this series of columns, one theme that keeps coming up is the sense of bewilderment on the part of many people. The vast majority of people who are contacting me agree with the facts as I am presenting them. They shake their heads and wonder:

1) How did we get to this point (that teen drinking/smoking have become acceptable, and that the rate of substance abuse is rising)? … And

2) What should (could) we be doing about it?

The al regel achas (short version) of my response to these questions is that we have been lulled into complacency by the remarkable success of our Yeshiva and Beis Yaakov system over the past 2 generations. We are basking in the glow of the thousands of well-adjusted, idealistic and spiritual young men and women that our schools are graduating – while at the same time we are becoming numbed and accustomed to the rising rates and intensity of drinking and smoking, substance abuse and addiction. I think that we need to be candid in our analysis of the facts at hand, and proactive in our response to them.

In the next few columns, I will attempt to address these questions in greater detail. We will discuss “How did we get here?” and list some initiatives that we can implement to address these issues.

Defining Deviancy Down

New York City was in the throes of spiraling crime rates and lawlessness during the 1980’s and early 90’s. Entire neighborhoods in the inner city were considered too dangerous for even firefighters to enter. The Crown Heights riots served as a stark reminder of how our fragile society could erupt in a matter of moments.

In a landmark speech – followed by an article in the American Scholar in 1993, the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined a phrase “Defining Deviancy Down.” He wrote that each generation adjusts to growth in antisocial behavior by regularly redefining deviancy and, in effect, pretending that nothing got worse.

As he summarized it in the language of political science: "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."

In plain, simple English, his theory went as follows: Every society has its norms, or standards for acceptable behavior. Failure to comply with these norms would be considered deviant (abnormal) behavior.

Take the norms of dress code for adults in the general public in the United States, for example. Look at the pictures of Martian Luther King’s speech in Washington D.C. during the summer of 1963. All the men and women who attended looked like they were at a formal event – despite the stifling heat and humidity. Or take any picture of a baseball game from the 1960’s. Virtually all men were dressed in suits and ties during that era. That was the ‘norm’. In the 1960’s, attending a ballgame in an undershirt and shorts would have been considered behavior outside the social norms. As dress mores turned more informal, the American public responded with a collective shrug. We simply defined deviant behavior downward. Today, it is the acceptable norm in American culture to wear an undershirt to a ballgame or while flying on an airplane. We redefined deviant behavior to walking shirtless – or “defined deviancy down.


Mr. Moynihan suggested that the alarming decline of the quality of life in the 70’s and 80’s was a direct result of society’s unqualified acceptance of too many activities formerly considered deviant. What had been defined as deviance in the past, including out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse, welfare dependency, and homelessness, all seemed to be rising. Worse yet, these deviant behaviors appeared to have become morally acceptable.

"Crime and violence is lashing out at the whole social structure," he said, and yet he noted that the public's response was curiously passive. Since there is no expectation that things will change, in effect, the crime level has been normalized. To clinch this point, Moynihan cited news media coverage to show how incidents of mass murder at that time routinely exceeded the death toll of the notorious Valentine's Day massacre of four gangsters in 1929 (which received breathless coverage in the newspapers for weeks), and how the shooting of a teacher is normalized when it is called the "first" of the current semester, implying that more will follow. The sign “No Radio” in one’s car simply means, “Go rob someone else’s car,” to quote the Senator. (Remember those signs? For those west of the Hudson, many people installed removable radios in their cars so as not to attract the attention of thieves. They would remove the radio each night and post a “No Radio” sign in the window of their automobile).


That speech and article had a profound ripple effect on the culture in New York City and across the Nation. In 1994, New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the term to explain why he ordered the police to go after the "squeegee pests" (his words – describing people who washed the windows of cars waiting for traffic lights to turn green and aggressively solicited money from the drivers – a common scene during the 80’s and early 90’s in NYC) who were relieving themselves in public and spitting at those who didn't pay them. And Police Commissioner Bratton used the term to justify his department's new get-tough policies.

At first, Giuliani was roundly blasted in the press for his ‘quality of life’ campaign. But before long, the public responded with a resounding cheer as crime rates plummeted, streets became cleaner and safer, and NY City became once again an enjoyable place to spend the day – and park your car.

It is important to remember that this turnaround started with a speech, an article, … and most importantly, the public’s collective refusal to continue to define deviancy downward.

© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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