Soundings

Defining Deviancy Up
Summer 1994

In a 1993 article in The American Scholar, Senator Daniel Moynihan warned of the danger of “defining deviancy down.” Society, he argued, has been progressively lowering its standards of what is regarded as acceptable behavior, leading ultimately to a “lunatic crime rate” that people have come to regard as “normal.”

But there are signs that New York City is defining deviancy up, taking more seriously what have been regarded as “minor” transgressions against civility and public order. The police are cracking down on truant youths and “squeegee men.” And the Transit Authority is running a successful ad campaign urging subway riders to donate to legitimate charities rather than give money to beggars. The latter is a particularly clear example of how times have changed: five years ago, Mayor Edward Koch was harshly criticized for suggesting that New Yorkers not give to panhandlers.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is helping change the tone of public discourse. “Freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want,” he said in a March speech. “Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority.” Though civil libertarians were predictably outraged by the mayor’s remarks, he explained that he was simply noting the need to strike a “balance between doing what you want to do…and submitting to authority.”

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