Thursday, July 12, 2007

Relativity and Deviance

I'm currently reading two books about deviance. The first, which I have actually started, is "The Relativity of Deviance" and as the title implies it is largely about how deviance is a relative thing and it proposes that there really is no such thing as actual deviance because all things can be acceptable or unacceptable depending upon the culture in which the action is performed.

The second is "the Politics of Deviance" which is reported to be more along the lines of how deviance has become acceptable within our culture, what that means and so on.

My opinion, while deviance is different from culture to culture, in large part, there are certain things which are generally deviant within mainstream cultures and that this is not only a true thing, but that it is a good thing for cultures to have ideals of behavior... I'm not a relativist (well, not completely).

Random murder, for instance, is pretty much deviant (and criminal) behavior throughout the world, within cultures. While some cultures may be ok with murdering people outside of their group, I don't know of any that believe that killing someone, for no reason, within the group is acceptable... with the exception of infanticide (and in cultures where infanticide is acceptable, infants are generally considered to be non-persons or non-members of the group) or special rights given to certain persons for whatever reason.

Another example of pretty universal abhorrence is having sexual relations with a child who is deemed to be beneath the age of acceptable sexual initiation. The age may vary considerably among groups and between genders (and this prohibition may not apply to children engaging in sexual play amongst themselves) but all groups seem to have a minimum age which is acceptable for adults to engage in sexual activities with a younger person.

But, some people say, there are groups of people who engage in random killing or have sex with infants and so it must be true that these behaviors are only deviant because of social conditioning... well, I think not. I'd say that groups who engage in these behaviors are not part of the mainstream culture of their society, and that while they may have personal ideals or rationalizations for their acts, their acts are still deviant within the larger culture they live in.

And there is a reason for the idea of deviance, and that some things are wrong. In order for people to live in societies, rules of conduct must be agreed upon and generally followed which will protect us from each other (in whatever ways we collectively decide are necessary). If we decide that there are really no deviant acts or wrong behaviors then we give people license to act in ways which are harmful to others and thus increase the insecurity of the group as a whole.

Some people believe that social condemnation of acts actually increases their incidence, but if we observe the actuality of events we can see that most people will obey the rules of their particular society (or subculture) when societal proscriptions are in place and punishments for failure to obey norms and ideals are harsh... When unwed motherhood was a permanent black mark and would ruin a girl's reputation and chances in life, forever, the vast majority of women did not engage in premarital sex or have children when unmarried (and no, I don't hope to return to this state of affairs).

You can look at virtually any behavior and see that social consequences to actions are much more effective in curbing and encouraging behaviors than any legal ramification could be. In communities where "snitching" is seen as a horrible crime against the community, people will not report crimes (no matter how awful) because they fear the social consequences more than their legal problems for not doing so, or even the dangers to their life if they fail to report. In communities where illicit drug use is seen as acceptable or "normal" the rate of usage among people is much higher than within communities where drug use is considered unacceptable and "deviant", even when the legal ramifications are the same... social strictures are much more effective.

So I believe that by creating a society where we believe that morality is relative, that there is no right or wrong, and failing to socially address behaviors which are detrimental to individuals and communities, we are failing to be socialized at all. We are allowing our culture to devolve from a thing which rewards kindness, civility and helpfulness into a thing which promotes empty self-gratification of all kinds and tells people to "look out for number 1" instead of helping each other and promoting what used to be our values of cooperation and generosity. In effect, we are replacing the evils of ethnocentricity (which I would say has a place in society) that we used to develop with age and community membership, with the childish ideal of Egocentricity that has historically (in every society) been the main characteristic of immaturity (which socialization's goal was to overcome).

In short, I believe that by adopting a relativistic view of morality we are devolving into a group of individuals who never reach intellectual and social maturity... we become eternal children.

And I like children, a lot, but I believe that perhaps the biggest goal of childhood is to mature into a well socialized adult. People need each other, but in order for societies to function well people must learn to behave in ways which promote the well-being of others within the group... whether we like it or not, this means that we must come to a consensus, within our communities, about what constitutes acceptable behavior (thus, what is right or wrong) and use societal controls to enforce our collective beliefs.

And really, even as we are pushing an ideal of relativity we are defeating our own cause... for an ideology of relativity is intolerant of that which is viewed as being non-relativistic thinking, and that in itself denies the relativity of non-relativity... or is an impossible endeavor.

I don't propose that one culture or way of thinking is correct, but rather that in order for any given society to function well they must have their own code of conduct and self-regulate behaviors within their groups. There must be controls upon human behavior (and in actuality there always are, even if unspoken), for the good of everyone, and sometimes that means that some people will not be able to do whatever they want... no, that always means some people will not be allowed to do whatever they want. And that's a good thing when your neighbor thinks your infant is sexy or decides they want to live in your house or wear your skin over their own.