The Deviance Society

Inside the hidden world of deviance.

The Control Society

Crisis creation and the death of moderation

Looking back over the past half-century, significant changes in American social mores and values have evolved. The liberal, "just do it," ethos of the 1960s has been replaced by the pervasiveness of "Just Say No:"

Say no to drugs, no to alcohol, no to tobacco, no to sex. People are trading in their former "sins" by drinking non-alcoholic beer, chewing nicotine gum, or abstaining from the bong. Some people are choking their sex drive, figuring it's better to be monogamous or abstinent than to negotiate condoms or dental dams. A re-virginization movement has grown where couples do not
engage in intercourse for three days to six months before their weddings. Tim Tebow and Lady Gaga are the poster children for voluntary celibacy.

See All Stories In

Can Sex Ever Be Casual?

No-strings-attached mating may differ between theory and practice.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Yesterday's stud is today's disease carrier; yesterday's head is today's substance abuser;

yesterday's smoker, who used to be 'cool,' is today's public menace. We have, in our lifetimes, witnessed the War on Drugs, the War on Porn, the War on AIDS, the censuring of "cuss" words, and recreational drinking and smoking in films now yield them an R-rating for films.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with giving up smoking—it's more addictive, not to mention dangerous, than any illegal drug. And people do get hooked on alcohol, drugs, and sex. However not everyone who has a cocktail is an alcoholic, not everyone who gets stoned is an addict, and not everyone who enjoys sex (or reads Playboy) is a pervert. To draw a distinction between indulgence and abuse is heretical.  There is no longer a distinction between people who use drugs and those who abuse them, as there is only a paradigm for abuse. The only permissible way to talk about drugs, sex,

(and, deviance more generally) is in the language of crisis and fear. Everyone has ready access to statistics about the costs to businesses, hospital beds occupied by substance abuse, the level of increase in the potency of marijuana—these statistics are in hot demand because they bolster the perception that a crisis exists. This reinforces the idea that we need elaborate mechanisms of surveillance and control.

This move toward abstinence, sobriety, moderation, and puritanical thoughts about sex is more than a trend. It's a practical program that expands the limits of law enforcement, the authority of employers, and ultimately its own parameters. Big Brother IS looking over your shoulder. Across American society one sees effort after effort to restore social cohesion, re-assert authority, and basically get a grip on the energies that have been unleashed over the past quarter-century. Universities are re-imposing curfews as well as rules on cohabitation, unsupervised parties, fraternity hazing, and sexual conduct. Legislatures across the country are controlling Internet smut, tobacco advertising, and labeling violent TV programming, video games, and rock and rap lyrics as bad. Cities across the nation have imposed controls on panhandling, vagrancy, public drinking, and littering. Community policing programs have given law enforcement more day-to-day authority in high-crime areas. Cameras and scanners are everywhere. Are these the benign acts of a civilized society, or have the authorities taken their powers too far?

This process is a CONTROL PARADIGM, that is, a model of clear and present danger that can be expanded to implicate and oppress multitudes. It usually begins with an actual problem, for example, teen pregnancy or the real dangers of drugs, but while an obvious response might be sex and drug education (and not the lies perpetrated by programs such as DARE), or birth control and teaching safe drinking habits. Instead, we are told that the best way to solve teen pregnancy is abstinence (which instills guilt about sexual activity), or that the best way to curb drug use is to scare people and to lie to them. Real health problems, such as AIDS and STDs become the occasion for wholesale sexual purges, and real problems with drugs are couched in an abuse paradigm, as if to do drugs means only to ABUSE them, and to talk about safe drug use is profane. Something else is going on:

In each of these situations, a problem provides the pretext to regulate "undesirable" behavior. The objective has less to do with personal safety than with social control.

How authentic are these emergencies? Is drug use really on the rise? [Government surveys continually show that drug use among teens has actually been declining.] Are teenagers drinking more than before? [What has been the effect of changing the legal drinking age from 18 to 21?] Are kids having sex sooner these days? [Or is it just that the "nice" girls are now doing what boys always did?]

Surveillance has mushroomed. With the advent of the cell phone and the ubiquitous camera, no behavior is unhidden. There is no privacy. There are no havens to escape the prying eyes of others.
It has become harder and harder to draw the line as the nets around us are drawn in. How can we distinguish between a necessary restraint (that society needs) and a control paradigm (that merely encages us in a world of others who want to legislate our morality)? We have shifted from paranoia about the destructive power of government (and industry) to anxiety about the personal consequences of the sins we commit (in the eyes of those in power).

Prohibition has already been proven not to work. Legislating morality involves people with power subjugating those who are powerless. Giving scare messages that are lies only perpetuates a society afraid to have fun, one that couches pleasure only in negative terms and which assumes that those who use can only abuse. Suggesting that those who digress from the conventional norms of society will never get ahead leads to a society where every move we make is assumed to denigrate the basic core values of society. We tend to disagree. We think most people make good decisions. Most people will conform. Most people can tell right from wrong. Most of us want to get ahead.  Sometimes we make mistakes; often we learn from them, sometimes they have disastrous

after-effects. But to not try, to not question, to not experiment (wisely), would leave us with a society much scarier than Orwell ever imagined in his book, 1984.

What is the hidden purpose of the Control Society? Groups who create crises use definitions of deviance to cast some people and their behavior as dangerous or bad. In so doing, they increase their power in society by robbing power and choice from others. That is the real reason for the death of moderation.

 

Patti Adler, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Peter Adler, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at the University of Denver.

more...

Subscribe to The Deviance Society

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?