A Broadened Definition of Deviance

I don't know how many people any longer read "The New York Review of Books" now that the publisher fired the editor, Ian Buruma, some months ago, because he published an article by some Italian who had been accused of sexual harassment but never convicted, apparently because of the pressure of the university publishing houses that supply the magazine with most of its advertising. The magazine never explained in its own pages what it had done even though there are now two people listed as editors. I know people who still carry around the latest issue and apologize for still reading it. But it really is a good publication because it does long essay reviews by prominent scholars who will give you a summary of a field of learning, whether it is Turkish history or Renaissance art or new insights in metaphysics, into which is tucked some remarks about new books in a field, usually also written by well established scholars.

I was particularly intrigued by a letter to the editor written recently by the author of a book that had been reviewed and the response to the letter that was offered by the reviewer. Michael Messing is a journalist and the author of a number of books and had previously served as head of Columbia University's School of Journalism, and so he has some accomplishments, though he is not an academic scholar and feels sensitive about it. He wrote a book about Erasmus and Luther which I read because I am interested in those two figures and I thought that his book was a bit too comprehensive, reviewing intellectual history back to the Scholastics and not very freshly, and crediting Erasmus as a forerunner of Spinoza and Luther as the provocateur of the Protestant Ethic, the first claim seeming to me a stretch, and the second one right on in that Luther more than Calvin said things that are in keeping with the Weber thesis, Weber's theory currently out of favor among scholars.  

Messing's letter was nasty. He accused the reviewer, a Cambridge don, of treating him poorly because he was not an academic and makes the mistake of treating the long summary of the conflict between Erasmus and Luther as having been cribbed from Messing’s own book when it was clearly the result of the reviewer's own learning. A bit overly sensitive but I suppose forgivable in that being reviewed in the NYR is what may be a once in a lifetime thing and so an author wants to strike back at the slightest insult. But then there is the don's answer, which is quite condescending. It says that the review had been, if anything, charitable because non-scholars can still write useful books for a popular audience and that, anyway, the scholarship in the article was all his own, the footnotes included because the NYR insisted on it.

Was it necessary for the scholar to be so condescending? Well, the NYR has a history of printing nasty letters and their nasty rebuttals, as if only those kinds of disputes are entertaining. Also, the don had been attacked for being mean spirited and so was entitled to a rebuttal. What could he have crafted which showed respect as well as disagreement? I am not at all sure, which brings us to the crux of the matter, which is that the divide between scholars and non-scholars is so deep, us non-scholars expected to sit at the feet of our betters who are willing to write for other than scholarly journals, and so it is to be expected that we will get the back of the hand when we get uppity and request fuller respect for our offerings. Scholars are very proud of what they have accomplished and others who wander into their territory do so at their own peril.

So what I am pointing to is this great divide, akin to race and gender, except that it occurs within the highly specialized field of publishing, between two kinds of people trying to address one another over fundamental questions of status that they don't fully grasp, the deviant group of non-scholars not knowing their place and the scholarly community not knowing quite how to put them in their place, making them recognize that their subservient position in the social hierarchy is inevitable rather than merely circumstantial. Putting in some time in the libraries does not make up for proper academic credentialization. How many other divides are there in society which have these same characteristics of a normative and a deviant group but where the relationship is not tied to to ascriptive characteristics such as race and gender?

To be precise, I am defining deviance as a concept far broader than its usual limit, which is to a social group held in disdain by the majority of society and so in some sense to be punished or even only vilified for that fact, which is what happens not only to Jews and blacks but also, until recently, to woman and homosexuals, the category extended by Erving Goffman to include diseased and disabled people and criminals and whomever else we find to be ugly or inferior in their ability to carry out a normal way of life. Rather, the term is expanded to mean a group of people who are thought essentially inferior because they do not have the capacity to be ordinary people and this fact applies to any number of them even though there may be some exceptions, like the lady preacher Samuel Johnson refers to as being like the dog who walks upright: a  neat trick though not done very well. Racism and sexism certainly fit in this description because Black people are not the butt of racism because they suffer from sickle cell anemia or because they have thick lips but because some people still think they can only be poor imitations of white men and women, however much Barack Obama was an example to the contrary. So a modified version of the racist theory might read that on the whole a racial minority can’t hold its own with regular people, which means white people, unless they are given special advantages, and so in the process pull everyone else down.

This broadened definition of deviance therefore would include among the deviant groups all those people, usually the vast majority of the population, who are not in a profession that sees itself as holding to itself an expertise and body of knowledge that makes it therefore superior to the rest of the population at least in that area of learning. An uneducated man is, according to the educated man, unable to appreciate what it is to be an educated man, even if the uneducated may blanch or get angry at being described in that way because it deprives him of his humanity, as if he can’t think straight, but is just a creature of custom, which is exactly what educated people may think, though too polite to say, and so make much of the fact that the uneducated voted differently from the way the educated did, more prone to racist thinking or what not, however much the working class of the Thirties are forgiven for having voted for FDR because they were following their class interests, which are easy to assess, even though economic interests can be overridden by racist feelings.

In similar fashion, the lawyer thinks he thinks more clearly about obligation than the layperson, as do, each in their own ways, philosophers, sociologists and students of literature, these last thinking they know more about human nature than do psychologists. So every specialist makes the rest of the world ignorant and tries to handle that fact gently except when pressed, most of the time deferring to other areas of expertise without really meaning it.

Here is another category of people who think themselves entitled to a self regard which treats other people as inferiors who can’t possibly understand why the first group is superior. In most schoolyards, the athletes will lord it over the non-athletes, even if the other students are the brainy ones who go on to good colleges or to fame and fortune while the athletes, most of them, never will be as grand as they were in high school. This is because girls like athletes, athletics are important to most boys, and so the prestige goes there. But it is also because they sense themselves as having met tests ordinary mortals could not; they have done things at a young age, gone through stress and competition and practices, that are daunting, and ordinary folk cannot appreciate the highs that go with the cheer of the crowd or even the honor of being known for having achieved a good racing time in running or swimming. A hero crowned so young is separated into an aristocracy whose mantle is not easily put aside.

And in the public arena, far from the sportsfied, non-immigrants, in spite of all people and politicians talk about coming through Ellis Island or up from poverty, feel more secure in their identity because they have a handle on the nation that the newcomers do not, and so they can look down on them as not having the familiarity with the way of life of the United States as those who have been here for generations. Certainly, those who are not documented can hardly have that sense of the country belonging to them. In the film “The Good Shepherd”, an old line Wasp working for the CIA is asked what he has that is the equivalent of Jewish ritual or Italian ethnicity, and answers that it is the Constitution of the United States. That is his culture and it sets him apart from those people who have other allegiances and so are forever split in their loyalties, and we know that immigrant groups and ethnicities of even long standing in the United States are accused of having divided loyalties. That is the heart of the charge against recent immigrants, not that they are dirty or uneducated, which are qualities that can be remedied within a generation, while divided loyalty is a characteristic that will remain as long as there is a distinct ethnic consciousness. So there are any number of ways in which groups divide along natural lines, the one group inherently superior to the other, inevitably so, however much, these days, political correctness or some other ideology requires that fact to be hidden. In all of these cases, the non-elite group just embarrasses itself by not knowing its place.