- Deviant behavior is the one that does not obey current norms and values within a particular culture.
- Social deviance is defined by many different discourses with the power to label and punish deviant behavior.
- Norms and values changed throughout history, and the notion of deviant behavior changed along with them.
When we are discussing problems of deviance in general, we find ourselves on a very slippery slope. There are two main reasons for this. First, to label something as a deviant behavior, we are always comparing it to the notion of ‘’normality’’. Secondly, it is crucial to understand who and in which way is describing deviant behavior, meaning, what kind of authority (scientific, religious, or political) is the one creating a discourse that says what is wrong and what is right.
What Is Normal Behavior?
Let us tackle the notion of ‘’normal’’ behavior. Within a specific cultural context, certain norms and values are important to society as a whole. This does not mean that values and norms that people should follow are always necessarily good or bad, for that matter. You should look at these terms as a way every society organizes itself - by creating boundaries and defining what kind of behavior people should never embrace.
The most straightforward example of this would probably be murder. In possibly every country in the world, if you take another person’s life, you will have to suffer the consequences. The juridical system will prosecute you: you will go through a trial, and you will be punished. In some states, the punishment for killing is - well, the death penalty. So, to sum it up, murder is deviant behavior, and society (if it wishes to remain stable) needs to remove killers from the other, normal people.
As you can tell from the murder case above, there is something that always needs to be present if we want to understand deviance. In this scenario, there is always some punishment involved, coming from the justice system. That same justice system is designed to react and prosecute social deviants, and they base their judgment on the dominant norms and values prevalent in that particular society.
Who Is Defining Normal Behavior?
The other vital aspect we need to investigate is what structures of society have the power to label someone as a deviant, and because of that, apply different forms of punishment. From the first example, the line is pretty straightforward - there is a law that says you should not kill people, and the justice system will be the one that punishes you. But, all of this gets intensely more complicated if we try to find other examples of deviance.
For years, and unfortunately still to this today, people that have a different sexual orientation than heterosexual had suffered when people labeled them as deviants. Sadly, in some countries, people can end up in prison (or worse!) if their behavior does not obey the moral policies on the sexuality of that specific culture. But, even if there are no legal actions taken against people of homosexual orientation, they will still live in a harsh and judgmental reality.
Who Agrees On What Is Deviance?
Now, who is the one saying that homosexuality is wrong? It is not just one court of justice; it is the society and numerous structures that have a say in what is the ‘’correct’’ sexual behavior.
The church, for example, has a massive issue with people that are homosexual, because they are, by the standards of the Bible (which represents a basis to create specific norms and values) not ‘’normal.’’ The church discourse will even go so far, preaching how they can cure someone from being a homosexual, which explains their view on this. For the Catholic Church discourse, homosexuality is a disease that can be cured. However, it is not only the church imposing their sense of normality to the public. Various political parties, mostly right, and not always extreme-right wing, also share a similar way.
This problem trickles down to an indefinite number of issues: the way that we define family, the right to have children, or the right to have an abortion. In these examples, you will witness how social deviance is something that will always create a situation of tension between different parts of society.
The concept of deviance largely depends on how someone is defining notions of liberty and freedom of choice. Deviance is, from this perspective, something that always challenges the values and norms of a particular society. How that deviance is discussed in the public discourse depends on an incredible number of factors: the dominant economic policy, the ruling political parties, and of course, the power of the people to fight against what they think is not right.
To bring all of this to a present-day example, the recent tragic death of George Floyd shows you how even structures that are supposed to deal with and define deviance, can become deviant. Police behavior towards African-Americans is, right now, labeled as deviant and people from all over the world are putting the pressure on the US government, and on all the police stations that exist in the US. Why? Because the police are supposed to, as their motto says ‘’to serve and protect’’.