Friday, March 7, 2014

On Deviance and Social Norms

This week in my sociology textbook, we read the chapter on “Deviance and Crime”. I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to get through; I even had panic attacks trying to read it! I got carried away with "processing" while working on the written assignment and here is what spilled out:

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I often wish social norms were more clearly defined. The distinction between courageous and informally deviant is such a fine line and I feel like I spend a lot of time in no man’s land, unsure whether my behavior will meet with praise or censure when I engage with society at large. No doubt my confusion can be partly attributed to growing up in a sub-/counterculture and socialized in a religious cult where nearly everything was either black or white and my parents and their friends proudly self-identified as “radical”. 

I grew up with a large hand-painted “Jesus Is Lord” sign over our garage and my parents starting homeschooling before it was legal. Dad put a large rock through the front of our television when I was seven and asked our grandparents not to send us toys that might lead us into the occult. Mom birthed ten babies in our house. When I was a teenager, my siblings and I swam fully-clothed in hotel pools while housekeepers and other guests stared down at us from upper levels. Mom had me write a letter to Revlon asking if their home perm solution contained the flesh of aborted babies and a letter to the hosts of a church Halloween party linking jack-o’-lanterns with Satanism. 

I was pretty sure none of this was normal. Yet it was normal for me. The Bible told us God had chosen us to be his “peculiar people”. From a very young age, I had to develop an immunity to questions, stares, and even gasps, from friends and strangers alike. And like Annie Sullivan in the play The Miracle Worker, “it made me strong”.

Our family stood as a group and walked out of church services, carrying the babies, when we encountered music that violated the rules of our cult. When we went out to eat, my dad would ask the restaurant to turn off the music on the sound system so we would not be exposed to the defiling rock beat. At a Pizza Hut in Moscow, Russia, our team's leader convinced the manager to change the music that was playing and play our cassette of instrumental hymns instead so we could munch in spiritual freedom.

I absorbed the "standing alone" lesson well. I loved wearing hats and veils and would wear them to church when I felt like it, if the women there looked mostly normal. When my parents took us to a church where all the other women hid their hair behind scarves, I left my hat at home and wore lipstick! When I attended a Baptist church while staying at the in Indianapolis Training Center, I lifted my hands during the worship service. It was part self-expression and part protest against their doctrine which accused other "brothers in Christ" of being controlled by devils. 

When I worked in Oklahoma City for IBLP, we regularly saw homeless men who wandered the area around our compound, situated between the parks and the rescue mission. One pushed a shopping cart and dripped gold paint from a can he kept close to him. Many of them were probably mentally ill. We regarded them as lazy, maybe crazy, and who knew if they were dangerous? We, the ones with strong character, were the wise ones: forbidden to date or wear blue jeans, eschewing higher education, sneaking coffee once a month, working for nothing and selling families censored Internet!

One scorching Saturday when my friends and I got permission to take a walk through downtown (deserted on the weekend), we stumbled onto a quiet corner with a garden and an enticing fountain. We saw no reason to resist the temptation. Long skirts notwithstanding, we went straight in--laughing, splashing, playing, seeing how much of our bodies we could submerge in the shallow water. The homeless men who had been resting (bathing?) at the other corner of the park took one look at us and quietly moved on. Maybe we looked like trouble! But we just felt free; for that hour we were bold, unashamed, and very wet. The sun dried us on our hike back and we never told our supervisors about our "swimming" adventures--in mixed company, no less! But those of us who were there still recount our exploits. It gave us a new label, perhaps. We looked the part on the outside, but inside we were secret rebels. For some of us, labels like that eventually helped us escape the cult programming.

In my mid-20’s, I “rebelled” by wearing jeans, listening to Christian bands, getting a mortgage, buying condoms (my husband and I had two kids in two years), swimming in a bikini, and attending college. In each situation, I braced myself for the social repercussions that might follow these deviant choices. It helped immensely that I found my cohort through social media. Though scattered across the continent, we explored each step of our new life together, sometimes in excruciating detail!

These days I watch reruns of Seinfeld to create a sense of contemporary history. What did other pockets of American culture look like in the 1990’s? My husband and I adore Kramer because he is so oblivious to both labels and social norms, making it all the more hysterical when even he recognizes behavior as deviant. I suppose functionalist theory would find Kramer essential to the show because by challenging the status quo, he exposes it. And I often feel I am doing the same.

I am still scared every time I confront a perceived authority or break a rule. On the other hand, I think a lot of our social “norms” standardize antisocial behavior or justify abuse and need to be challenged by those who refuse to recognize them anymore. Those with social control may write the history, but it is those labeled as “deviant” who change its course.

Perhaps labels do stick through the generations. While I don't consider myself "radical", I feel no loyalty to conventions or traditions that are used to demean or disenfranchise groups who wield less power in society. And I'm proud when I see my children continuing the family legacy of bucking the system. 


  1. like you, I was raised to be a cultural rebel..... so i guess it's not a shock that we were raised in.

  2. *that we rebelled against the culture that we were raised in