Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Deviance of Hegemony

Would the Mongols have viewed their devastation of Asia, Europe and the Middle East as "deviance", or rather as the just expansion of their illustrious empire? Would the Nazis have viewed the Holocaust and the conquering of Europe as "deviance" or as the Aryan race taking back its rightful position and cleansing itself of cancers on its body politic? And why did the Nazis term what are now universally agreed to be the courageous and legitimate resistance to them "terrorists"? The point of these questions should be clear. It seems that there is a double standard in the mainstream culture about "deviance": the rich using cocaine is acceptable, the poor using crack is not; corporations engaging in cutthroat practices for profit is fine, gangs are a major danger (not to mention the common association of "gang" with black or Latino groups, not, say, mostly white bikers). But this is in fact not a double standard. Rather, their position is very consistent: the crimes of the powerful are just and right; the crimes of the weak and poor are either specimens to viewed at a distance with disgust (assuming any attention is paid, and assuming that those crimes do not harm the prerogatives of the politically and economically potent), or alternately brutally crushed and repressed.

One can argue that the disdain shown in popular culture for organized crime or criminal groups and "gangs" (though there is always the morbid fascination: see The Sopranos, The Godfather, Scarface, Carlito's Way...) is the competition of different epochs. The Mafia, the Triads, the Irish gangs, all were in one view ruling groups that set themselves apart from the official state and protected communities. Since those groups compete with the new power structures, the bourgeois corporation, they must be repressed, even though their values are identical, and in fact better, in that they make more than paeans to community value and service while corporations simply despoil. As Martin Jankowski indicates, “... the entrepeneurial spirit, which most Americans believe is the core of their productive culture, was a driving force in the worldview and behavior of gang members.” He even quotes a gang member named Sweet Cakes saying, “, I wouldn't mess with my community that way, but the rest of the folks is fair game”. Given how corporations are willing to export or “outsource” jobs out of their community, move their headquarters to take advantage of differential policies (say, tax policies), threaten such moving unless communities give favorable treatment to them, and build excess production around the planet so they can play workers off against each other, it seems uncontroversial that gangs, considered criminals, are far more community-oriented than the average capitalist institution, considered the norm. One can argue that gang members still victimize their communities, but this is at best a deeply simplistic description of the relationship. There is also the proposition that gangs engage in black market activity, but that in turn makes us question why legal sanction or prescription is necessarily congruent with the ethical nature of an act, especially given the obvious argument that the rich run the polity and of course will design the laws such that they are benefitted. The obvious example here, as above, is the distinction between corporate profits off of alcohol and tobacco, not to mention their complicity with drug laundering, and the illicit market of heroin and cocaine, which are certainly at least roughly equal in terms of social cost.

Even mental illness, seemingly "objective", is in fact socially contingent. It is one thing to find a distinct behavior, perhaps neurologically caused. It is quite another to say that this is good or bad. Was Einstein's dyscalcula a flaw or his greatest strength? Is an ADD child in the modern, strict classroom a monster or a precocious intellect and spirit that is being oppressed? These are value and social questions that are obfuscated by the veil and hammer of overzealous science. Now, in actual fact, according to the dominant definition of insanity (the rapidly burgeoning DSM, now in its fourth edition), America has the highest incidences of mental illness in the industrialized world.1That has clear roots in culture, polity, economy, gender, etc. To quote Tim Wise on the topic, “And since dominant group members have not had to deal with major obstacles to our advance, or in terms of our being accepted and valued in society, we really haven't had to develop those coping skills. So when the going gets tough, so to speak, we, more so than others, are more likely to react in a manner that seems so bizarre that it literally defies logic.” He justifies this conclusion by pointing out that what we call “control” illnesses are disproportionately found in white communities. But, looking even more closely, we find that what is called "deviant" behavior has a distinctively female tone: that is, we define what is "deviant" by what is female and what is "normal" by what is male, in line with the ancient association of moon, night, darkness, insanity and femininity, and sun, day, light, rationality and masculinity.2 This isn't the only critique of the DSM, either. Critical race theorists have argued that the DSM is culturally imperialist; civil libertarians have noted the frightening trend to increase the amount of disorders “punishable” by institutionalization; postmodernists have noted the problematic nature of the discourse of “mental illness” and psychiatry; and anti-capitalists have argued compellingly that beneath apparently benevolent impulses lie the inevitable pressure of the market towards commodifying solutions to problems in the form of “silver bullet” pills and making profit off of suffering rather than presenting solutions involving community, solidarity and liberty. Then we must consider the stigma associated with mental illnesses such that people hide in shame, further severing them from community and family such that the conditions get worse.

All of the above indicates the complex social flow, wherein the fish run with the current and yet we decide to pretend that the fish have complete freedom of choice to move how they wish as if no river existed. The final aspect of deviance is the aspect of punishment. Institutions preserve themselves not least through assigning disincentives to destructive activities: Social ones of stigma, material ones of deprivation, political ones of force and unequal access to judicial and legislative redress, etc. It is not my intention to declare that all anti-system movements and tensions are equal ethically. We often see old systems of power attacking the new, ostensibly for noble reasons but really for self-interest, such as with organized crime. But we see this same pressure against completely legitimate resistance groups and revolutionary societies. Let us make no bones: Any successful movement seeking true justice will face the punishment of State, Capital, Gender and Culture.


1.For discussion of the linkage between hegemony, white privilege, acrid sexual politics, and the other social confluences with mental illness, see: Chuckman, John; “First in the World in the Deranged”, Counterpunch, June 3 2004. Wise, Tim, “Whiteness and the Social Entropy of Privilege”,

See Wiley, A. (2001). The absence of the feminist critique from abnormal psychology. Presented in "Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis" symposium. Association of Women in Psychology conference. Los Angeles. And Collins, L. H. (1998). Illustrating feminist theory: Power and psychopathology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 22, 97-112.


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