Unfortunately, there are no shortages of examples in our social environment for studying the phenomenon of deviant behavior. Examples from the several years alone include acts of violence with minimal and great consequences; 9/11, the shooting at Virginia Tech University that resulted in the deaths of 33 people, the shooting at a NASA facility which ended the lives of two people, and just yesterday, the shooting in a Kansas City mall, killing several people.
Many forms of social deviance exist across the range of crimes and criminals of all ages, of course, besides shooting, but these recent examples and the discourses that have developed in their aftermath help us to understand the ways in which people construct subjective notions of deviance, unconsciously and informally utilizing the kinds of theories that we have studied in this course. There are at least two disparate discourses that are offered to “explain” the deviant behavior of the shooters in all three of these relative recent incidents of deviant behavior in the context of extreme crime and criminal behavior.
The first discourse, typically deployed by liberal experts hired as consultants by the media, represents the ideologies underlying the labeling theory, a positivist position which assumes that the environment is the etiological root of deviance, rather than a fundamental deficit within the deviant person and his or her poor decision making skills (39-41). Then, there is the discourse of the general public, which tends to explain the behavior of the deviants who perpetrate such egregious acts utilizing a combination of stress theory (135) and the notion of personal deficit. The problem with these discursive frameworks is that one considered without the influence of the other is inherently limiting. It is possible—indeed, it is probable—that the actual causes of deviance are not traceable to any single variable, either the impoverishment of one’s environment or personal history or the deviant individual’s fundamental personal deficits and criminal propsensity. Rather, it is more likely to be the case that any instance of deviant behavior is a complicated intersection of multiple variables, including the person’s environment and poor decision-making skills or deficits. An analysis of recent incidents, described in articles published by The Dallas Morning News, will demonstrate this argument to be true.
In the wake of a deviant act or crime that causes death or severe physical and psychological harm, especially in large numbers or in an act that is particularly heinous, the discourses of deviance and its etiology are activated immediately. After any criminal act that causes bodily and mental harm, the first question people ask is “Why did this happen?” A review of articles on the subject of various types of criminal behavior that were published in The Dallas Morning News within the past three months demonstrate the polarized debates that emerge as communities struggle to explain the etiology of deviance; unfortunately, the bifurcated thinking represented by these two polarities obscures the causes of deviance, rather than illuminates them. This fact is evidenced in the cases presented below.
Case One: “Youth Jail Sex Abuse Reported: Complaints about staffers ignored, covered-up, investigation reveals.” (February 18, 2007)
In this article, journalist Doug J. Swanson reports on the perpetration of massive sexual abuse within a West Texas prison for juveniles, where inmates were sexually molested for more than a year before any external interventions addressed this criminal deviant behavior, which was enacted by high-ranking administrators within the prison. Despite complaints by inmates, who had been coerced to remain silent for months either by threats to extend their sentences or by promises of early release and assistance with educational and vocational placement, the culture of abuse persisted. Swanson indicated that reports obtained by the newspaper attributed the abuse to “a culture in which prison officials were free to abuse their power, punish children who tried to complain about them, and reward those who gave them sexual favors” (para. 9). Clearly, this is an environmental explanation for the deviant sexual behavior of adults taking advantage of adolescent boys whose power and autonomy were completely limited. While part of the truth is obviously that the environment facilitated the deviance and its persistence over such a long period of time, it fails to explain why the administrators abused the children. This is one of the limitations of labeling theory; it does not get inside the experience or the mind of the deviant individual to examine and explain issues such as motivation and the thought and decision-making processes that precede the actualization of the deviant behavior (40). The result was a crime committed on a grand scale with deviant behavior as the centerpiece of the criminal act.
Swanson interviews several colleagues of the abusers and the recurrent theme that they articulate is that the prison’s school administrator used his power and authority over the boys and employees in order to create the conditions that were necessary—such as isolation and an extended period of time without oversight—to perpetrate the abuse. What Swanson neglects to include, however, is any information that could contextualize or situate the administrator: Who is he? What is his background? What are his personal characteristics? Were there any indicators of personality or personal history that might have served as warning signs about his potential for this sort of deviance? The failure to address the understory of the school administrator demonstrates the limitations of a one-dimensional discourse based on the application of a single theory of deviance.