The Pernicious Effects of Defining Deviancy Up
Take, for instance, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer’s assertion that Hungary’s legislation banning foreign donations to NGOs puts it in “the ranks of countries like Russia, China, and Israel, which obviously regard the funding of non-government organizations, of civil society efforts, by donors from abroad as a hostile or at least an unfriendly act.” His purpose was to shame both Hungary and Israel by lumping them in the same category as Russia and China in their treatment of NGOs.
But while all four countries do impose some restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs (and in Israel’s case, for good reason), in China and Russia, this is part of a systematic attempt to silence criticism of the government that includes jailing and torturing activists (China) and even killing them (Russia). In Israel, NGOs can and do criticize the government without fear. The only “restriction” they face is that if more than 50 percent of their funding comes from foreign governments, all their published material must note that fact (unlike Russia or China, Israel places no restrictions on funding from nongovernmental foreign sources).
By lumping these countries together, Schaefer didn’t merely smear Israel; he also paradoxically legitimized Russian and Chinese abuses. After all, if Russia and China are no worse than Israel, they can’t be that bad.
Moreover, such comparisons eviscerate one of the West’s main weapons against human rights abuses: the power to name and shame. By treating non-issues like NGO reporting requirements as major rights violations, Western officials are like the boy who cried wolf: Eventually, many people will simply stop listening to them.
Worst of all, however, if jailing and killing activists provoke no more outrage than imposing financial reporting requirements on NGOs, brutal dictatorships have no reason not to go straight to the torturing and killing. That provides more effective suppression for the same price in international opprobrium.
For another example of this pernicious approach, consider Freedom House’s lowering of Israel’s press freedom ranking earlier this year “due to unprecedented personal attacks by the prime minister on leading investigative journalists, which contributed to a hostile environment for the press.”
Once, press freedom was measured by objective factors like whether journalists could write what they please without fear of physical or financial consequences—a standard by which Israel does fine. As Freedom House admitted, “Israel hosts a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected … Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust … The Israeli media collectively offer a diverse range of views, and they are generally free from overt political interference.”
But today, that isn’t enough: Politicians must also serve as the media’s cheerleaders. Should they dare to criticize it–something politicians have done since the dawn of time–then, in Freedom House’s view, that’s just as bad as the overt oppression practiced by other countries on its list of “most noteworthy” declines.
India, for instance, “declined due to violent reprisals against journalists” and “government blocking of internet service and halting of printing presses” in Kashmir. Hungary “declined because independent media have been squeezed out of the market, partly through the acquisition and creation of outlets by presumed government allies.” Hong Kong “declined due to increased mainland interference in local media as well as multiple attacks on journalists during demonstrations.”
Such inane comparisons clearly undermine Freedom House’s credibility. But worse, if governments can use violence against journalists, block internet service and take over the independent press without suffering any more international criticism than they’d get for making petulant remarks about journalists, what is to deter any government unhappy with the media–i.e. every government that ever existed–from taking such forceful measures?
Finally, consider the new trend of Holocaust survivors speaking out against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies because, as one told the Michigan state legislature: “I see a lot of parallels to what is going on right now in cities like Ann Arbor and Pontiac, where ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is coming in and with the help of the local police are picking up immigrants,” and the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews during the Holocaust that resulted in most of his family being murdered at Auschwitz.
I wouldn’t presume to judge any survivor’s emotional response. But on a rational level, even opponents of Trump’s immigration policies ought to recognize that this is ludicrous. The biggest source of illegal immigration to America is Mexico–a democratic country which, by global standards, is both wealthy and stable (hence its membership in the OECD). Moreover, the migrants are Mexican citizens with full rights in Mexico. Whether or not deporting illegal immigrants makes for good policy, it’s not remotely comparable to France deporting its own citizens to a foreign country where they had no rights and which was ruled by a genocidal dictatorship.
Once again, by treating all deportations as equally unacceptable, opponents make the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. There are countries to which America shouldn’t be deporting people. But if activists treat deportations to Mexico as no less outrageous than deportations to genuinely repressive or dysfunctional countries, they’ll have no credibility left to combat the latter. Moreover, supporters of mass deportation will see no advantage to exempting certain countries from the deportation list, because doing so won’t diminish opposition to their policy.
In 1993, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase “defining deviancy down,” he was concerned that formerly unacceptable behavior had become unexceptionable. But it turns out that defining deviancy up can have the same effect: Treating behavior which should be unexceptionable as if it were unacceptable makes the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. That’s precisely why moral hierarchies are critical to any properly functioning society: If everything is equally evil, then “evil” loses all meaning.
Thus, by defining deviancy up to include even completely legitimate actions, people who genuinely seek to increase respect for human rights are instead creating a system of moral equivalence in which even the worst offenses are no longer beyond the pale.
Originally published in Commentary on June 23, 2017