Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Bureaucracy Is Its Own Constituency

A friend recently pointed me at Conor Friedersdorf's late essay in The Atlantic entitled "How Americans Became So Sensitive To Harm". The world of microaggressions, we are to understand, is the consequence of "concept creep", according to University of Melbourne, Australia's Nick Haslam. "Writing in 1993, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senior senator for New York, alliterated that his country was 'defining deviancy down.' Moynihan argued that in response to rising crime and social disorder in the 1970s and 1980s, the public increasingly normalized behavior that would once have been seen as pathological. ... To Moynihan (1993), the social and political implications of these developments were troubling. By coming to accept crime and family breakdown, he argued, people were “getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us” (p. 30)."
There is nothing inevitable about the progressive expansion of normality that Moynihan documented. Indeed, I argue that in recent decades the opposite process has unfolded: The definition of some forms of deviance has enlarged and normality has contracted. Psychology has played a significant role in this process, as many of the concepts it employs to make sense of undesirable forms of experience and behavior have extended their meanings, encroaching on phenomena that would once have been seen as unremarkable. Moreover, although Moynihan argued that liberals resist attempts to pathologize deviance, psychology's expansionary redefinition of negative phenomena arguably reflects a liberal social agenda. Instead of defining deviancy down, psychology has ubiquitized it up.
(Emboldening mine, as usual.) Clumsy neologisms notwithstanding, he has a point; everything's a problem nowadays. Unfortunately, Friedersdorf has seized on the wrong question and emitted one of his rare clanks. The nonsense writers behind the scientistic Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders have power to sway members of their own cult, but not the broad public so much. More general acceptance must come from other streams. Here, I confess to having no solid evidence, but it seems to me several factors act in concert: the rise of what Thomas Szasz called the "therapeutic state", the dramatic increase in single-child families (and much smaller families more generally), and maybe most importantly, the need for bureaucracies to find something to do.

Friedersdorf comes pretty close to acknowledging this latter with an extended quote of Jonathan Haidt:
“If an increasingly left-leaning academy is staffed by people who are increasingly hostile to conservatives, then we can expect that their concepts will shift, via motivated scholarship, in ways that will help them and their allies (e.g., university administrators) to prosecute and condemn conservatives,” he writes. “We can expect academic concepts to ‘creep’ in ways that increase the number of victims and the damages those victims suffer, and in ways that make it ever harder for anyone to defend themselves against ugly moral charges. Such politically motivated scholarship may sometimes originate in humanities departments rather than in psychology, but it draws heavily on psychological concepts and research, and it feeds back into the six streams of creeping psychological research that Haslam reviewed.”
All of which is to say, the bureaucracy is its own constituency. Arbitrating ever more picayune matters means there will be no shortage of jobs, of new powers, of money, and subordinates. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights inquisition into Laura Kipnis' essay about instructors dating students illustrates exactly how this works:
  1. Write a euphemism-laden memo to underlings about the New Hurt one wishes to prosecute as a crime.
  2. Since butthurt is in infinite supply, find a "victim", preferably one willing to make anonymous accusations. This should not be hard.
  3. Profit!
 People decry the profit motive in the marketplace, but have a remarkable blind spot to it in the bureaucracy. Title IX enforcement in this sense is just another form of policing for profit, albeit one with an indirect shakedown.

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