In a memorable 1992 essay, Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted how the meaning of “normal” in our day has been expanded to include behavior that only a short time ago was universally acknowledged to be morally wrong or pathological. The Senator described this habit as “defining deviancy down,” and although he focused primarily on the ease with which crime is excused or explained away, his insight has general application.
Thirty years ago, for example, the case for liberalizing abortion was advanced on behalf of so-called hardship cases—rape, incest, or a severe threat to a woman’s health. Then Roe v. Wade gave us abortion-on-demand, and a generation later we behold a culture yawning at the prospect of infanticide. Yesterday, a propensity for sexual philandering (remember Gary Hart?) was deemed to be a disqualifying trait in a presidential candidate. Today, we have a president who conducts repeated sexual liaisons with a 21 year old employee in the Oval Office, then lies about it under oath and induces others to do the same. A sizeable majority of the public responds by railing against those who revealed his sordid behavior, while the president bites his lip in studied remorse and acts as if he were a victim.
The latest redefinition of moral respectability came at the hands of CBS in late November, when the producers of 60 Minutes decided to air a video of Jack Kevorkian killing one of his victims. Kevorkian, who admits to “assisting” 120 or more persons to their deaths, has a lust for publicity as bottomless as his lust for killing. In 60 Minutes he found a willing accomplice as he acted out his morbid fantasies before a national audience. Mike Wallace, the original pit bull of investigative television, curled up like a slurpy puppy at Kevorkian’s knee. Of a hundred tough questions that might have been put to Kevorkian by a reasonably bright 15-year-old, Wallace ventured nary a one, making the show into little more than a slick piece of propoganda on behalf of medicalized killing. If Dostoevsky were to re-materialize as a 60 Minutes producer, Raskolnikov would be sympathetically portrayed as a thoughtful college student who wrestled manfully with his conscience before killing a useless old woman.
Of course, nothing beats doing well by doing good. The airing of the show just happened to coincide with the November “sweeps,” when networks sought to inflate audience ratings and, thereby, their advertising revenues for the coming year. The show appears to have satisfied these avaricious goals handsomely, increasing market share by more than 25 percent and reaching nearly 16 million households. In response to criticism from disability-rights organizations and prominent religious leaders, CBS executives have blathered about the First Amendment, journalistic integrity, editorial boldness, and the public’s “right to know.” Whatever you may think of the rationalization, a line has been crossed: For the first time on television, moving pictures were shown of one human being in the act of killing another, and, to compound the voyeuristic felony, the murderer is encouraged to explain his motives to a sympathetic questioner.
What new debasement will now follow is hard to predict. The final agonies, perhaps, of convicts in electric chairs or gas chambers? Videos of head-on automobile collisions and their resultant human carnage, of street-crime victims being shot, of serial killers dismembering their prey? I leave it to the wordsmiths at CBS to parse the distinction between these activities and those of Kevorkian, but the difference is not instantly apparent in the terms so far advanced by the network and its defenders. Would such footage be any less protected by the First Amendment? Wouldn’t it be useful for the public to learn more about capital punishment, the results of road rage, or the psychology of serial killers? Why hesitate to air such things when television approvingly airs Kevorkian with his syringe?
To ask such questions is virtually to answer them, which is why the slope toward even more degrading voyeurism and inverted morality is likely to become steeper, the rate of descent more rapid. Now that 60 Minutes has defined deviancy down in respect of killing by doctors, Jerry Springer and his ilk can be counted on to open the envelope yet wider. If it’s OK for Kevorkian, then why not for a husband, wife, or child of a suffering patient? And if it’s OK for patients who are conscious, then why not for those who are “forced” to linger uselessly in a persistent vegetative state?
How many of the 16 million households who watched “Dr. Death” were sympathetic to his cause, I do not know. I do know that if the public allows voyeuristic curiosity and unreflective compassion to govern in such matters, there will be dark days ahead.