Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

A Past: A Revolution in Public Ethics

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

A Past: A Revolution in Public Ethics

Article excerpt

Deviance has two dictionary meanings, problematic difference and directional change. For the purpose of this work, deviance shall mean problematic difference. The labouring poor, lunatics, slum dwellers, slaves, "savages", the sick, children of the poor, criminals, and others counted as deviant in virtue of their status, their labelling, and their relations with those who had power to label them. Labelling was a moral justification of privilege, an expression of power relations. It operated both within and beyond the formal expression of status. It worked largely through the use of metaphors such as elevation and debasement. Those who controlled the labelling were the moral experts of society, but to some degree those labelled entered willingly into the labelling process by an irony of self-relegation. An ethical revolution ensued, but not a revolution in the sense of threatening the power relations within society, and not in the sense of reducing what counted as deviance, or removing the labelling processes. On the contrary, moral experts tended to oppose disruption of power relations, rather maintaining and refining what counted as deviance.

This ethical revolution reversed the exclusionary model of treatment of deviant persons without prejudice to power relations. The inclusive principle applied to deviance created the space occupied by consequent bureaucracies created to institutionalise the labelling processes. During the nineteenth century, the labelling processes moved beyond generalised local social custom towards national preoccupation, and eventually national institutions which later were to evolve to become the welfare state.

The inclusive principle threw a new expert moral spotlight, enabling the formation of what have come to be known as humanitarian views about treatment of persons. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is one example of the now familiar inclusive view of humanity whose hold on public life anywhere on earth was almost non-existent at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By surveying in a limited way some of the achievements of some moral experts, it is proposed to illustrate the political progress of this ethic of inclusion in public life, and to suggest the importance of their ideology in the processes.

Before going further it may serve to discuss my suggestion. I take it that humanitarian reform itself is not in dispute, nor the rise of bureaucracies of labelling such as health, education, corrective services, and children's services. I do not doubt the conventional wisdom that the rise of these bureaucracies was enabled to a great degree by the application of mechanistic principles to human affairs, as championed by Jeremy Bentham and his disciples. Nor do I doubt that beliefs about social order stimulated by events such as the French Revolution were powerful factors in driving reform. On the contrary, I suspect that fear of revolution has generally been undervalued as an engine driving measures of social control such as factories and schools. Their capacities to generate subordination, compliance and acquiescence were seen and acted on, not in an ideological vacuum, but in a social climate which was strongly informed by fears of problematic otherness and possible revolution.

I wish rather to address the larger question of why it was that deviant categories of persons came to be treated by inclusion rather than exclusion. I face in doing so the age-old difficulty that the protagonists of the past did not disport themselves for the convenience of historians. Then as now, motives were rarely unmixed, and change rarely unopposed. This paper gives voice to my rising suspicions concerning underestimation of the work of influential evangelical Christians in deep culture. If the evidence I present is limited, it is because a considerable monograph would be required to cover all fields of British nineteenth century deviance.

The suggestion will now be put that an interpretative line divides to some extent historians of the nineteenth from historians of the twentieth century. …

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