Joey Ramone Cranks Deviance Theory

In 2017, in the 3rd edition of McGraw Hill Education’s textbook Experience Sociology edited by David Croteau and William Hoynes , I was invited to contribute an essay profiling my own engagement in deviant music subcultures that celebrate alienation and marginality, especially punk. The Ramones openly celebrated the Wart Hog, the Cretin, Pinhead, Outsider, and the Time Bomb promoting an ethic of inclusion they practiced in song, deed and spirit. Their music lamented the permanent psychic damage sustained from systematic social rejection and humiliation and made us laugh. So it was my great joy to put Joey Ramone in a college textbook, honoring him as a hero of generations of outcasts worldwide. I imagined him chuckling, “Yeah Donna, a real textbook case.”

The study of deviance is a great way to teach students fundamental sociological concepts—norms, mores, sanctions. But for me it’s been sweet revenge.  Early on, labeling theorists such as Howard Becker argued that behaviors are deviant only when society labels them as deviant. Who applies what label to whom, why and what happens as a result of that labeling process tells us more about power and control than about the transgressors themselves. We don’t study the cross-dresser; we study the repressive patriarchal regime that makes that a problem in the first place.     

Labeling theory redirects our attention from the designated freaks back to the straights themselves—-the dominant order of teachers, the high school cliques, community leaders, politicians, judges, police, shrinks, and doctors. Those who create and adjudicate deviant labels—"addicts,” “alcoholics,” “criminals,” “juvenile delinquents,” prostitutes, sex offenders, sexual outlaws, developmentally and physically disabled people, psychiatric patients.

An individual burdened with a negative label inadvertently ends up with low self-esteem, self-medicating, self-destructive, self-hating, internalizing the stigma---the bullying of everyday life. Labelling theory rocks because it turns that beat around, studies all the ways the social order demonizes, marginalizes and punishes those who are different---folks who statistically fall outside of the norm. Being normal is not the same as being healthy, it only means you’re like everyone else. Most people are right-handed, some are not. Redheads too. It goes on & on in a caste system of corrosive conformity.  Be thin not fat, white not black, male not female, hetero not queer, cisgender not transgender, be normal, no special needs or we’ll burn you at the stake. 

According to Croteau and Hoynes, “We all face social pressures to conform---at home, school or work---parents, teachers and supervisors reward us for conformity and punish us for non-conformity.” If we succumb to these perceptions of being “less than” we risk a lifetime of self-hatred, shame and social anxiety. Being labelled can destroy us. Long-term deviance confers the title, “Outsider,” “Misfit” “Weirdo.”

It’s painful to carry that stain, unless you have friends and a deviant music subculture that helps you reject the stigma and throw it back on the creeps. And so I wrote, “Today, the former high school reject is a personal hero. By just being himself ‘the king of punk’ gave teenage outcasts everywhere something to believe in, an alternative to killing themselves or blowing up the high school.”

French sociologist Émile Durkheim viewed deviance as an inevitable part of how society functions, as a basis for change and innovation---if it’s not your place in the 9 to 5 world, if you can’t, won’t or don’t fit in maybe you’ll find something else to do, something fun, something real. For Durkheim, deviance allows us to define the norm—we learn the rules of society by breaking them. Sometimes, we end up dead or in jail. Sometimes we break the rules and win.

Thanks to all the creeps and dirty bastards who made us nuts many former deviants have built successful careers fighting back, giving the kids something to hold onto until it gets better. When I published Why the Ramones Matter in 2018, I explored the relationship between personal, collective and historical trauma, addiction and creativity. I never imagined that life would get even harder for the outsider. Worse than it was when Joey and I were growing up, worse than when I was writing Teenage Wasteland.

Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us. Whether you’re a kid or an adult still processing the layers of pain, the scars of being told you’re not good enough always remember it’s them, not you--they hated us too. Salvation can be found—in social theory, in friends, a sense of humor, and always, in the music.