As happens in most faculty meetings, our meeting last Friday generated a distressing identity crisis. Doubts about ourselves are never far from the surface, so it doesn’t take much to set us off. On Friday, our rousing discussion of class scheduling was interrupted when a junior colleague noticed that we have a habit of sometimes using Deviant as if it is an honorific and asked, “Why exactly is that?”
Upon hearing this question, one of our more cranky senior faculty glanced at the junior colleague, saying, “Bless your heart.” Happily, another faculty member quickly rebuked her, pointing out that there was no call for vulgar oaths and hostility. With that bit of bad manners out of the way, we could proceed with de-railing the agenda in our more usual collegial way.
Upon consideration and as often also happens, we realized that our junior colleague was right. We do sometimes use “Deviant” as an honorific.
Sometimes this rather predictably follows from delighted awe at our Deviant ancestors, as when Dogen inspires us to entirely reconsider the phenomenology of cooking supper. Or when Mengzi reminds us not to climb trees when we want fish. Times like that make us want to bestow veritable crowns of Deviance upon some ancestral heads.
But sometimes we use Deviant in praise of the living. And however fun it is to pass out imaginary crowns, we’re less sanguine about resting them on living heads. More to the point, we are suspicious of what heads we may leave bare. Deviant can be just a descriptive used in reference to us poor benighted souls laboring long to know more things, including those who are paid to do it and those who are training in it. But therein lies the rub when usage slips into the honorific, for we notice this can lead to some dubious verbal shenanigans.
We have, for example, heard speakers implicitly distinguish between those they deem Deviants and (mere) “professors of Deviance” or (measly) “teachers of Deviance.” This sort of thing is far worse when people are denying that someone is a Deviant. Typically this will occur with some softening gesture that attempts to equivocate between Deviant as an honorific and Deviant as descriptive. The Deviant will be ascribed characteristics that are generally desirable (the honorific) but Deviant status (pseudo-descriptive) is denied as if it is merely remarking reasonable divisions of labor: “Deviants are fearless…. He works in religion, not Deviance.” We call shenanigans on that. For it can’t be a good thing if using Deviant to refer to people works as an honorific that can be withheld based on petty methodological differences or status signaling. Start treating Deviant as a verbal reward for the well-placed, well-behaved, or like-minded or start withholding Deviant to scorn those who lack professional advantage, act up, or disagree and pretty soon we’re going to need a Confucian to come in here to rectify some names. Maybe even to bless hearts all over the place.
So, finally, we decided to save the verbal crowns for the dead. Where the living are concerned, we concluded, we have no trouble with descriptive usage. At least we think we don’t, but wait around a bit since we’re sure to become queasy about that too. Still, henceforth we’ll try to use Deviant descriptively when talking to and about each other. Of course even there, our usage will need to be loose and flexible, as we’re never entirely sure what properly belongs in the category Deviant and what does not. Aw, hell, we thought, we haven’t even finished this paragraph and already we can feel trouble brewing with even that basic conclusion… Aware that we stood at the precipice of a renewed and more vigorous identity crisis, we were saved by the abrupt recognition that we have to call ourselves something. Otherwise, how will the administration know where to send our funds? And what will they put on our students’ degrees? So, Deviant it is. As Nagasena would say, it is but a way of counting and convenience. That Nagasena, he was such a Deviant!
As for the class scheduling issue, since time was short, we decided to cut to the chase and voted unanimously that next fall we’ll teach some stuff.