Do You Find This Happens All the Time?

Roy Moore and the Persistence of Regional Folkways

Every once in a while all the weirdness converges at once.  When it does I reach for my social science toolkit. After all, outrage, too, is a social construct.

This week, the Republican candidate in a special election for US Senator from the state of Alabama, ran into a firestorm. Three women, on the record, attested to dating Judge Roy S. Moore when they were in their late teens. A fourth offered a somewhat different  story in which the then Mr. Moore engaged in intimate physical contact that stopped short of intercourse.

In each case, Moore was in his early 30s, already an established lawyer working in the local District Attorney’s office. The youngest of the women, the one who spoke in detail of the Judge touching her, was 14 at the time.

I’m not going to prosecute the case; the press seems to have that well in hand. No, what struck me was the vehemence of the commentary, no matter whether it was offered in defense or  condemnation.  In the age of Weinstein harsh condemnation is a given; staunch defense is seldom seen less you defend what’s indefensible.

Yet something kept lingering at the edge of my consciousness. Then it hit me: the Judge is now 70.  This year, Elvis would have been 82.  The Judge and The King were near contemporaries. What if the  judge wasn’t a pervert but normative for that time and place? After all, Elvis married a woman ten years younger than himself, whom he’d met when she was all of 14.

Roy Moore
Former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, 2017 Candidate for US Senate

I feel obligated, before going any further, to say, as the father of a someday-to-be-14-years-old  daughter, that I would be troubled by a 30-year old man interested in dating her. It doesn’t ‘feel’ right and I’d step in to end it.

The social scientist in me, though, recognizes that the potential trouble lies in two words in that last sentence: feel and right. Taken together they practically scream subjectivity and morality. I’m too tortured a Catholic to buy into relative morality but I also know I had a particular upbringing. Is Alabama really that different?

Before I answer that question let me introduce one more idea that’s important to remember–childhood itself is an invention, arriving roughly with Queen Victoria and being perfected ever since. You can read early descriptions from The Atlantic‘s early days here. You can read Neil Postman on its disappearance. You can read Paula S. Fass on the history of the idea. You can even read why Ben Sasse thinks we should reconsider an earlier, more rigorous approach. Like outrage, childhood is a social construct.

So what about Alabama in the late 1970s? Indulge me in using 1980 census data since its close to the date of the incidents I’ll also use some more contemporary data for comparison and clarification. Let’s start with the chart below.

Source: Social Explorer Tables(SE), Census 1980, U.S. Census Bureau and Social Explorer

The first two columns of numbers show the counts and distribution for the state of Alabama, the last two for Etowah County. What  it shows is that Gadsden and its environs are a marrying sort of place, where even compared to the entire state people are more likely to be or have been married. A rising professional with career aspirations would, understandably, be better off sharing that state with his neighbors.

I also note the age range covered. That remains the age range that the census reports marriage on, an upward adjustment from 14 years and over which was the original reporting base. You and I might squirm at the idea. Some might take umbrage but from a strictly methodological perspective the Census Bureau has it right. They’re simply reporting  a fact.

Let’s take a broader look at this phenomenon. Here’s some aggregated census data. It’s also drawn  from 1980 but is national. It reports the age of the respondents first marriage. (The quantities reflect that this is a sample of the population. Figures are weighted.)

Source: Census of Population and Housing 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 [United States]: Public Use Microdata Sample: Artist Extract Files, 1980 Artist Extract File. Analysis ran on 2017-11-12 (05:17 PM EST) using SDA 3.5: Tables.

Add the percentages and you have 8% of the respondents reporting a first marriage between the ages of 14 and 18. If that holds for the population it’s more than 2.4 million people. Look at the colors. The red indicates it is more than 2 standard deviations from the average. Females are bearing the brunt of this; males take over at age 23.

So maybe marriage among very young people–people we might consider still children–is not unusual. Or maybe it was less unusual in 1980. How about more recently? Well, my colleagues at the Pew Research Center actually looked at the data in some detail a couple of years ago. Guess what? They found a regional skew, as shown in the nifty map below.

Astonishingly enough, Alabama is in the middle of the pack. Some nearby states see greater prevalence as do some nice blue coastal states.

The way I look at this admittedly thin (because a first pass) data,  time and place explain an awful lot about the behavior of Judge Moore and his defenders.  I am not asking you to put your feelings aside. I’m asking you to accept that there’s regional and personal variation in what might be considered the norm.

William Graham Sumner
The man who gave us mores      and folkways.

Good faith requires accepting people who say 30-year old men dating teenage girls is not unusual behavior. Or that Joseph and Mary were many years apart in age and that worked out. You have to at least consider that it could well seem normal in Gadsden.

In college I encountered the work of William Graham Sumner, a man who almost single-handedly invented ethnocentrism and, for a while, imbued it with academic respectability. His other contributions were the related notions of  mores and folkways.

I couldn’t put the meaning of the latter better than the Wikipedia entry: “…the customary norms specific to a given society are a defining aspect of the cultural identity of an ethnicity or a nation.” Isn’t a widening gap in what are viewed customary norms the defining issue of the age of Trump?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Judge Moore win his election






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