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Improper Behavior by Elizabeth Janeway (Morrow: $13.95; 270 pp.)

June 28, 1987|Michael Balter | Balter, a frequent contributor to The Times, often writes about local and national politics.

In "Improper Behavior," Elizabeth Janeway essays an analysis of the ways in which those in authority exert their power over the rest of us. At a time in history when the legitimacy of authority everywhere and on every level is threatened, her quest seems relevant. She asks whether authority can "keep control of its ability to define the world of reality in which we live, and do it well enough for us to accept its maps and prescriptions and trust its colleges of experts. Only time will tell, but as we wait for an answer, we can follow the players best if we understand the rules of the game."

The present work continues a thesis she began to develop in her 1980 book, "Powers of the Weak" (Knopf). There she argued that power is not a mysterious inborn force, but a relationship between authority and its subjects which always includes a fair amount of willingness on both sides. In "Improper Behavior," Janeway explores what she terms authority's "power to define," that is, its ability to provide "maps" which "deliver us from chaos" and "place us in the world whenever we need to know who, what, or where we are."

When, for whatever reasons, an individual or group breaks with the definitions and prescriptions of established authority, the transgressor is engaging in "improper behavior." The powers that be, writes Janeway, have at hand a number of labels with which to define such behavior: "criminality, deviance, dissidence, or just bad manners." Nevertheless, improper behavior can be an "early warning system to authority that something is going wrong, and that redefinition is in order."

For Janeway, a pioneer feminist whom columnist Ellen Goodman has called an "intellectual doyenne" of the women's movement, the struggle by many women to redefine their role in society is a prime example of how new ways of behavior can challenge traditional definitions. She returns to this theme again and again in her essay, arguing that as economic pressures pushed women into the work force, their daily experiences--rather than, at least initially, a theoretical analysis--led them to act in ways outside the bounds set for them by authority or the Male Establishment.

But the maps drawn up to chart women's place in the world have yet to be discarded, as the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment indicates. "When women began to label the care and safekeeping they had enjoyed with the name 'oppression,' " Janeway writes, "many good men were truly shocked. Over the last twenty years the shock has hardened into resentment, which then justifies itself by declaring that women's redefinition is evidence per se of their foolishness and need for care."

Janeway's model is a powerful one, and certainly applies to many other times in this nation's recent history when those in power were able to define the ground rules for argument. During the early years of the Vietnam War, for example, willingness to fight in Southeast Asia was a test of manhood for most working-class youth; if the term wimp had been in vogue back then, it surely would have applied to anyone who questioned whether his life should be sacrificed for a cause that today many, perhaps most, Americans feel was unworthy. And because at first only leftists and Communists opposed the war, it was easy to pin those labels on anyone who raised questions, be they students, members of the media, or members of Congress.

Equally troubling, as Janeway points out, is the ability of the powerful to cast whole segments of society--blacks, Latinos, gays, immigrants, women--into the role of "other," which means that by definition, these groups are simply getting the treatment to which they are entitled. In some cases, when those defined as "other" engage in "improper behavior," it takes a violent form.

Although Janeway's thesis is provocative and has great formalistic appeal, it falls short in at least two important areas. First, there simply is no longer any excuse to use terms such as authority or Male Establishment without defining who we mean and what their motivation is. By failing to do so throughout the book, Janeway deprives her arguments of rigor; surely we need to understand who we are serving in the real world, and not just a shadowy intellectual abstraction. This is especially important at a time when many wish to go beyond simply changing the prevailing definitions, but to sweep away entirely the powers that govern them.

Second, her characterization of "improper behavior" rarely acknowledges that dissidence, in its fully developed form, is often fueled with great passion, creative energy, and intellectual force. By actually wresting the "power to define" away from those who have wielded it in the past, dissidents can dream of building new worlds and creating new maps with which to chart them.

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