When our correcting mechanisms are overloaded, what was once deviant becomes acceptable.I remember telling my children a few years ago (it was an unusually peaceful time around the house) that they should try to keep Dad's fussing in perspective. "All parents have a certain amount of fussing in them," I said.

"It doesn't matter whether the fussing is about gang fights and drug abuse or only unmade beds and minor curfew violation; we've all got our fussing quotient. I'm just glad that I've been able to expend my quotient on relatively minor stuff."

I thought it was just my awkward way of expressing gratitude for three pretty decent children. Now I find I was committing sociology.

I've just seen a paper of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's (The American Scholar, Winter 1993) in which the New York senator explores the notion that communities have a certain amount of punishment (fussing) to mete out for deviant behavior. We keep the level of punishment more or less constant by redefining deviancy.

The basic notion comes from Emile Durkheim (1895), with an elaboration by Kai T. Erikson, whose 1965 examination of crime in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was designed to test Durkheim's theory. Listen to Erikson:

"To start at the beginning, it is a simple logistic fact that the number of deviancies which come to a community's attention are limited by the kinds of equipment it uses to detect and handle them. ... A community's capacity for handling deviance, let us say, can be roughly estimated by counting its prison cells and hospital beds, its policemen and psychiatrists, its courts and clinics."

Durkheim's interesting theory is that there can be no such thing as a "crime free" community (he suggests it may even be dangerous to reduce deviancy too much) but only communities that redefine "crime" to accommodate their means for dealing with it. Judging only from the amount of deviancy they punish, there's no difference between a halfway house and a monastery.

If the redefinition of deviancy only involved "criminalizing" such things as inattention at prayer, the refusal of itinerant Quakers to doff their hats in the presence of magistrates or my children's forgetting to let me know where they are on a Saturday night, Moynihan might dismiss the whole idea as quaint.

But he makes a point that Durkheim seems to have neglected: that redefinition works in the other direction as well. Behavior that once was deviant and punishable (whether by law or social sanction) can, when our correcting mechanisms are overloaded, be redefined as acceptable.

The clearest example intimately associated with the senator is our national attitude toward unwed parenthood. When Moynihan (then an assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration) wrote his controversial study predicting family breakdown among black Americans would lead to social disaster, about a fifth of black babies were born out of wedlock. The rate for whites: 1 in 40.

Today, nearly 27 years later, one-fifth of white babies are born to unmarried mothers, while the rate for blacks has reached two-thirds. But much of the talk today is about the irrelevancy of "Ozzie and Harriett" models and the ascendancy of "alternative lifestyles," as though the thing lamented by Moynihan is in fact a healthy smorgasbord of new "choices."

There are other examples of "defining deviancy down," as Moynihan puts it, including the "deinstitutionalization" of mental patients, lowered expectations for school performance and the growing acceptance of criminal violence. Reminder: The 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre," which merits two entries in the World Book Encyclopedia, consisted of seven gangsters being killed by four rival gunmen. Comparable violence, which might occur any weekend in Washington or Los Angeles, has been redefined as very nearly normal.

The redefinition is not benign. There is unimpeachable evidence that family structure (and not just public attitudes regarding family structure) matters enormously to the well-being of children. The homelessness of the deintitutionalized (or never institutionalized) mentally ill is a rebuke to the society. Violence, no longer linked primarily to the drug trade, has changed our cities for the worse.

I know: We worry in public and appoint commissions to examine homelessness, school failure and gunplay. We campaign for stiffer sentences (including execution) and occasionally build more jail cells. But, like Moynihan, I doubt that we are as serious as we ought to be about what is happening to us. Our predisposition is still to redefine the problem down to manageable proportions, to normalize what once alarmed us.

"We are," as Pat Moynihan put it, "getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us."