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Moral panic

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There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as 'moral indignation', which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.Wikipedia
Erich Fromm[1]:235

A moral panic is a public panic over an issue popularly deemed to be a threat to, or shocking to, the sensibilities of "proper" society. This is often fanned by sensationalist selective reporting in the media and exaggerated accounts offered by "moral entrepreneurs"[2] — a category that includes politicians on the make and activistsWikipedia in search of a cause. Moral panics can result in what is a real phenomenon being blown way out of proportion, or in what is not a real phenomenon in the first place being widely believed to be real. Moral panics often feature a caricatured or stereotypical "folk devil" on which the anxieties of the community focus, as described by sociologist Stanley Cohen, who coined the term in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which examined media coverage of the mod and rocker[3] riots in the 1960s.[4][5]

Where the moral panic fingers a group whose members are conscious of their subordination, the denounced behavior may become "a symbol of opposition and rebellion".[6]


Don't panic!

The term 'moral panic' originated in philosopher Marshall McLuhan'sWikipedia 1964 book Understanding Media, which analyzed modern participatory media (which was then radio and television) vs. traditional, written media.[7] While Understanding Media was praised by postmodernists,[8] McLuhan himself was not especially associated with postmodernism. Moral panic theory, however, was subsequently developed by postmodernist philosophers via deconstruction.[9]:5[10]:1



See the main article on this topic: Confabulation

In short, the creation of false memories of trauma.

Mass hysteria[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Mass hysteria

In short, the spreading of fear.

Folk devils[edit]

Folk devils are the personification of the evils identified in moral panics. Typically caricatured or stereotypical members of marginalized ethnic groups, they are the scapegoats for the anxieties of the community.[11]

For example, Chinese male immigrants were the focus of a moral panic (the Yellow Peril) over opium, infectious disease, prostitution, and homosexuality in the 19th century in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.[12] This served as the model for subsequent drug-focused moral panics.

More recently, in the 1990s, the neo-fascist British National Party constructed a folk devil in the form of supposedly work-shy fake asylum seekers from the Balkans and Africa who would overwhelm an already heavily burdened welfare system in the UK.[13]

Other examples include:

Culture of fear[edit]

"Culture of fear" is a term used by a number of writers and commentators to describe a culture in which fear is a driving factor in social and political discourse. Much of the time, such fear has been blown out of proportion by the media, the state, or some other body with an interest in seeing people afraid.[citation needed]

Conspiracy theorists will claim that the "culture of fear" is used to make people believe that they need the government to protect them from these threats (whether they're existent or not). A fictional example can be found in the film V For Vendetta, in which the dictatorial Chancellor orders that the news be saturated with scare stories to remind the people "why they need us." A real-life example of such a conspiracy theory is the fears that George W. Bush would use the threat of terrorist attacks to nullify the US Constitution, cancel elections, and bring in a dictatorship. When Bush left office having done nothing of the sort,[note 1] left-wingers abandoned this preposterous notion, and right-wingers proceeded to say the exact same thing about Barack Obama.

One problem directly leading to a "culture of fear", and ironically stemming from the fear, is the mainstream media's use of sensationalism to sell their stories. Snow that has fallen for 2 days is not merely a "snowfall" but a "blizzard".[note 2] Then, taglines, hyper-art and ominous music accompany minor events as they become full-blown historical events: "The Blizzard of 2008". "Firestorm of July". "Horror of Christmas Shopping hell, 2009". Each outlet competes with each other using known marketing techniques to make today's molehill into the news cycle's mountain.

Examples of this culture may include:

The trouble with all of the above is that it is very difficult to judge which (if any) fear is justified. If it all comes to nothing, then was the hype and fear justified, or was the hype, fear, and precautions taken the reason that it came to nothing?


Examples of things over which there were actual moral panics, or arguably could be called moral panics, organized by category:

Crime panics[edit]

Media panics[edit]

♫It seems today that all you see

♫Is violence in movies and sex on TV.

♫But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely?
—Title song of Family Guy.[16]

Music and audio[edit]


Theatre, movies, and TV[edit]

  • Beavis And Butthead
  • Disney promotes humanism, magic, and other New Age theologies and philosophies
  • The 'video nasties',Wikipedia a set of movies banned in the United Kingdom for supposedly causing immoral behavior.
  • Family Guy
  • Married… With Children
  • The Hunt
  • Joker (2019)
  • "Pre-Code" HollywoodWikipedia movies (risqué talkies released in the US before July 1, 1934)
  • The Simpsons
  • South Park
  • Theatre used to be associated with bawdiness, decadence, and moral corruption (and in William Shakespeare's time, cross-dressing). English Puritans actually managed to get all the theatres in London (including the famous Globe Theatre, which Shakespeare's company had built) shut down for quite some time in the 17th century.
  • Japanese animeWikipedia (in Brazil, in the early 2000s, Japanese anime series Yu-Gi-OhWikipedia was accused by TV host Gilberto Barros of being a Satanist and occult TV series and being associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Some families burned the card game based on Yu-Gi-Oh or encouraged their children to get rid of the cards.[24][25]


Political panics[edit]

Medical panics[edit]

Religious panics[edit]

Sexual panics[edit]

  • AIDS in the 1980s.
  • Birth control
  • Demographic panics (e.g., genocide conspiracy)
  • Divorce indicating the moral decay of society and "destroying the family"
  • Joycelyn Elders' comment about teaching teenagers that masturbation is acceptable
  • Homosexuals are recruiting kids into their lifestyle
    • In the 1970s, there was an even more frightening version, "Gay men are killing little boys". Every family TV show seemed to have a very special episode devoted to gay men trying to harm little boys.
    • In the 2020s, transgender people became a target of this moral panic as well.
  • Pornography — either a tool of the evil patriarchy, the Gay Agenda, or Satan, depending on the cult agenda being promoted
  • Rainbow Parties,Wikipedia oral sex-themed get-togethers that almost certainly don't actually exist (unfortunately), and a similar panic over gel braceletsWikipedia
    • The formation of "Non-virgin clubs" by teenage girls in the South and Midwest during the early 1950s.[29] Gasp!
  • Snuff films, in which people are murdered on camera and the videos are sold on the black market, a phenomenon that probably doesn't exist outside of lurid fiction
    • "Crush" videos, the animal version of the above, which most certainly are known to exist
    • Red rooms, a similar concept: supposedly live torture on the Internet.
  • Transgender women using the women's bathroom.
  • "White slavery" (early 20th Century), the belief that girls were being abducted from middle America and sold into the sex trade (not entirely unheard-of, but extremely rare). Resulted in passage of the Mann Act. Updated version is "sex trafficking", resulting in passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which ignores the facts that most modern cases of forced prostitution are local and that international trafficking of forced prostitutes tends to be avoided because of heightened visibility and legal risks. It is often used as a cover to restrict pr0n.
  • Prostitution panic. A pretty modern and unusual panic, and mostly a remnant of European prostitutes not being anti-fascist during World War II, after which anti-prostitution legislation was put into effect all across Ally countries. This panic nominally bans common adult interactions as long as it is explicit. Has led to the arrests of millions of explicit female prostitutes, men looking to have innocent sex with willing adults, and the censorship of fairly innocent websites like Switter.
  • Online predators luring children through the internet is a relatively rare phenomena[30], but it gets way too overstated as a threat online. This can be problematic, as it can draw attention away from places where child sexual abuse is more probable to happen (i.e. at home) to the very rare instances to which a child is lured by a stranger online.

Miscellaneous panics[edit]

  • "Cancel culture"
  • Drag queens
  • Hitchhiking. While it's common sense to be wary of hitchhikers because they indeed might be dangerous, a 1974 study by the California Highway Patrol found that hitchhikers were far more likely to be the victims of crime from those who picked them up or from passersby than they were to be the perpetrators of violence.[31] (In fact, just standing on the shoulder of a roadway is more dangerous than driving in a car.)[32]
  • Kony 2012
  • Pit bulls[33][34]
  • The Prohibition movement (plus raising the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s out of fear of drunk driving, even though the enlistment age and the overall age of majority stayed the same)
  • The Recovered Memory movement
  • From early-mid 2022, Republican politicians presented the outrageous claim that public schools throughout America were adding litterboxes to their bathrooms in order to accommodate students who identified with the furry fandom.
  • New York Times using the existence of potentially predatory pro-suicide sites to argue for an eradication of any site that discusses suicide methods (started in 2021, related legislation introduced into the US House by rep Lori Trahan)

"Satanic ritual abuse" and the "War on Christmas" are examples of things that probably never existed at all. For others, such as gangs, hate groups, outlaw motorcycle clubs, and a perceived epidemic of Satanism during the 1980s, the response to the moral panic often takes the form of law enforcement officials (fanned by activist groups drumming up moral panic over those groups' existence) treating them as criminal activity, which can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy or result in violations of their civil liberties in the name of combating something deemed a threat.

Things which are not moral panics[edit]

Some issues may actually be amoral in nature, but do cause a panic. In general, these are worthy of attention. There are currently several pressing public issues which have led to needed public debate and action that include:

Environmental hazards like global warming are often written off as "alarmism" or "moral panics" by deniers in a bullshit use of the term in order to downplay the dangers posed by these hazards.

Issues like abortion, terrorism, drinking and driving, and child sexual abuse need not have become moral panics had the level of public discourse over them not descended into hysterics.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Well, he was responsible for some serious violations of the Constitution, but nothing on the scale that conspiracy theorists were saying.
  2. Unless one is in Minnesota, where this sort of snowfall occurs every other day, and where people are not afraid of snow anyway so it cannot be reliably used to drum up newspaper sales.
  3. Yes, there are people who are dumb enough to somehow see universal health care as a bad thing.
  4. A big bad scary adult drug dealer, of course: probably male, with a trench coat, for the sole purpose of addicting kids to drugs for the fun of it. Alternatively, a 'bad kid' who wears leather and skips class, who peer pressures the 'good' kids into smoking joints and being all bad like the rock and roll says.
  5. Not all of the time. For instance, Regional forms are analougus to peripatric speciation. Shellos and Gastrodon having a west sea and east sea form also refences peripatri… Ya get the pic. Archen is based on Archaeopteryx, being thought to be the ancestor of all bird Pokémon. Some other Pokédex blurbs reference evolution. Finally, Pokémon is not the first game, let alone the Japanese RPG, to misrepresent evolution: "evolution" in JRPGs frequently means that a character has gained a new look and become stronger, usually gaining new powers.


  1. Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics by Erich Fromm (1947 [1990]) Henry Holt. ISBN 0805014039.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Moral entrepreneur.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Mods and rockers.
  4. Bowling for Columbine (2003) Film Education, NSFW Resources 03 (archived from July 19, 2004).
  5. Stanley Cohen. 1980. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockets. 2nd. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  6. Mark Fenemore. 2009. Sex, Thugs and Rock 'N' Roll: teenage Rebels in Cold-War East Germany. Berghahn Books. p. 216.
  7. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan (1964) McGraw-Hill Book Company. "Perhaps that is the reason why many highly literate people in our time find it difficult to examine this question without getting into a moral panic." (page 85).
  8. The Method Is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan Through Critical Theory Paul Grosswiler (1998) Black Rose. ISBN 1551640740.
  9. Moral Panic and the Politics of Anxiety, edited by Sean P. Hier (2011) Routledge. ISBN 0415555566.
  10. Moral Panics and School Educational Policy by Grant Rodwell (2018) Routledge. ISBN 1138078883.
  11. Stanley Cohen. 1980. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockets. 2nd. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  12. Diana L. Ahmad. 2007. The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-century American West. University of Nevada Press. ISBN 0874176980.
  13. Daniel Trilling. 2012. Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right. London: Verso. ISBN 1884679591.
  14. May, Ashley, "Are creepy clowns really a threat?, USA Today, October 5, 2016
  15. Lesbian Motorcyclists Delivering Donor Breast Milk Are the Absolute Best by Christina Caterucci (Nov 29, 2016 • 6:11 PM) Slate.
  16. Main Title (From ”Family Guy”).
  17. Gloomy Sunday Suicides by David Mikkelson (23 May 2007) Snopes.
  18. It May Be Freaky Friday, But Sunday Is Gloomy by Ash Pryce (7 August 2010) The Twenty-First Floor.
  19. What Your Parents Think All Your Music Sounds Like
  20. Teens Today Are Getting High Off Their Computers by Richard Lawson 7/14/10 4:03pm) Gawker (archived from July 22, 2016).
  21. Raves as Moral Panics
  22. Still Raving: The Social Construction of Club Drug Use at Raves and EDM Festivals in Canadian Newspapers
  23. Pokemon Evolution vs Darwinian Evolution, Superhero Etc
  26. "CALIFORNIA LEGENDS: The Bum Blockade — Stopping the Invasion of Depression Refugees."
  27. Bulgarians tweeting in Cyrillic confused for Russian bots by Kris Bramwell (28 May 2018) BBC.
  28. Cold War Snowflakes by Anton Shekhovtsov (14.01.2019) Riddle.
  29. Morin, Relman."'Non-Virgin Club' New Aspect Off Teen-age Sex Misbehavior." Associated Press, 26 August 1951 (recovered 16 September 2014).
  31. 2014 kidnapping and murder of Israeli teenagersWikipedia
  32. "California Crimes And Accidents Associated With Hitchhiking" — text of 1974 CHP study
  33. Of Pit bulls and Moral Panics: Addressing a Contemporary Controversy by Samantha Rindler and Brian M. Lowe (c. 2010) SUNY Oneonta.
  34. Then They Came for the Dogs! by Simon Hallsworth (2011) Crime, Law and Social Change 55(5):391-403. doi:10.1007/s10611-011-9293-6 (archived from July 30, 2014).
  35. Biggest Threats and Data: 2019 AR Threats Report Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.