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A moral panic is a public panic over an issue 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 entrepreneur," a category that includes politicians on the make and activists 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 are focused, 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 riots in the 1960s.
Where the moral panic involves a group whose members are conscious of their subordination, the denounced behavior may become "a symbol of opposition and rebellion."
- 1 Components
- 2 Examples
- 3 Things which are not moral panics
- 4 See also
- 5 External links
- 6 References
In short, the creation of false memories of trauma.
In short, the spreading of fear.
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.
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. 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.
Other examples include:
Culture of fear
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.
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, 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". 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:
- Numerous moral panics.
- The Red Scares over anarchism, communism and socialism, during the 1920s and 1950s. Reflected in China and Russia as a fear of Arab Spring-style revolutions and "intrusion veiled as democracy".
- The fear of terrorism that was (mostly) exaggerated and exploited by the Bush administration after 9/11.
- Fear of pandemics, like the swine flu outbreak of 2009 (and SARS and BSE etc.), or ebola in 2014.
- The popularity of doomsday scenarios and survivalism.
- Fear of the "other" in society, e.g. xenophobia or homophobia.
- Fear that the Jews and/or Illuminati are trying to foist a creepy New World Order upon us.
- Fear that the capitalist elite will take away workers' rights and institute a fascist dictatorship if a socialist dictatorship is not instituted PDQ.
- Fear that the socialist elite will raise your taxes and institute a communist dictatorship with universal health care unless we take action now.
- Excessive parental protectiveness over concern "for the children," including vaccine hysteria and oversupervision on the largely baseless grounds that there is a child molester lurking in every park and a drug dealer lurking outside every school.
- Obsession with safety from the threat of drunks, hackers, dirty lyrics, comic books, pr0n, and children riding their bicycles without helmets.
- Panic over "demographic winter" in Europe or North America because immigrants.
- GMOs poisoning humans and causing cancer, autism, etc.
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:
- Lesbian gangs - promoted by Bill O'Reilly, who later admitted the reports were "overstated.".
- Outlaw motorcycle clubs, especially in present-day Australia and off and on in the United States.
- Juvenile delinquency.
- Hate groups.
- Terrorism when it takes the form of a Big Scary Threat.
- Black-on-white crime, especially rape.
- Identity theft.
- School shootings.
- Opium, used by Chinese railroad workers in the late 1800s
- Marijuana, most notably during the era of social guidance films like Reefer Madness.
- Crack cocaine in the 1980s, claimed to be several times more addictive than regular cocaine (which turned out to be false).
- Methamphetamine in the 2000s, featuring scare commercials involving meth mouth.
- Underage drinking.
- Child abduction.
- Creepy clown threats.
- Bridgend suicides, blamed on websites encouraging children to kill themselves
- Jazz music (1920s)
- "Pre-Code" Hollywood movies (risqué talkies released in the US before July 1, 1934)
- Elvis Presley
- The Beatles
- Backward masking in your rock & roll records
- MP3s can be downloaded as digital drugs which gets kids high. (See also I-Doser)
- Pokémon is a bad influence on the children — promotion of psychic abilities and evolution (when, ironically, the game misrepresents evolution)
- Disney promotes humanism, magic and other new age theologies and philosophies
- The Harry Potter books — they promote witchcraft!
- The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons
- The Golden Compass
- Music piracy and file sharing
- The "video nasties", a set of movies banned in the United Kingdom for supposedly causing immoral behavior.
- The Simpsons
- South Park
- Family Guy
- Heavy metal promoting sex, drugs, and Satan.
- Hip-hop turning people into violent, sex-crazed, misogynistic thugs — and, if African American, into black nationalists as well
- Violence and sex in video games causing youth delinquency and violence
- Dungeons and Dragons players summoning and worshipping demons and pagan gods, and/or committing suicide
- Comic books in the '50s. The hysterical claims of the book Seduction of the Innocent gave rise to the Comics Code Authority.
- 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 seventeenth century.
- Communism, and "subversive activity" in general, during the Cold War.
- The militia movement.
- Gay marriage, only a panic among the religious right.
- The New World Order and/or the Illuminati.
- White nationalism and the fear of Neo Nazism
- Neo Fascism
- In the 19th century, fear of Freemasonry and other secret societies was enough to propel a minor political party, the Anti-Masonic Party.
- "They took err jerbs!" Anti-immigrant hysteria typically manifests in different forms throughout history, with the immigrants in question often inevitably assimilating and railing against the next wave of immigrants within fifty years.
- In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was the coming Catholic conquest of America, with Catholic immigrants acting as a fifth column in support of a Habsburg takeover of the United States.
- The Yellow Peril was big on the West Coast and in Australia around the same time as the above.
- During the Great Depression, there was panic in California over "Okies", impoverished Midwesterners fleeing the Dust Bowl, in a case of anti-immigrant rhetoric being turned against fellow Americans. The LAPD even attempted to close the state's borders with the rest of the country in a "Bum Blockade" in 1936.
- The "reconquista", the idea that Latino Americans will support a coming Mexican invasion of the Southwestern US as revenge for the Mexican-American War.
- Eurabia in Europe.
- The influence of Jews in society.
- Feminism, among social conservatives.
- The ever-impending "Social Security crisis".
- POW-MIAs left behind in Vietnam.
- Voter fraud.
- Predictive programming
- Dangerous vaccines.
- Abortion and embryonic stem cell research, among the right.
- The Pro-life threat to Roe v. Wade, among the left.
- Everything causes cancer!
- Ebola will kill us all!
- Satanism in general.
- Allegations that liberals want to ban the Bible .
- The War on Christmas.
- Islam is a big bad threat — bigger and badder, that is, than any other organized religion, and its creeping Sharia.
- Jews, again.
- The Pope, who is (allegedly) the Antichristand plotting world domination.
- The occasional apocalypse scare. There are usually a few minor ones every year and a major scare every few years.
- Various small religious groups, commonly called cults.
- Birth Control
- Homosexuals are recruiting kids into their lifestyle
- In the 70's 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.
- Child sexual abuse in general
- Child predators on the internet
- Sexualization of teenagers and adolescents (especially girls)
- Joycelyn Elders' comment about teaching teenagers that masturbation is acceptable.
- "Non-virgin clubs" in the early 1950s.
- AIDS in the 1980s.
- Europe and Japan losing population because of their low birth rates (blamed on socialism, feminism, and abortion).
- Rainbow Parties, oral sex-themed get-togethers that almost certainly don't actually exist, and a similar panic over gel bracelets.
- "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 (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).
- 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.
- Pornography - either a tool of the evil Patriarchy, the Gay Agenda, or Satan, depending on the cult agenda being promoted.
- "Rape culture" and the "campus rape epidemic"
Child predators on the internet, and child sexual abuse, are two examples of things which are real but the hysteria over them grew way out of proportion to the actual threat they posed.
- The Recovered Memory movement.
- Kony 2012.
- 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. (In fact, just standing on the shoulder of a roadway is more dangerous than driving in a car.)
- Pit bulls. 
- 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)
"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
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:
- Global warming
- Health dangers from trans fatty acids, obesity and cigarette smoking
- Antibiotic resistant bacteria, or, "super-bugs" 
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.
- Harwoods and Harebreaks for examples of Moral Panic and Paranoia leading to really stupid decisions.
- Wolf hysteria, which shares many similar features to a Moral Panic
- See the Wikipedia article on Boys Beware. This is an example of anti-gay propaganda from the US, which conflates the two issues of child sexual abuse and gay men's mere presence around children. A similar film akin this, also from the US, is Perversion for Profit, which claims that "This moral decay weakens our resistance to the onslaught of the Communist masters of deceit."
- From Cracked:
- The 6 Most Insane Moral Panics in American History
- 4 Stupid Moral Panics Caused By Everyday Objects -- Spoiler: The four everyday objects are forks, bicycles, novels, and telephone conversations
- The Top 10 Most Absurd Time Covers of The Past 40 Years -- from Reason.com
- Scared America: 8 Crises and Collective Panics of the 1970s -- from Flashbak.com
- Clown Panic! Sighting Of Mysterious Clowns Rattle Nerves In South Carolina -- from skeptic.com
- A Moral Panic for the Age of Trump: “Pizzagate” is the latest in a long line of child-sex-ring myths. -- from Slate.com (q.v. Pizzagate)
- Stanley Cohen. 1980. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockets. 2nd. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Mark Fenemore. 2009. Sex, Thugs and Rock 'N' Roll: teenage Rebels in Cold-War East Germany. New York: Berghahn Books. p. 216.
- Stanley Cohen. 1980. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockets. 2nd. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Diana L. Ahmad. 2007. The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-century American West. University of Nevada Press. ISBN 0874176980.
- Daniel Trilling. 2012. Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right. London: Verso. ISBN 1884679591.
- Well, he was responsible for some serious violations of the Constitution, but nothing on the scale conspiracy theorists were saying.
- 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.
- 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.
- [Gawker.com: archive.is, web.archive.org "Teens Today Are Getting High Off Their Computers"]
- What Your Parents Think All Your Music Sounds Like
- "CALIFORNIA LEGENDS: The Bum Blockade — Stopping the Invasion of Depression Refugees."
- Actually he really is the anti-Christ but we need to turn down the rhetoric a bit.
- Morin, Relman."'Non-Virgin Club' New Aspect Off Teen-age Sex Misbehavior." Associated Press, 26 August 1951 (recovered 16 September 2014).
- 2014 kidnapping and murder of Israeli teenagers
- [http://bernd.wechner.info/Hitchhiking/CHP/body.html "California Crimes And Accidents Associated With Hitchhiking"] -- text of 1974 CHP study