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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" — 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 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 riots in the 1960s.
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".
- 1 Origins
- 2 Components
- 3 Examples
- 4 Things which are not moral panics
- 5 See also
- 6 External links
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
The term 'moral panic' originated in philosopher Marshall McLuhan's 1964 book Understanding Media, which analyzed modern participatory media (which was then radio and television) vs. traditional, written media. While Understanding Media was praised by postmodernists, McLuhan himself was not especially associated with postmodernism. Moral panic theory however was subsequently developed by postmodernist philosophers via deconstruction.:5:1
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,[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 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 communist revolution 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 over-supervision on the largely baseless grounds that there is a child molester lurking in every park and a drug dealer[note 3] lurking outside every school.
- Nearly every article and opinion piece will mention the "young, impressionable children with developing frontal lobes", especially when discussing media-related panics
- 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:
- Black-on-white crime, especially rape
- Bridgend suicides, blamed on websites encouraging children to kill themselves
- Child abduction
- Creepy clown threats.
- Crack cocaine in the 1980s, claimed to be several times more addictive than regular cocaine (which turned out to be false)
- Marijuana, most notably during the era of social guidance films like Reefer Madness
- Methamphetamine in the 2000s, featuring scare commercials involving meth mouth
- Opium, used by Chinese railroad workers in the late 1800s
- Underage drinking
- Hate groups
- Identity theft
- Juvenile delinquency
- Saturday night specials — Your mileage may vary
- School shootings
- Terrorism when it takes the form of a Big Scary Threat
Music and audio
- Backward masking in your rock & roll records
- The Beatles
- "Gloomy Sunday" (Szomorú Vasárnap), written in 1933 by Hungarians Rezső Seress and Pál Kalmár in 1933 and 1935. It was 'popularly' known as the "Hungarian Suicide Song" for allegations that many actual suicides were associated with it. BBC banned the Billie Holiday version during World War II as being detrimental to morale, but allowed instrumental versions to be played. Composer Seress did commit suicide but not until 1968 and lyricist Kalmár died of a heart attack in 1956, so the song doesn't seem to have been especially effective.
- Heavy metal promoting sex, drugs, and Satan.
- MP3s can be downloaded as digital drugs which gets kids high. (See also I-Doser)
- Hip-hop turning people into violent, sex-crazed, misogynistic thugs — and, if African American, into black nationalists as well
- Jazz music (1920s)
- Music piracy and file sharing
- Elvis Presley
- Punk rock
- Rave culture, especially in the United Kingdom and Canada.
- Dungeons and Dragons players summoning and worshipping demons and pagan gods, and/or committing suicide (see BADD). This one got so bad Gary Gygax, the game's co-creator, had to hire a bodyguard after receiving death threats.
- Pokémon is a bad influence on the children — promotion of psychic abilities and evolution (when, ironically, the game misrepresents evolution, confusing it with something more akin to metamorphosis[note 4])
- Violence and sex in video games causing youth delinquency and violence
Theatre, movies and TV
- Beavis And Butthead
- Disney promotes humanism, magic and other new age theologies and philosophies
- The 'video nasties', a set of movies banned in the United Kingdom for supposedly causing immoral behavior.
- Family Guy
- The Hunt
- "Pre-Code" Hollywood 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.
- Comic books in the 1950s. The hysterical claims of the book Seduction of the Innocent gave rise to the Comics Code Authority
- The Golden Compass/His Dark Materials
- The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
- The Harry Potter books — they promote witchcraft!
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- Communism, and "subversive activity" in general, during the Cold War
- Critical race theory, amongst so-called "
- Deep state
- The Democratic Party (thanks to Pizzagate, Qanon, etc.)
- Feminism, among social conservatives
- Freemasonry: In the 19th century, fear of Freemasonry and other secret societies was enough to propel a minor political party, the Anti-Masonic Party. Anti-masonry has been resurrected by the QAnon conspiracy theory.
- Gay marriage, only a panic among the religious right
- Immigration ("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 Latinos will support a coming Mexican invasion of the Southwestern US as revenge for the Mexican-American War.
- Eurabia in Europe
- The international Jewish conspiracy (influence of Jews in society)
- The New World Order and/or the Illuminati
- POW-MIAs left behind in Vietnam
- Predictive programming
- Russian propaganda/trolls/bots (all the woes of Western democracies are allegedly engineered by Russia — just like Russian conspiracy theorists believe that all the problems of Putin's Russia are the fault of the West)
- Transgender rights, among transphobes, social conservatives and anti-feminists
- Voter fraud
- Abortion and embryonic stem cell research, among the right-wing
- Dangerous vaccines
- Ebola will kill us all!
- Everything causes cancer!
- Apocalypse scares. There are usually a few minor ones every year and a major scare every few years.
- Islam is a big bad threat — bigger and badder, that is, than any other organized religion, and its creeping Sharia
- Jews, again
- Liberals want to ban the Bible according to Christian fundamentalists
- The Pope, who is (allegedly) the Antichrist and plotting world domination
- Satanism in general
- The War on Christmas
- AIDS in the 1980s
- Birth control
- Child sexual abuse in general
- Demographic panics (e.g., genocide conspiracy)
- 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.
- Pornography — either a tool of the evil patriarchy, the Gay Agenda, or Satan, depending on the cult agenda being promoted
- Rainbow Parties, oral sex-themed get-togethers that almost certainly don't actually exist (unfortunately), and a similar panic over gel bracelets
- Sexualization of teenagers and adolescents (especially girls) (Don't tell Abercrombie & Fitch!)
- 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.
Child predators on the internet, and child sexual abuse, are two examples of things that are real but the hysteria over them grew way out of proportion to the actual threat they posed.
- Kony 2012
- The Recovered Memory movement
- 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)
- "Cancel culture"
"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:
- Antibiotic resistant bacteria, or, "super-bugs"
- Global warming
- Health dangers from trans fatty acids, obesity and cigarette smoking
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.
- Clean living movement
- Culture war
- 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
- 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)
- 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." Fearmongering for Profit might have been a better name.
- Well, he was responsible for some serious violations of the Constitution, but nothing on the scale that 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.
- Not all of the time. Regional forms are analougus to peripatric speciation for instance. 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 references evolution. Finally, Pokémon is not the first game, let alone Japanese RPG to misrepresent evolution: "evolution" in JRPGs means that a character gains a new look and becomes stronger, usually gaining new powers.
- See the Wikipedia article on Moral entrepreneur.
- See the Wikipedia article on Mods and rockers.
- Bowling for Columbine (2003) Film Education, NSFW Resources 03 (archived from July 19, 2004).
- 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. Berghahn Books. p. 216.
- 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).
- The Method Is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan Through Critical Theory Paul Grosswiler (1998) Black Rose. ISBN 1551640740.
- Moral Panic and the Politics of Anxiety, edited by Sean P. Hier (2011) Routledge. ISBN 0415555566.
- Moral Panics and School Educational Policy by Grant Rodwell (2018) Routledge. ISBN 1138078883.
- 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.
- May, Ashley, "Are creepy clowns really a threat?, USA Today, October 5, 2016
- Lesbian Motorcyclists Delivering Donor Breast Milk Are the Absolute Best by Christina Caterucci (Nov 29, 2016 • 6:11 PM) Slate.
- Gloomy Sunday Suicides by David Mikkelson (23 May 2007) Snopes.
- It May Be Freaky Friday, But Sunday Is Gloomy by Ash Pryce (7 August 2010) The Twenty-First Floor.
- What Your Parents Think All Your Music Sounds Like
- Teens Today Are Getting High Off Their Computers by Richard Lawson 7/14/10 4:03pm) Gawker (archived from July 22, 2016).
- Raves as Moral Panics
- Still Raving: The Social Construction of Club Drug Use at Raves and EDM Festivals in Canadian Newspapers
- Pokemon Evolution vs Darwinian Evolution, Superhero Etc
- "CALIFORNIA LEGENDS: The Bum Blockade — Stopping the Invasion of Depression Refugees."
- Bulgarians tweeting in Cyrillic confused for Russian bots by Kris Bramwell (28 May 2018) BBC.
- Cold War Snowflakes by Anton Shekhovtsov (14.01.2019) Riddle.
- 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
- "California Crimes And Accidents Associated With Hitchhiking" — text of 1974 CHP study
- Of Pit bulls and Moral Panics: Addressing a Contemporary Controversy by Samantha Rindler and Brian M. Lowe (c. 2010) SUNY Oneonta.
- 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).
- Biggest Threats and Data: 2019 AR Threats Report Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.