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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 entrepreneursWikipedia — 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 mods and rockerWikipedia riots in the 1960s.[2][3]

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".[4]:216[note 1]


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.[5] While Understanding Media was praised by postmodernists,[6] McLuhan himself was not especially associated with postmodernism. Moral panic theory, however, was subsequently developed by postmodernist philosophers via deconstruction.[7]:5[8]: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.[3]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11][12]

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 2] 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 3] 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 [un]justified, or was the hype, fear, and precautions taken the reason that it came to nothing?

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. And once something becomes a symbol of rebellion, people who dislike the status quo and/or are overly desperate to establish themselves as unique and independent individuals are very likely to be attracted to it to a degree that is far out of proportion with its desirability on its own merits. See our articles on Satanism (since Satan was invented as an icon of everything that's wrong with and bad for humanity, making the idea of worshipping him, at least at face value, completely insane) and the Streisand effect and TV Tropes' article on Forbidden Fruit for more details and examples.
  2. Well, he was responsible for some serious violations of the Constitution, but nothing on the scale that conspiracy theorists were saying.
  3. 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.
  4. Yes, there are people who are dumb enough to somehow see universal health care as a bad thing.
  5. 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.


  1. Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics by Erich Fromm (1947 [1990]) Henry Holt. ISBN 0805014039.
  2. Bowling for Columbine (2003) Film Education, NSFW Resources 03 (archived from July 19, 2004).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Stanley Cohen. 1980. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockets. 2nd. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780415610162.
  4. Mark Fenemore. 2009. Sex, Thugs and Rock 'N' Roll: Teenage Rebels in Cold-War East Germany. Berghahn Books, 2009. ISBN 1845457188.
  5. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, 1964. ISBN 0262631598. "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).
  6. The Method Is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan Through Critical Theory Paul Grosswiler (1998) Black Rose. ISBN 1551640740.
  7. Moral Panic and the Politics of Anxiety, edited by Sean P. Hier (2011) Routledge. ISBN 0415555566.
  8. Moral Panics and School Educational Policy by Grant Rodwell (2018) Routledge. ISBN 1138078883.
  9. Diana L. Ahmad. 2007. The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-century American West. University of Nevada Press. ISBN 0874176980.
  10. Daniel Trilling. 2012. Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right. London: Verso. ISBN 1884679591.
  11. Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997. ISBN 030433751X. 2nd edition: 2002. ISBN 0826459293.
  12. Frank Furedi, How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century. Bloomsbury, 2018. ISBN 9781472972897.