Against moral panic (for cultural politics)

Pundits, sociologists, and activists frequently use the term “moral panic” to describe what they perceive as a public overreaction to an issue (or non-issue). Examples include “Prostitution and Human Trafficking – The Anatomy of a Moral Panic,” “What’s Flakka and is it Real? A Guide to the New Moral Panic Drugs,” From Miasma to Ebola: The History of Racist Moral Panic Over Disease,” or “Lessons and Legacies of the War on Terror: From Moral Panic to Permanent War.”

The concept was defined by sociologist Stanley Cohen in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, where he defined it as a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”

I hate the term moral panic for three reasons (press play for the soundtrack).

(1) My first objection is with “moral.” All politics are always already moral – guides for proper action, systems of ethics, directions for achieving “the good,” etc. It’s the same problem I have with the term “moral politics” as used by linguist George Lakoff and others. To specify some politics and others as moral is itself an act of political boundary work, casting some concerns or points of view beyond the pale of legitimate concern while reserving for ourselves the mantle of rational political viewpoints. In other words, the concept is rhetorical and not analytical. It is also elitist and not democratic, in assuming that “we” have the correct knowledge and “the people” are ignorant (an ancient concern, if the folktale of Chicken Little is any guide). And it is partisan, at least in practice, where it is used by the Left and rarely by the Right. To the degree it has traction, as the examples above attest, it expresses a superiority over misplaced public concern, a skepticism grounded in faith that rational governance is possible. Nobody calls it moral politics when we debate whether or not the central bank should set next quarter’s target for inflation to .5% vs. .75%, even though such a thing may well have effects that “we” may find immoral (higher rates of foreclosure, higher rates of poverty). Calling something a moral panic represents a claim that the common people or our political opponents aren’t concerned with the right thing, but are instead distracted by unimportant or statistically rare phenomena (Emma Goldman complained about this in 1910, regarding prostitution, in The Traffic in Women!).


Image from Somebody Think of the Children

(2) My second objection is with the use of idea of panic. At the rhetorical level, it supports the division between our politics as rational and theirs as emotional that I discussed above. Panic implies a dehumanizing psychology: they are overcome by base instincts of the reptile brain, we exercise advanced, educated civilized thought. It’s also a phenomenon that has been medicalized, as in panic attacks: not only are we rational, but we’re also healthy if they are suffering from a condition that can be improved with medication. And in a practical, sociological sense, panic hardly exists. Researcher Lee Clarke contrasts the “myth of public panic“and its Hollywood portrayals with a half-century of research that finds”panicky behavior is rare” because “people rarely lose control:”

“People do not usually turn against their neighbors or suddenly forget personal ties and moral commitments. Instead, the more consistent pattern is that people bind together in the aftermath of disasters, working together to restore their physical environment and their culture to recognizable shapes.”

Clarke provides many examples of people helping each other in the stairwells of the World Trade Center during 9/11, waiting calmly by the exist of burning buildings, helping others before themselves in the aftermath of plane crashes or earthquakes. This kind of everyday heroism exposes the falsity of a commonsense assumption that people are fundamentally selfish and untrustworthy. Altruism, Clarke writes, “seems odd only if we’re all naturally selfish. Instead, an external threat can create a sense of ‘we-ness’ among those who are similarly threatened.” Important to me in Clarke’s discussion is the fact that people want to restore their culture: we engage in collective meaning making to maintain our values in the face of external challenges.

(3) My third objection to the moral panic concept is organizational-institutional. Panics describe mobs running aimlessly with flailing arms. If human trafficking or terrorism are panics, they are very strange ones indeed because they proceed glacially and bureaucratically, leaving behind trails of newspaper articles, research reports, Congressional hearings and durable budget lines that fund conferences and programs, which hire administrators who train police officers and teachers, who implement policies, evaluated by experts, who are interviewed by journalists, who produce television programs, which inspire high school students to join clubs… you get the picture.

Instead, I prefer the term cultural politics, using an anthropological or sociological definition of culture as the ideas that form the toolkit of human actions. As I describe them in my 2016 book The Cultural Politics of European Prostitution Reform, they are:

disputes over the meanings of fundamental aspects of social life” (p. 2)

For me, the usefulness of this definition is as follows:

My use of the term ‘cultural politics’ highlights the patterns in these struggles over the production and change in meanings, whether within conventional political institutions, broader cultural ‘common sense,’ or interpersonal contexts. (p. 10).

Even if it is objectively true that everyone is overreacting against sexting, say, such overreactions hardly look like a panic even in their most extreme manifestations, such as the recent Colorado case where there were “hundreds of students involved in sexting scandal at high school.” It unfolded over weeks and months, involving hundreds of police interviews, conferences, phone calls, press conferences and family meetings. In another sexting example widely described as a moral panic, Virginia prosecutors charged a 17-year-old boy as a child pornographer for sending a picture of himself to his 15-year-old girlfriend. Absurd? Yes. (And that’s before considering that the boy was being prosecuted as an adult for exploiting a child – himself; that the police wanted to inject him with a drug so they could photograph the teen’s erect penis to compare to the “sext,” which meant that the police would then be manufacturing child pornography themselves. And (finally?) that the lead detective, who sued the boy’s defense lawyer for defamation over the statement that the detective would “use special software to compare pictures of this penis to this penis,” was later accused of himself molesting boys on his hockey team but committed suicide after an armed standoff with the police serving his arrest warrant).

Hypocritical? Asinine? Ironic? Ridiculous? Ludicrous? Preposterous? Yes.Yes.Yes.Yes.Yes.Yes.

Immoral? Certainly.

Panic? No.

(Leave that poor DJ alone now).

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