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Moral panic video collection

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What do the following have in common?

  • biker and youth gangs, juvenile crime
  • single mothers, working mothers
  • guns
  • pornography on the Internet
  • dangers of state censorship
  • infanticide in the nineteenth century (in a society that believed illegitimacy was a moral failing)
  • 9/11 attacks in New York and the “terrorism” backlash
  • mugging
  • serial killers
  • street crime committed by certain racial groups
  • male adolescent behavior
  • homosexuality, AIDS
  • pedophilia, child sexual abuse, sex offenders
  • ecstasy, drug use, drug use by hippies, teenage drug-taking
  • video games, and
  • drinking/gateway drugs

Or as one researcher has usefully re-stated the above, how about the following categories:

  • young, working-class, violent males (the most enduring folk devils)
  • school violence: bullying and shootings
  • wrong drugs: used by the wrong people in the wrong places
  • child abuse, satanic rituals and pedophile registers
  • sex, violence and blaming the media
  • welfare cheats and single mothers, and
  • refugees and asylum seekers.

What they all have in common, of course, is how these issues play out across culture, both by and through the media, by and through the "moral entrepreneurs". Without the interests of the powerful — lobby groups, politicians and the corporations who own the mass media — a moral panic could not be created or maintained.

In 1972, Stanley Cohen used ‘moral panic’ to describe the reaction of a significant section of the public towards a newly perceived threat to common values and the process by which the perpetrators of the threat are constructed as ‘folk devils’ or scapegoats in what would now be described as a ‘dramatic form of othering’. Where the threat is transformed into a socially constructed ‘panic’, it is repeated, popularized and eventually established within social discourse to sustain a particular moral/political agenda, resulting in asymmetric power relations between elite interests and targeted groups. Although moral panic analyses tend to focus on topics in which the researchers and their audience have an ideological interest, the strengths of such analyses reveal the ‘limits to how much diversity can be tolerated in a society’ and the complex processes involved in maintaining existing social structures in the face of social change.

Given that an appropriate response is never described as a ‘panic’, the phrase conveys that the societal reaction is unwarranted by the scale of the problem. It further suggests that the real explanation of the negative response lies in other interests (conscious or unconscious) of those construing the moral panic. Those interests could be a desire to heighten social solidarity (as in Durkheim’s functionalist explanation of deviance) or, in the radical version, to distract attention from some problem which the government, the mass media, or the ruling class does not wish to address.

It is interesting how in the two lists above "vaccines" and "viruses" were glaringly absent, but I don't think anyone will make that mistake after 2020/2021. But my reading of history, going back as far as Cotton Mather in Boston in 1721 is that the "moral panic" around viruses and inoculation has been going on for a LONG time. And I don't think it will take a Nostradamus to predict that such conversations will continue to be battered "by and through the media" for a long time to come yet.