Moral panics and sex panics
Typically, episodes of moral panic are characterized by absence of the "objective correlative." That is to say, the intense emotion displayed is disproportionate to its ostensive cause.
The media have long harbored elements of moral indignation, even when they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. In some cases, simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety, or panic. Of course supermarket tabloids are more directly and explicitly responsible for inciting mass concern, for that is one of the main ways they make their living.
Some sociologists, especially in Britain, ascribe the outbreaks of moral panic to the contradictions of capitalism. This manner of framing the issue shows the way in which it is capable of being politicized.
Examples of moral panic include the Red Scare of the early 1920s in the US, anti-Semitic pogroms in tsarist Russia, witch-hunts in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and attacks on Muslims in Western countries today. As this list suggests, the researchers generally focus on instances in which the victims are sympathetic, while the instigators of the phenomenon are much less so.
There is some reason to detect a political agenda--something bordering on political correctness, to be blunt about it--behind the selectivity involved. This factor is set in relief if we turn to some other possible candidates. Cannot organized opposition to Wall Street be regarded as a form of moral panic? As a sympathizer of the Occupation movement, I would say that, if so, the campaign is well justified. During the late ‘thirties, my parents, as “premature anti-fascists," tried to sound the alarm against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It took quite a while, but thank goodness people in this country eventually "panicked." Another example is the concern about climate change, sometimes manifested with a fervor that resembles moral panic.
In short, as a tactic of popular mobilization. panic may be wisely as well as unwisely mobilized.
Recently, some have sought to extend the scope of the concept into the erotic realm--as regards human trafficking, for example. Moreover, some speak, negatively, of concerns about pedophilia as “sex panic.” This last topic has been explored in what appears to be a thoughtful book by Roger Lancaster that is just out from the University of California Press. I hope to return to this book later, after I have obtained and read it.
The issues are evidently complex, but I think that one must acknowledge that not all opposition to human trafficking and pedophilia is panicky or unwarranted.
Labels: social panics