Saturday, January 07, 2012

Moral panics and sex panics

The term moral panic has been popularized by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen (beginning in 1972). Cohen took the term over from his colleague Jack Young, who developed it in relation to the popular reaction to drug users in London’s Notting Hill district. Moral panic is commonly ascribed to the intensity of feeling a given population exhibits in response to something that appears to threaten the social order. In Cohen’s view, a moral panic occurs when "[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." Adherents of this concept term those who foment the panic "moral entrepreneurs," while individuals who supposedly threaten the social order are characterized as "folk devils."

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.



Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

I was wondering about the history of "moral panic" sometime ago when I was looking at a Portland, Oregon newspaper clipping from 1912 that included in the headline, "Vice Clique Scandal." My century-old Webster’s Dictionary amazingly had a definition consistent with the newspaper's panic about Portland's homosexual men being a clique who needed to be arrested by the police to prevent further moral decay in Portland.

Of course, the modern-day researchers of the Vice Clique Scandal have called it a moral panic, in a manner consistent with what you wrote.

I agree that the fear of the mythical "Boogey man" has been exploited throughout human history for both good and bad.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

There was an organization called Sex Panic criticizing Giulini's "cleanup" of Times Square, etc., closure of gay bathhoues, etc.

Knowing nothing of gay history, Lancaster does not even mention the group.

1:33 PM  

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