A moral panic is the intensity of feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order. According to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) and credited with coining the term, 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." Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as "moral entrepreneurs", while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as "folk devils."
Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo. The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.
- 1 Characteristics
- 2 Examples
- 3 Criticism
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Moral panics have several distinct features. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:
- Concern - There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative impact on society.
- Hostility - Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become "folk devils". A clear division forms between "them" and "us".
- Consensus - Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the "moral entrepreneurs" are vocal and the "folk devils" appear weak and disorganised.
- Disproportionality - The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
- Volatility - Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.
Pogroms, purges and witch-hunts
Persecutions of individuals or groups have been cited as moral panics, such as anti-Semitic pogroms, Stalinist purges, the witch-hunts of Renaissance Europe, the McCarthyist public interrogations and blacklisting of Communists in the US during the 1950s. Various actions in Western countries following the September 11 attacks affecting Arabs, Muslims, or those mistaken for them have been referred to as "moral panics."
Satanic ritual abuse, child abuse
Satanic ritual abuse is regarded by the majority of scholars as a series of moral panics originating in the U.S and spreading to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the UK and the US related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to unusual crimes of abuse such as high-profile cases of child abduction and murder.
Backmasking (a recording technique in which a sound or message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward) has been a controversial topic in the United States since the 1980s, when allegations from Christian groups of its use for Satanic purposes were made against prominent rock musicians, leading to record-burning protests and even proposed anti-backmasking legislation by state and federal governments.
Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the "white slavery" panic of a century earlier.
War on drugs
Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."
Role playing games
At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons has received negative publicity for alleged promotion of such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s especially, some religious groups accused the game of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of Demons. Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.
Contemporary video game industry
It has been suggested that the recent drive to regulate video games is another instance of moral panic over the content of popular culture. The industry response has been to create a self-regulatory ratings system similar to that used by the film industry.
Various researchers have shown that fears of increasing crime or an increase in certain types of crime are often the cause of moral panics (Cohen, 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai (浜井浩一) points out how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s led to the widespread view that the crime rate is rising and that crimes are increasingly severe. This became an election issue in 2003 with a moral panic over the "collapsing safe society."
There has been a significant increase in attention to obesity by the media in the United States and other countries. Some researchers have examined whether this is a genuine health crisis and suggest that it has many of the elements of a moral panic.
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In the United States during the later half of the 1940s and 1950s, the Cold War produced a massive reaction among the public opinion against Communism of the Soviet Union. Some Americans believed communists influenced the highest levels of government and produced a phenomenon known as McCarthyism, often accusations of who were Communists in the US government were exaggerated and unproven. In the motion picture industry, scores of actors and actresses were blacklisted due to holding left-wing opinions and/or thought to be sympathetic to the Communist Party (USA). The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated thousands of American citizens for possible ties with communism and so had the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in that time period.
In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen outlines some of the criticisms that have arisen in response to moral panic theory. One of these is of the term "panic" itself, as it has connotations of irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintains that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor. Another criticism is that of disproportionality. The problem with this argument is that there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action. Others have criticized Cohen's work stating that not all the folk devils expressed in his work are vulnerable or unfairly maligned. Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality' and how it is accepted unproblematically in 'moral panics'.
The British television show Brass Eye, written by and starring Chris Morris, attempted to satirise moral panic, most notably in the episodes 'Drugs' and the special 'Paedogeddon'. In these episodes, celebrities and politicians were duped into appearing in fictional campaigns against particular social ills, thus demonstrating the tendency for both such groups towards jumping onto the bandwagon of campaigns against social problems, principally to raise their own profiles.
- Culture of fear
- Deviancy amplification spiral Template:Nb10
- Fear, uncertainty and doubt
- For the children
- Herd mentality
- Mass hysteria
- Missing white woman syndrome
- Seduction of the Innocent
- Sex party
- Urban legend
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- Christopher J. Ferguson (2008). "The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Link or Moral Panic?" (pdf). Archived from the original on 2009-11-22. http://web.archive.org/web/20091122200102/http://www.tamiu.edu/~cferguson/shooters.pdf. Retrieved 2009-11-13.
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- Entertainment Software Rating Board
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- Cohen, S. (1980) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Oxford: Martin Robertson, pp. xxvi-xxxi
- Jewkes Y (2004). Media and crime. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-7619-4765-5.
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- Section 3.4: "Interpreting the crime problem" from Free OpenLearn LearningSpace Unit DD100_1 Online Open Education Resource Creative Commons by-nc-sa Licensed (originally written for the Open University Course, DD100, 2000)