We Need to Talk about Moral Panics

There’s no great mystery to the success of Moral panics. They work their way through our societies, spreading their message and the fear involved to those who are all too willing to listen. The waiting audience will always welcome them with open arms because at their heart, moral panics appeal to the worst parts of conservative belief.

As a result, a moral panic isn’t that hard to conceive and distribute. All they require is the smallest kernel of truth, however unrelated it may be to the resulting fear, and they will find a home in one area of prejudice or another. Say you find a musician whose lyrics are a little controversial, however, justified that one example may be, how long do you think it will take before you can frame the entire genre as problematic?

Not as long as you might think, avoiding the obvious examples of shock rockers and rappers like Eminem, music has long been a target in the moral culture wars. From rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s to the PMRC’s campaign against the lyrical content of 80’s popular music, musicians have often been accused of corrupting the youth of the time. Now, it should be obvious that a fear of ‘corrupting’ one group or another can often be a replacement for exposing someone to values that they don’t hold or understand, and it is this factor that is one of the most valuable parts of moral panics for those that use them.

In a historic sense, the Salem witch trials are one of the more obvious moral panics that a society faced. The accusations of witchcraft spread easily throughout that small community but outside of the hysteria that they generated, they still stood as a way to remove a challenge to the accepted social standard. Of the first 3 women accused in Salem, not one fit with the communities expectations or standards, Sarah Good was destitute, Sarah Osbourne wasn’t considered to be as pious as she should be and Tituba was a slave to the towns reverend, who was also the father and uncle of the two girls making the accusations.

The fear that moral panics are designed to induce can easily be traced back to the interest of a particular societal group or even an individual with strongly held views, but their danger lies in their ability to spread through the media which has increased considerably in the internet age. This is the point at which moral panic develops into conspiracy theory, and the results of this can lead people beyond the point of pushing a social view, and into the territory of seeing a threat to their way of life.

This is the true danger of moral panics and the reaction they bring to those exposed to them. The target of this phenomena is not those that already think along those lines, they merely act as vectors to help them spread. The true target is those on the fringe of extremism, who may sympathise but are either not public with their beliefs, or those who stand on the tipping point of acceptance.

If we consider the increase in hate crime that occurred after the results of the Brexit referendum, we can begin to see this effect in action. That immigration was seen as the main political talking point in the country at that time, and the outcome fell to the side of leave are not a coincidence. Neither is too far a logical leap to see that a rise in negative discussion of immigration and asylum being framed as invasion, and a rise in hate crime, was the result in an increased legitimacy for views built on fear of the ‘other’. This was demonstrated again during the early days of the Covid 19 pandemic when there was a marked increase in attacks on the Asian community due to panic over the origins of the virus. Both of these examples show the way in which the spread of fear and panic-based messaging such as that found in moral panics, legitimises hate and emboldens those who may previously have hesitated to act.

This doesn’t mean however that every moral panic will manage to either maintain a set of societal values or affect change where they’re intended. Jack Thompson campaigned against video games such as Grand Theft Auto, and Manhunt which he saw as promoting violence. While he achieved some small successes in terms of building awareness of his cause, ultimately Thompson was disbarred and the Grand Theft Auto franchise has sold 345 million units worldwide. Similarly, when I mentioned the PMRC, it’s true they managed to achieve a version of their aim in the form of the ‘parental advisory, explicit lyrics’ sticker. What is also a key point to remember, however, is that the stickers existence did nothing to alter the content of the music it was attached to, and as attempts to censor often do, may well have increased its popularity.

Moral panics as we’ve seen operate at all levels of society. They can affect our freedom of expression, our ability to live without discrimination, and the way in which we ourselves are viewed by society at large. Fears that were expressed about gay and lesbian communities in the ’80s and ’90s are now being recycled into fears for children in the face of the rise in prominence of trans issues. As a result, however, our ability to combat them is equally spread throughout our communities. If we wish to loosen the grip that moral panics can hold over some of the most vulnerable people, we need to challenge the skewed perceptions they create by shining a light of truth on them whenever the chance presents itself.

Tom Huggins-Teasdale

Tom Huggins-Teasdale

Political Correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service

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