The Concept of Moral Panic

The responses to my post on Flanagan’s oral sex article raise some interesting questions about the concept of “moral panic”.

I agree with Alan Jacobs that the accusation of moral panic is easily misused to preemptively shut down public discussion of moral, ethical, legal or other concerns. It is also true that sometimes there are real social transformations at the heart of a moral panic, where the claim that something is profoundly new or different in forms of practice or in patterns of everyday life is perfectly accurate, even if the moral claims about the change are profoundly debatable.

“Moral panic” is like a lot of terms that historians and other scholars use, an analytic shorthand that compresses complex episodes and events, a claim that certain events share an underlying structure, both in their progression and in their underlying cause. Especially on the latter point, it’s worth being wary about using the term too casually. I really do think that very diverse episodes of what I’d call “moral panic” structurally resemble each other in their progression, but that resemblance says less about the phenomenon of moral panic and more about the nature of the modern public sphere, mass media and the reproduction and dissemination of popular culture. In this sense, “moral panics” are just a way to indirectly measure or observe a still more complex set of institutional relations and phenomena. I’m inclined to argue that moral panic is only useful to talk about modern publics and media forms, and to be skeptical about folding the concept into some larger universal claims about mass hysteria or the “madness of crowds”.

Causally I think different events or episodes labeled moral panics do not resemble each other. At the root of some such episodes, there are actual events: a real criminal act, a genuine social change, new patterns of behavior. At the root of others, there are nothing more than delusions. Some moral panics come from a particular social class, others come out of whole communities and cut across class lines or social divisions. Some moral panics are heavily instrumental or designed, others are emergent and improvisational.

And yes, some claims of “moral panic” are themselves no more than a rhetorical device designed to wave away complex and substantially empirical concerns about social transformation.

I still find the term useful analytically, polemically and empirically. I’m unwilling to abandon its use in general or even in the specific case of Flanagan’s claims about oral sex. The concept still gives me a sense of what to watch for when picking through complex episodes of social conflict or anxiety. In particular, it gives me a structured form of skepticism about claims made by or in the name of expertise, and about the redaction of events in later cultural representations or forms of collective memory. It helps me understand the “structure of feeling” that gets worked into narratives and popular discourse about social problems, the consistent shading of common sense in a particular preordained direction.

Let me give two examples of where I would use the term, why I would use the term, and where I would use it polemically as well as substantively.

1) Periodic episodes of accusations of sexual misconduct made by white Rhodesian women against African men from 1900 to 1930. Most often these accusations were less about actual sexual assaults and more about claims that African men were behaving in a sexually menacing manner, were acting as voyeurs, and so on, though some episodes of rape and assault were also reported on occasion. What makes me (and other historians) think these are best described as a form of moral panic? First, that the accusations come in highly structured waves and appear in narrative form within the main newspaper for whites. Second, that the narratives in each wave have a high degree of structured similarity. Third, that there is a huge agglomeration of other evidence about the racist perspectives and actions of white Rhodesians during the period, and additionally, that Western racial ideologies from the mid-19th Century onward often had very significant amounts of sexual anxiety embedded within them. Fourth, that the regulation of sexuality across racial lines was an explicit legal and political element of racial segregation in southern Africa, and indeed, most modern colonial regimes. Fifth, that many of the incidents are on their face either improbable or contain elements of probable misinterpretation of actions. (For example, one story in which the accuser reported that a domestic servant had been spying on her getting undressed, based on briefly seeing his face in the window: it’s easy to imagine that even if it happened as described, the man had just been walking by the window while doing work.) Sixth, that the moral panic led to concrete institutional and political actions: criminal punishment (including execution) for the accused, more statutes regulating African behavior or cross-racial sexuality, official encouragement to report such incidents, administrative urgings to collect more information or to increase surveillance.

This example sums up pretty well for me what I look for if I’m going to use the term as an analytic shorthand: a strong degree of structured similarity between narratives circulating in the public sphere and mass media, a strong temporal concentration of such stories in short bursts, the strong dissemination of such narratives into forms of common sense or everyday social truth, a connection between the narratives and deeper social patterns or social structures, a likelihood that the literal truth of reported events at the root of the moral panic is at least open to question, and a range of concrete consequences or actions occasioned by the panic. That last is especially important: not everything that is commonly believed by social groups leads civic and governmental institutions to act in particular ways, or even spurs the social group that believes something to be true to particular kinds of action. I would not label various forms of “rumor” as moral panic even when they have some of these characteristics, for example.

2) Expert denunciations of the impact of television on children, particularly of the impact of televisual representations of violence on children, between 1950 and 1990, and their connection to popular advocacy by civic groups. Here I’d say some of what I said in the case of sexual accusations in colonial Zimbabwe, but that there are some additional elements. First, that the content of expert claims was commonly misrepresented by both advocates and the experts themselves in a classically “entrepreneurial” manner, to inflate the commodity value and political impact of these claims. I don’t say this was done consciously in all or even most cases: this is the structured logic of expertise in postwar American society, a basic part of the art of being an expert. Second, that the studies from which these claims were inflated were more methodologically dubious than was commonly appreciated, and yet largely were insulated from strong methodological challenge precisely because their findings accorded with middle-class “common sense”. Third, that the general sociological predictions of the expert findings consistently have not been borne out over time (e.g., that if violent representations in mass media were held to directly produce violent conduct, and violent representations were documented as steadily increasing in frequency and intensity, then violent behavior at the overall level should correspondingly increase in frequency and intensity).

Admittedly this is a much more polemical claim of “moral panic”. In some ways, however, the use of the term is intended sympathetically towards those I am criticizing, because I’m trying to concede the complex genesis of their structured reading of social truth: in my view, it comes from the genuinely unsettling or transformative nature of television (and film) as media, from genuine transformations in the character of family life, domesticity and childhood between 1950 and 1970, from the genuine puzzle that episodes of social violence posed to Americans during those years, from the genuine sense of social dislocation and disorientation that middle-class adults experienced in that time period, and from the growing complexity of the way expertise functioned within the public sphere and in relation to both civic activism and policy-making institutions.

The alternative is just to say, “All these people were ‘simply’ wrong”. Which maybe you can say about a single incident or a single claim, but I don’t think you can say about a flawed or troubling social consensus with simultaneously appears in many different communities and mobilizes social action on a broad scale. Nothing of that sort is “simple”.

Nor, of course, were they entirely wrong; nor, in any moral panic, are all or even most the claims made straightforwardly false, mischievious or malevolent. Some of the expert or advocate claims about television, children and violence were legitimate, just much more complex, constrained and contestable in their implications or effect size. On occasion, African men did sexually assault European women in colonial Zimbabwe. Probably some of the accusations of voyeurism were real as well, and the main fault we would find with them in retrospect is not that they were false, but that their truth or falsity could not have been fairly evaluated in the highly racialized colonial justice system nor proportionately punished (African men lost their lives or freedom over such accusations).

This is the reason why I think it’s right to call moral panics for what they are, and to try and slow down their momentum when they start to build. Even when the issues at stake are legitimate ones, and the phenomenon provoking concern is a real one, a panic becomes a foredetermining structure that keeps us from proportionately or considerately thinking about an issue. It lets people off the hot seat: once a panic is gathering steam, those who are concerned about an issue no longer have to justify or explain that concern, or to offer arguments about its proportional importance. Look at the Flanagan piece: by the end of it, there isn’t anything approaching a thoughtful argument about why it actually matters if half the teenager girls in the country have given oral sex to boys, just flat assertions about the necessary and intrinsic nature of female sexuality, about what the consequences of this change, if change it is, might actually be. It may even be, as we’re discussing in the other comments thread, that the aftermath of an episode of panic provokes a backlash that is as damaging to particular cases and debates as the initial outburst was.

Beyond that, I don’t want to apologize for the term for another reason, which is that many scholars, including yours truly, have too much of a tendency already towards extreme nominalism, where all forms of analytic shorthand appear as conceptual or empirical sin. “Moral panic” is useful because it allows for a compressed explanation of complex episodes. That’s a problem if it also argues for a compression of political or social critique. I’m much more sympathetic to some episodes of moral panic than others, and much more profoundly worried about the impact or effects of others. “Demon media” panics, for example, much as they annoy me, don’t compare in any way to the kind of episodes that lead to people losing their lives, reputations or freedoms.

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5 Responses to The Concept of Moral Panic

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    No question that “moral panic” is a useful term that encapsulates a real and all-too-common social phenomenon. I’m just concerned that your use of it in this particular case — Flanagan’s essay — may be an example of what C S Lewis called “Bulverism.” Bulverism is the practice of conducting an argument by (a) assuming that someone is wrong and (b) devoting your time to explaining why he or she is wrong. I think your original post on this subject comes close to this, by saying that Flanagan doesn’t make a strong argument, therefore she’s wrong, and she’s wrong because she has succumbed to the temptation of moral panic. The second point doesn’t follow from the first, nor the third from the second.

    I’m sure we can agree that Judy Blume’s books would have been unpublishable by a major trade house even a decade earlier than their arrival; I think we can also agree that The Rainbow Party would have been similarly unpublishable a decade ago. (Can’t we?) Flanagan offers an explanation of this phenomenon, a familiar moral-decline sort of story. But the familiarity of the narrative shape is no indication of its rightness or wrongness. Before you dismiss the narrative as a characteristic product of moral panic I think you need at least to offer a sketch of an alternative narrative that would account for the sociological change without recourse to Flanagan’s assumptions. Otherwise you can stigmatize any strong critique — for instance, of Abu Ghraib, or Guantanomo — as a product of moral panic just because it is strong. Yet obviously there are political or social events which mandate an vigorous response, such that the providing of such a response is not a sign of panic but rather of appropriate moral awareness.

    Flanagan’s essential argument is this: if we consider it normal for young women to service young men without expecting pleasure or intimacy in return, that’s an indication of moral apathy or obliviousness — and the one who says so is not panicking but being simply responsible. As I said earlier, I think that’s a plausible argument — not irrefutable, but plausible.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    I see that I somehow managed to delete a paragraph in which I commended Tim for his sympathetic read of those who fall into the panic mode, and his suggestion that when a genuine problem exists the existence of a panic makes it less, not more, likely that the problem will be addressed successfully. That was well done.

  3. CMarko says:

    I was going to post this earlier, but I suppose it fits just as well here and now: the very existence of The Rainbow Party emphasizes the sort of panic that surrounds the teenage oral sex issue. Rainbow parties are an urban legend–I don’t know any teenagers who have ever even heard of a real one. I had never heard the phrase before it was on Oprah. So far as I can tell, the idea was invented by adults. Teenagers do engage in oral sex, certainly, but this fantasy of pervasive casual oral sex is basically a myth. It’s as though parents learned that their children had oral sex, got really frightened, and tried to think of the most appalling, prostitution-like scenario they could.

    On the other hand, I did hear that there were girls in my high school who would give a blowjob to any boy on the ice hockey team who got a hat trick. So take what I say with a grain of salt.

  4. RCinProv says:

    I am not as, well, easily distracted today as I was yesterday, but I wanted to weigh in with admiration for this effort to describe “moral panic” in a textured way that allows for the reality of the underlying phenomenon and which is in some ways sympathetic to those who “panic.” I agree that the concept, as Tim describes it, is indeed useful. I would never argue that historians should not use it.

    But the use of the phrase in the popular press and in much public discourse is not textured. Moral panics are frequently equated with “witch hunts” and “hysteria.” And since there were no witches, the subtext is often that the underlying phenomenon does not exist. See historian Philip Jenkin’s book Preists and Pedophiles for a view that minimizes, if not denies, the underlying problem.

    That is also how “moral panic” has been used by many in the child sexual abuse context. The leading book on child suggestibility—which addresses questions that Tim argues (in the other thread) were not adequately addressed during the panic—makes none of the subtle distinctions that Tim does. Indeed, Ceci and Bruck use the Salem witch trials as one of their “case studies.” To assert that the witch trials are in the case category as Frank Fuster and the Country Walk babysitting service case is, I think, absurd. The effort to equate to the two deserves more attention. It has political roots and policy consequences.And it is a usage that should, I think, concern anyone with a complex definition of moral panic.

    I think it would be worth asking a series of questions, then, about why “moral panic” is applied in ways that sometimes deny underlying problems that we know to exist. I often hear the argument that a panic makes it less, not more, likely that the problem will be addressed successfully. I certainly understand the logic. But politically, the fact remains that many of the people crying “moral panic” about child sexual abuse have a very specific agenda of their own. It involves eliminating mandatory child abuse reporting, making it easier to sue prosecutors, and limiting the ability of children to testify. That agenda is not, I would argue, an agenda that will improve social responses to child sexual abuse. Nor is that its real intention.

    In short, I think we need to be wary of who is making moral panic claims and why. But then, I am a political scientist. I also submit that in the child sexual abuse context, those who are most concerned about “panic” are not those who are most concerned about the optimal way to protect children in our society. Rather, they are most concerned about how best to protect potential defendants. That is an important issue, but it should be seen for what it is. Moreover, as indicated in the other thread, I think there is substantial evidence that we have had a moral panic about false convictions for child sexual abuse—a moral panic that, curiously, has not been recognized by those otherwise well-versed in moral panics.

  5. Alan Baumler says:

    A post from Frog In a Well that I am too lazy to re-write as a proper comment

    Tim Burke has been blogging on moral panics in the context of oral sex, rape, and children’s television. Reading his stuff I was struck by the most famous case of Moral Panic in Chinese history, the sorcery scare of 1768, as studied by Phillip Kuhn.

    The actual case was one of sorcerers perhaps cutting off the queues of Chinese men and using them to take control of their souls. Kuhn points out that it is not clear if queue cutting happened at all, and it was in any case not as widespread as the emperor feared it was. The Qianlong emperor took it seriously, however, in part because the queue was seen as a locus of self-ness and his subjects took their loss seriously. More importantly, the queue was a symbol of loyalty to the Manchu dynasty, and anything involving cutting it off smacked of sedition.

    Kuhn suggests that there was another cause for the scope of the campaign, the Emperor’s desire to break out of the confines of regular bureaucratic politics. The problem of Chinese emperors being constrained by their bureaucracies is not a new concept in scholarship and was not new to the emperors, who had been struggling with this problem for a long time. As Kuhn points out, “bureaucratic monarchy” is an oxymoron. To the extent that the state is bureaucratic what room is there for a monarch? Qianlong took advantage of the sorcery crisis to force his officials out of their ordinary routines and break out of the confines of the normal bureaucratic relationship.

    One significant difference between this and the panics Burke talks about is agency. The Chinese case was not created by “mass media” or “fear of social change” but by the Qianlong emperor. More significant is the way that Kuhn emphasizes the value of moral panic in breaking out of normal politics or political debate. It strikes me that many of the moral panics Burke talks about are exactly the type of things that American elites would be inclined not to worry about much, or at least not as much as other Americans might think they should. Moral Panic is democratizing. You don’t need a study from the Centers for Disease Control to tell you something is wrong with kids today, panic restores agency to “us” and our “common sense.” It really does too, since action will come of panic in a democratic or popular state. One recent local case is the dropping of a plan to build a Turkish Cultural Center here in Pittsburgh. The plan was dropped due to local fears that the place would be a nest of terrorists. An ignorant and embarrassing reaction to be sure, but one that got results. Kuhn is trying to fit moral panic as a violation of normal politics into a new, broader definition, which might work for the modern ones as well.

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