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A ‘Good’ Moral Panic?

December 17, 2012

One of the problems with Moral Panics is how to recognise one.

The classic check list involves a complex and constantly interacting mix of events: ‘claims-makers’ with their warnings of tips of the iceberg and epidemics (“it’s more-widespread-than-you-think”), the media with attendant ‘experts’, and sometimes, the judiciary, law-makers and politicians.  When something like the recent Savile events plays out, it is often too early to categorise the activities of these parties as signs of a moral panic. So a place to start seems with the recognition that sometimes it is easier to identify what is not a moral panic.

In my view, a moral panic is not a government conspiracy (proper moral panics often take governments by surprise, e.g. the satanic panic in social work in the late 1980s/early 1990s). Neither are moral panics solely the result of media scare-mongering – because often the latter fail to take off or are met with an incredulous public response such as the dangers to young people of head-banging to heavy metal music.  And, calling something a moral panic to ridicule the concern and suggest it is based on nothing is also wrong.  There is usually always something that has happened. After all the mods and rockers did fight on the beaches in the south of England and there have been deaths related to the use of Ecstasy.

Aside from the above list of the various actors in a moral panic, it seems necessary to highlight another three features that tell is that what could be happening is indeed a moral panic.  The first is that a ‘proper’ moral panic ought to feature morals as in the morals of teenagers that smoked reefers in the 1950s, fought with each other in the 1960s and sniffed glue in the 1980s. Or the morals of feckless single parent mothers who went out to work and caused a latch-key kid scare now transmogrified into home-alone children whose mothers hit the clubs in Ibiza whilst leaving their child unattended for a week with only a couple of packet of crisps and a bottle of juice.  Or, more controversially as an alternative to the apparent shoe-in for a moral reprobate is the predatory internet paedophile, it may be the morals of parents too self-obsessed to check their children’s on-line activity that are really those under scrutiny. Here morals become code for a right way and a wrong way to behave.

The second feature is that a classic moral panic needs the actions of a folk-devil, someone or some group that can be identified as the inception of the panic.  It could be the actions of teenagers (Mods and Rockers, glue sniffers), parents (as above and in other panics e.g. the Munchausen’s by proxy alarms which seemed prevalent in the 1980s), Satanists (satanic abuse) or Savile. Here imagery places an important part.

A third necessary feature of moral panics is that it is not there is nothing at the core of them. This is an erroneous dismissal of the phenomena and a cheap shot. The issue is that the event or events that have sparked the concern are, or their consequences, have been inflated out of all proportion.  And that the consequent outrage (the headlines, the questions in Parliament) is unjustified. It is such climates that can produce poor laws (how often has the Dangerous Dogs Act been used) or excessive sentencing practices as in ‘getting tough’ (six months in prison for the student who stole a bottle of water during the 2011 English riots?) and, in the events unfolding around the Savile case, the erosion of trust in civic and public bodies such as the BBC.

I’m left with four questions. If, as it seems, we can only really know in hindsight whether something has constituted a moral panic, how long does it take before hindsight kicks in?  And if journalism is the first rough draft of history, who or what is responsible for the second?  Twitter or an academic text?

Mass communication is much flatter these days so my next question is this. Given that social media now vie with traditional journalism for primacy of opinion-formation and that incredulity now seems equally as possible as gullibility (nowadays within seconds of a claim that something is out of control or the ‘epidemic is greater than first feared’, someone is likely to go online to debunk or question the claims), are the ‘tests’ of a moral panic still more or less the same?

And is there such a thing as a good (or justifiable) moral panic?

Gary Clapton, 17th December 2012

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