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Is there ever a good moral panic?

January 12, 2014

On many occasions over the last 18 months since our ESRC-sponsored seminar series began, I’ve been asked: “but surely moral panics aren’t always negative; isn’t it possible for a moral panic to be positive, drawing attention to something that should concern us all?”

My answer has sometimes been to sit on the fence. I have been afraid to be seen as someone who is unaware of the damaging effects of social injustice, or perhaps worse still, as someone who doesn’t care about it. In this blog, I am climbing off the fence. I would like to assert that moral panics, by their nature, are essentially conservative, negative and detrimental to individuals and society as a whole. Not only this, social work and social workers have been heavily involved in creating and sustaining moral panics – we’ve used moral panics for our own ends, and the consequences of this, for those who use services and for society have not been positive in the longer term. Let me explain…

I have been a social worker and social work educator for almost 40 years. Wow.  In that time, I have been privileged to meet and work with literally thousands of people (service users, colleagues, students, managers), all of whom have played a part in teaching me how to be human. I have been lucky enough to be able to conduct research with many people whose voices have been marginalised or simply not been heard – children and young people, parents with HIV, adults with drug and alcohol problems. In all this activity, I have sought to bring injustice and inequality to the attention of those with power to do something about it – politicians, policy makers and managers of services. I have also sought to contribute to breaking down stigma over issues such as HIV, mental health, sexuality. This doesn’t make me a special person – it just makes me a social worker! Social workers are (and should be) concerned with social issues; that’s what we do. But in putting this social concern into practice, we must attend to the motives and justifications (ours and others) that we bring to our work, as well as to the potential consequences of our actions, now and in the future. We must also place our endeavours in a wider social and political context, making connections between personal troubles and public issues, as C. Wright Mills, argued, as long ago as 1959.

An example to illustrate this point – child trafficking
The trafficking of human beings for commercial or sexual gain is abominable. It causes untold misery to those who are trafficked, and damages communities, families and individuals alike. 11 January was declared National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, with events taking place across the world. The trafficking of children is particularly concerning, because of the additional vulnerability children inevitably experience. It is therefore a good thing that human rights and child protection agencies draw attention to human and child trafficking and seek to bring it to an end.  So far so good.

But what else is going on here? When is ‘trafficking’ actually ‘people smuggling’ by another name? What are the economic and social drivers that lead people to leave some parts of the world in order to seek a ‘better life’ for themselves and their families? What part do restrictive immigration policies play in encouraging poor people from across the world to take such drastic measures to flee persecution and destitution? And how helpful is it that children’s services across the UK run training courses on how to spot child trafficking while at the same time generic support services for children and families are being cut back?

I have written about the historical and current day moral panic around child trafficking in a recent journal article (Cree et al, 2012). Here I unpack the nineteenth century story of ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, a salacious newspaper series hatched by a group of campaigners who wanted to see the Criminal Law Amendment (CLA) Bill that had been languishing in parliament passed. In order to achieve their goal, they not only exaggerated stories of juvenile prostitution in London, they also ‘bought’ a 15 year-old girl and took her to a brothel in Paris to prove that it could be done. The end result of their efforts was that the CLA Act was passed, and women working as prostitutes found themselves evicted from the relative safety of lodging houses and gay men were persecuted in every-growing numbers. Meanwhile, the sexual passivity of women and innocence of children was reaffirmed. Today, stories of child trafficking continue to captivate both the tabloid and broadsheet press, fed by news releases from organisations such as CEOP (the government’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection unit). CEOP has been highly influential in advising the government on everything from internet pornography and child trafficking to sexual abuse more generally. The so-called ‘porn filters’ that have now been agreed by Google and Microsoft owe much to CEOP’s efforts; how far this new surveillance technology will actually prevent the sexual abuse of children on or off-line is much more questionable. Even the former head of CEOP, Jim Gamble, is quoted as telling BBC Breakfast “[Paedophiles] don’t go to Google to search for images. They go on to the dark corners of the Internet on peer-to-peer websites.” At the same time, parents across the UK are now terrified that their children may be groomed online; it’s easy to get caught up in this hysteria and lose sight of the reality that children remain far more at risk from people they know in their own homes, than from strangers in Internet chat-rooms. Similarly, children in the UK are more likely to be harmed by poverty and oppressive immigration practices than by child trafficking.

So to return to my initial question – is there ever a good moral panic? I’d have to say ‘no’. Moral panics always exaggerate, they always draw attention away from underlying social problems and they always have negative consequences, unintended or otherwise. Social workers have often played the part of ‘moral entrepreneurs’, drawing society’s attention to issues that need to be confronted and changed. That’s great, and we must continue to do so. But we should do so carefully – aware that our ideas and knowledge may be appropriated and conscious of the potential impact of our actions. Chas Critcher reminds us that moral panics ‘reaffirm the moral boundaries of society by nominating people or activities as beyond the pale’ (2003: 177). Moral panics are therefore just the beginning – it’s what happens next that should concern us most.

Viviene Cree
12th January 2014

Cree, V.E., Clapton, G. and Smith, M. (2012) ‘The Presentation of Child Trafficking in the UK: An Old and New Moral Panic?’, British Journal of Social Work, 1–16, doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcs120.
Critcher, C. (2003) Moral Panics and the Media, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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