The Lives of Others
We were quite young, 7 or 8 years old maybe – but I distinctly remember that something unusual was happening in school that day. Mrs Butterfield, having carefully corralled us from the classroom into the sports hall, had let us loose to melee with the hundreds of other pupils converging for this special assembly. Children squashed themselves onto long wooden benches; we chatted excitedly about the huge white screen and the very smart looking policeman standing alongside the head teacher. After order had been restored, our guest speaker explained that today we were going to see a very important film and we should pay full attention as one day (insert solemn pause) it could save our lives – hundreds of peepers snapped forward, intent on surviving into high school.
We watched how an ordinary looking, middle-aged man might approach you one day by the school gates, and entice you into his car with the promise of a lift home and some sweeties. But, as the narrator helpfully explained, he was actually a stranger. If we went with him bad things would happen to us. It was completely corny and a bit cheap, but it was effective: I was totally traumatised. And what certainly didn’t help was the fact that for weeks afterwards, rumours swirled round the school about men hiding behind the portakabin and white vans crammed with abducted children heading up the A1. This was my introduction to moral panics.
Fast-forward twenty or so years; the production values have certainly increased, and audiences are probably more sophisticated. But the script is largely unchanged. We are bombarded with stories and reports which make us believe that we, and are loved ones, are at constant risk of all sorts of dangers, from a myriad of malignant sources. What theories of moral panic suggest is that periodically these broad social anxieties coalesce and then crystallise around a specific group of people who become the folk-devils in our midst. Zygmunt Bauman writes about how such individuals can come to have an almost ‘alien’ quality ascribed to them; David Garland describes how discursive practices might further emphasise this sense of ‘otherness’. Folk-devils, the values they are deemed to hold and the lives they are claimed to lead, are thus portrayed as being fundamentally different to what is considered normal to us, our families, the people we might care about, socialise with, work alongside. As the moral panic makes the folk-devil something to be feared and hated, this gives media pundits, policy-makers, the public at large, the permission to disrespect and disregard them.
As social workers, we often deal with the victims of such negative labelling. People who through their physical characteristics, their social background, their lifestyle choices and mistakes, become stigmatised and cast out of mainstream society. In ten years of working in frontline practice I have had experience of working with many of these ‘ folk-devils’: the young single mother managing a substance misuse problem; the paedophile living in the community after several years in prison; the disabled man forced to re-apply for his benefits in order to prove he is still unfit for work; the Eastern European family paying extortionate sums for a small rented flat riddled with damp and infested with vermin. What I remember from these encounters is not what set such people apart from the likes of you and me, but what we had in common: we are all striving for some version of the good life; to feel accepted by others, to have some level of financial security and a decent place to live, to look forward to a positive future. Recognising that we live in a world where moral panics sow division and unhappiness in our communities, social work must strive to promote mutual understanding and challenge discrimination.
3rd April 2014
Bauman, Z. (1991) Holocaust and Modernity, London, Polity Press.
Garland, D. (1996) ‘The Limits of the Sovereign State: Strategies of Crime Control in Contemporary Society’, British Journal of Criminology, 36(4): 445-471.