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Moral Panic as a Political Tool

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

It seems it’s quite easy to make the public fearful, something that is well known and understood by demagogues. A skillful practitioner can create and exploit this moral panic for his or her own benefit.

The Salem witch trials of 1692 are a famous example of moral panic, and the phenomenon is present among us today.

Mods and Rockers

In the 1960s, two youth subcultures emerged in Britain. The so-called Mods wore parkas over suits and rode scooters such as Vespas and Lambrettas. Rockers wore leather jackets and jeans and rode motorcycles.

The two groups clashed violently at seaside resorts with fistfights and vandalism. Media coverage was almost hysterical in warning that the opposing groups were shaking the moral foundations of society; life, as it was then known, would never be the same. In a short space of time, the Mods and Rockers fizzled, replaced by some other counterculture trend.

Watching all this with a professional eye and notebook in hand was Stanley Cohen, a South African sociologist.

The Stages of Moral Panic

The result of Cohen’s study was the 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, in which he set out the five stages that a moral panic goes through:

  1. There has to be some sort of trigger event that challenges accepted social norms.
  2. The news media grabs onto this event, and presents it in simplified form, sometimes with exaggeration and distortion, and with warnings of dire escalation of nothing is done.
  3. Opinion leaders such as politicians, clergy, and editors denounce the activity as an attack on moral fiber and this raises public concern.
  4. Behavioral and other experts offer advice on solutions to the threat whether it is real or simply perceived.
  5. Coping mechanisms (such as laws) are put in place that lead to social change.

Cohen writes:

“The condition then disappears, submerges, or deteriorates... Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.”

Moral panic has been defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place.”

— Scott A. Bonn Ph.D. in Psychology Today

Moral Panic’s Actors

Cohen also identifies five key players in the spread of moral panic:

  1. The instigator, whether real or imagined, guilty or innocent, that Cohen said the media transforms into “folk devils.”
  2. Authority in the form of police, armed forces, and laws.
  3. The media that nurtures the threat and, wittingly or unwittingly, keeps the narrative going.
  4. Politicians who are not above exploiting the situation for personal gain.
  5. The public that becomes panicked and demands action.

Writing for ThoughtCo.com, Ashley Crossman notes that “Many sociologists have observed that those in power ultimately benefit from moral panics, since they lead to increased control of the population and the reinforcement of the authority of those in charge.”

The media also benefits because a moral panic lifts readership and viewer numbers and that is attractive to advertisers.

Law enforcers, who are called upon to deal with the “folk devils,” profit from their actions as the panic justifies their existence and supports calls for ever more power.

The losers in this interchange are, of course, the instigators and the general public, which is forced to hand more of its freedom over to the state.

In the 1980s, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons became the center of a moral panic with accusations it was causing demonic possession among young people.

In the 1980s, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons became the center of a moral panic with accusations it was causing demonic possession among young people.

Central American Migrant Caravans

In the fall of 2018, a moral panic arose in America because thousands of people began fleeing Central American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The migrants feared for their lives in lawless nations wracked by violence, corruption, and poverty. Moving mostly on foot, they were headed to the United States and numbered around 10,000 people.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump called the migrant column an “invasion.” He alleged, without the benefit of evidence, that the so-called migrant caravan contained “many gang members and some very bad people" and added that “our military is waiting for you.”

The hyperbole attracted the attention of the news media with outlets such as Fox News inflating the numbers and the threat to “the American way of life.”

This all broke in the run up to the U.S. midterm elections with Trump telling voters: “If you don’t want America to be overrun by masses of illegal aliens and giant caravans, you’d better vote Republican.”

The scare tactics didn’t work, and the Republican Party suffered some humiliating losses. Then the alarming danger disappeared almost entirely from the front pages and airwaves. Having failed to serve its purpose, this moral panic was cast aside.

In Europe an invented moral panic has had more success as voters have turned to far-right parties that advocate tough immigration measures.

In The Guardian (U.K.), Suketu Mehta writes that hard-right politicians “have successfully convinced their populations that the greatest threat to their nations isn’t government tyranny or inequality or climate change, but immigration. And that, to stop this wave of migrants, everyone’s civil liberties must be curtailed. Surveillance cameras must be installed everywhere. Passports must be produced for the most routine of tasks, like buying a mobile phone.”

The result can be seen in two CNBC headlines from September 2022:

  • "Right-Wing Parties Win Swedish Election in Historic Political Overhaul"
  • "The Far-Right Wins Big in Italy"

These immigration-fuelled moral panics almost perfectly dot the i’s and cross the t’s of Stanley Cohen’s stages of moral panic.

The terribly scary invaders from Central America.

The terribly scary invaders from Central America.

Bonus Factoids

  • Sociologists have identified several recent events as moral panics: the Black Lives Matter movement; rampant welfare abuse; equal rights to the LBGTQ community; and the Muslim terror wave.
  • Stanley Cohen said the labeling of groups, such as Mods and Rockers, as deviant can become a badge of honour among those so characterized. This can encourage them to be more deviant.
  • The Know-Nothing Party in the United States rose up in the 1840s and 1850s fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiments; their particular “folk devils” were Roman Catholics. They were labelled an affront to traditional Americanism. In the Presidential Election of 1856, Millard Fillmore, who campaigned under the Know-Nothing banner, gathered 21.5% of the popular vote. Anti-Catholic sentiment died down, but it was more than a century before a Catholic, John F. Kennedy in 1960, would be elected president.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor