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I was surprised to discover that a "moral panic" is not merely something whipped up by the Daily Mail to boost its sales. Nor are its origins solely political. (There is nothing better than a good moral panic to distract the electorate from more pressing issues!) The idea and the term originate from one Stanley Cohen who in 1964 was a graduate student in search of a doctoral topic. He became interested in the way in which the media reported the "battles" between Mods and Rockers in Clacton-a small English seaside town. If one believed the reports in the press and on the television, it seemed as thought W.W.3 had erupted. It was only a matter of time before the S.A.S. was called in to restore order and return Clacton to its residents. The reality was rather different. Most of the "riots" were no more than groups of young people gathering in small groups. As Goode and Ben-Yehuda comment "The Clacton disturbances, minor offences, or even gatherings which might become offences, were instantly the focus of press and police attention." (p.22) They continue "To Cohen, the sensitization and escalation processes were central to the public's reaction to Mods and Rockers." (p.22) Here was born, in Cohen's mind, the concept of Moral Panic.
Cohen explored this concept in a number of books and papers which are given in the comprehensive reference list compiled by Goode and Ben-Yehuda. An extract from part of Cohen's definition of Moral Panic gives an idea of his thinking. He says of a Moral Panic that it is
"A condition, episode person or group of persons..."who ... "emerge to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people;..."(p.23)
Cohen and Ben-Yehuda take this definition as the starting point for their own work on a number of moral panics- both past and current. Topics that have given rise to a moral panic and which are discussed by the authors cover Homosexuality; pedophilia; priestly pedophilia (a remarkably topical instance given the difficulties currently being faced by the Vatican); pornography; sexual "slavery" and the sexual psychopath. They also discuss the panics about drug abuse-a section that I found challenged many of the ideas that I had absorbed unquestioningly. And it is this aspect of moral panics that the two authors challenge with detailed research which uses actual statistics. Thus they examine work which looked closely at the figures of actual deaths from Ecstasy- rather than the figures cited by the media. The results are fascinating. In an American report produced in 2000 by a Florida governor suggested that the number of club drug deaths in that state since 1994 was 254. A few months later a reporter from The Florida Sentinel looked closely at these figures. He found that an 82 year old woman who had died following a car accident had been included in the figures. Similarly a 74 year cancer patient was included along with a 41 year old man who committed suicide and a 4 year old child. The reasons for including these individuals in the study were that each of them had some contact with drugs-albeit medication legally prescribed!
This close reading of the facts behind a media story are the essence of Goode and Ben-Yehuda's work. They have taken the time and trouble to try and see what is a moral panic and what is true. The maxim that the first casualty of war is Truth is particularly germane here. For moral panics take place in war zones where the combatants on both sides are fighting for high stakes- namely their version of the Truth. And what also becomes apparent from reading this book is how frequently "truth" is secondary to Power. Thus commenting on the Renaissance Witch Craze and its ending, they write
"The outcome of this struggle was not decided because all the members of the society... were suddenly and inexplicably seized by the reality of the threat from witchcraft. It was decided because the demonologists seemed to have the more powerful argument, the more powerful alliances, and the most powerful structural changes on their side." (p.194)
And at the risk of lapsing into the overuse of clichés, "La plus ca change..." does come to mind here. In the chapter "Deviance, Morality, and Criminal Law" the writers note the social value of deviants and deviancy." During times of crisis or panic, deviants may sere as scapegoats, secondary targets to deflect attention away from some of society's most pressing but insoluble problems." (p.157) One wonders how helpful the threats-real and imagined- posed by Al Qaeda have been to our current governments. And how much of the attention that is given to the War on Terror is attention that might have been directed elsewhere- but for this convenient "war"? Similarly the recent deaths of two young people who had taken the drug Mephedrone has received widespread media coverage. A brief Google search for this topic came up with 124,000 hits. Everyone seems to have reported this story- the Guardian; the Telegraph; the Times all had this story, along with the New Musical Express and the Metro-a free London paper. This because of two deaths, which although sad, is as nothing compared to the number of people hurt or killed in car accidents each year. Is this the beginning of a new Moral Panic?
As always with a more academic book, one wonders how relevant it is for the wider community. In the case of Goode and Ben-Yehuda, the answer is that it is highly relevant to the broader community. They ask
"What is the impact of moral panics on a society's informal normative structure, views of right and wrong? On its visions of reality..." and "... the same question may be raised for moral panics: Does a sudden, relatively brief outburst of fear, concern, and anger over a given condition, threat or behavior rigidify the moral boundaries of the society... and hence promote stability? Or does it transform the norms and institutions of the society in such a way as to make it a different place than it was before?"(p.246)
The answer to their question is that we don't, definitively know. But depending on our moral and political outlook, we will all have our own answers.
© 2010 Terry Burridge
Terry Burridge is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Buckinghamshire New University. He has spent most of his professional life as a psychiatric nurse and now spends considerable time and energy trying to inspire future psychiatric nurses to be the best kinds of nurses that they can be! He is very much influenced by psychoanalytic thinking and sees analytic theory as offering a valuable critique to many other areas of human activity. He can be contacted at Terry@dancingbears.co.uk