Culture Wars/Current Controversies
The Problem of Moral Panics
I am increasingly of the opinion that anyone with a serious anti-authoritarian outlook needs to be opposed to moral panics even before they are supposed to institutional authorities like organized religion, capitalism, or even the state itself.
As H.L. Mencken said, “The worst government is often the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.”
And, interestingly, moral panics tend to originate not so much from the power elite as much as from the more stable sectors of the middle class whose greatest fear is instability and loss of status, although power elites will exploit moral panics that are rooted in the middle class as a means of greater self-empowerment. It’s true that the power élites are not the passive beneficiaries of other people’s stupidity. They are the one who cause the haute-bourgoisie to panic by using their media to alarm them.
But the power elite has to have a product that will sell in the form of a moral panic, and the primary constituents for moral panics are typically the more stable sectors of the middle class who are very status-oriented. For example, the “Parents Against Pot” movement in the early 80s was a major impetus for the intensification of the “War on Drugs” during the Reagan era (although it began during the Nixon era as a tool with which to attack the protest movements). Nowadays, things like Russiagate appeal primarily to woke suburbia as there has been a changing of the guard within the middle class in recent decades.
The working to middle classes that comprised Nixon’s “silent majority” has now become a cultural minority, and are experiencing economic decline or dying out. But they still exist and are part of Trump’s coalition. But the dominant sector of the middle class is not the professional-managerial class which has a different ideological framework and is consequently oriented toward “woke” panics as opposed to traditionally conservative ones. Also, as the traditional working to middle class has lost status they’ve become even more susceptible to even more extreme moral panics (like QAnon). They’ve become more like what you traditionally find among lower-class whites, “ghetto” blacks, Third World peoples, etc in terms of the conspiracy theories they will embrace.
From the Wikipedia entry:
A moral panic is a widespread feeling of fear, often an irrational one, that some evil person or thing threatens the values, interests, or well-being of a community or society. It is “the process of arousing social concern over an issue,” usually perpetuated by moral entrepreneurs and the mass media, and exacerbated by politicians and lawmakers.
Stanley Cohen, who developed the term, states that moral panic happens when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”: 1 While the issues identified may be real, the claims “exaggerate the seriousness, extent, typicality and/or inevitability of harm.” The concept of moral panic can now be found in several disciplines, including sociology and criminology, media studies, and cultural studies.
Examples of moral panic include the belief in widespread abduction of children by predatory pedophiles; belief in ritual abuse of women and children by satanic cults; and concerns over the effects of music lyrics. Some moral panics can become embedded in standard political discourse, which include concepts such as “Red Scare“ and terrorism.
It differs from mass hysteria, which is closer to a psychological illness rather than a sociological phenomenon.