Do we realize that moral panics threaten our way of life and many of our civil rights? Has society given much thought to this problem? Do we realize how much we all contribute to moral panics and witch-hunts?
First of all, what is moral panic? In general terms, moral panic is the exaggerated public response to issues or situations deemed “shocking” to sensibilities of a segment of society. Moral panics are frequently initiated by selective reporting in sensationalist media sources or by politicians looking to create an issue they can rally potential supporters around. The scenarios result in actual negative public opinion and response that gets blown way out of proportion.
Moral panic frequently leads to the creation of stereotypes and caricatures. This is a leading cause of scapegoating and the creation of social “devils”. When the public is sufficiently fearful and social “devils” have been created, witch-hunts frequently erupt. The vast majority of the public is convinced that a threat is real and action is necessary.
A tragic example of moral panic gone awry is the sensationalistic smearing of the LGBT communities in Russia and many African countries. The panic serves to distract the public from actual issues regarding the economy, unemployment, and so forth by creating a scapegoat to focus public unease upon. This is causing hundreds of Russian and African gay people to flee those regions to save their lives. In this case, invented “folk devils” have become the actual victims.
To a lesser degree, we have the garden variety moral panics. The most common moral panic is one that started several years ago and remains widely believed and casts doubt on the goodness of other people. Rumors that psychopathic people were handing out Halloween treats booby-trapped with razor blades and needles are a common worry at trick or treating time. This was fueled by earlier gossip about candy being poisoned and tampered with by mean-spirited adults who hate kids.
Some sociologists believe the trick or treat moral panic began with a case of premeditated murder. Apparently, a cyanide-laced “Pixie Stix” candy was given to a child by his own father. The intent was to kill the child in order to collect on the insurance claim money. As the story made its way through the rumor mill and was amplified by the media, an all-out moral panic mushroomed into being. The belief still persists that there are many villainous people inserting sharp objects into Halloween candy. One good result has come about from this tale, parents and children are now more watchful about what they collect from strangers.
Sometimes, moral panic is purposely induced by public authorities or government officials in order to sway citizens into supporting laws and actions that go against our human and civil rights. This happens when an already existing situation is consciously manipulated to serve the control and power interests of the unethical politician or political entity.
Currently, we see political moral panic aimed at “illegal aliens”. Undocumented workers have been successfully demonised as to be the cause of serious societal problems. It is now more socially acceptable to advocate for otherwise repugnant solutions that we must now accept. We are asked to support and favor draconian laws that violate our basic rights.
We now live with an extensive collection of social media, political campaigning, religious proselytizing, corporate influence, and publicity-seeking individuals. It really pays to cast a skeptical eye at sensationalistic stories and urban legends. Doing so, helps to prevent us from getting swept up in moral panic.
The Blue Jay of Happiness borrowed this quotation attached to a friend’s refrigerator door. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”–Clive Staples Lewis