– by Yunnita D. Mattoha
“The success of the politicians and media in generating and sustaining a moral panic is contingent on how successfully they enrage the public and marshal their support against the evil-doers.”
– Stephen L. Muzzatti
What comes first into our mind when we hear the term ‘moral panic’? Each of us might have a different answer to that. But what exactly is moral panic?
The term ‘moral panic’ was first used by Stanley Cohen in the 1960s in reference to media, public and authorities’ responses to what were ultimately minor clashes between English youth cultures. Cohen describes moral panic as when “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values or interests”. Their presentation in mass media is often manipulated in a stereotypical fashion by those in charge of the “moral barricades”.
Subjects of the panic range from being something completely new to that which suddenly becomes the focus. While there are times when the panic recedes, there are others where its consequences are far more concrete, such as – according to Cohen – the changing of “legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself”.
Five factors define the presence of moral panic: folk devils, rule enforcers, the media, politicians and the public.
Folk devils are usually stereotyped and classified as deviants who are responsible for the deviant or criminal behaviour.
Rule enforcers are those who are responsible for the enforcement of norms and law in our society, such as the police, prosecutors and the judiciary. They are the ones who detect and punish the folk devils.
The media is another factor that plays a vital role. In case of a moral panic, sometimes media can be distorted and exaggerated in terms of the news headlines and describing the folk devils. Also, the media can be used as the most influential tool by those who have power and elite interests.
In a moral panic, politicians are responsible ‘to present themselves as purveyors of the moral high ground’ and as such, ‘they often align themselves with the press and the rule enforcers’ in a struggle against the folk devils.
Lastly, the public is seen as the most important actor in a moral panic because it is the public who consumes the media coverage and supports the regulation of rule enforcers, politicians or action groups against the folk devils.
Characteristics of moral panic
The characteristics that differentiate moral panic from normal societal concern are: the generation of heightened concern; hostility; consensus; disproportionality; and volatility.
In a moral panic, heightened concern can be assessed through newspaper reports, proposed legislation, action groups or social movement activity.
Second, there must be an increased level of hostility toward the category of people who are seen as “folk devils”, accompanied by contempt for those responsible.
Third, consensus refers to public agreement that the folk devils are real and seen as threat in society.
Disproportionality, or the over-reaction to a problem, is measured by frequency, severity and scope.
Finally, the last characteristic is volatility. It refers to the precariousness of moral panic, which can erupt suddenly and without warning, but can dissipate quickly too.
How do we need to respond?
After going through the concept of moral panic, let us think for a while about a few instances of moral panic – which 2014 events were reported repeatedly in media and have created some public fear within our society?
Many things! Each of us is sure to have something to say about particular issues, such as asylum seekers, same-sex marriages, diseases like Ebola, war on terrorism, gender equality.
Whether consciously or not, we are exposed to news media at all time. Some of us might already tire of hearing or reading the largely negative news, and so dislike being dragged into the black hole of fear like much of the public has. Indeed, simply believing in the majority of media coverage would be foolish.
People are entitled to their opinion – yes, of course. But the one thing that needs to be remembered before sharing an opinion is to be sceptical towards what we have heard. Instead of blindly accepting and continuing to accuse particular groups, ask first – why do certain groups always become the folk devils? Were they really born to be evil? Why does the government respond in a particular way? Who benefits from these particular crimes? And so on.
As part of the public, we have the most vital part in times of a moral panic. We can make change in society – to be better or to be worse. For me, dealing with moral panic will not work if everyone screams and shouts their opinions irresponsibly – in this case, to be someone who is ignorant. We need to take a silent moment, and be more critical – not only in thinking, but also in asking outside the box.
“In an age in which the media broadcast countless pieces of foolishness, the educated man is defined not by what he knows, but by what he doesn’t know.” – Nicolás Gómez Dávila
Photo credit: johnjoh via Flickr