"[T]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."
"Never let a crisis go to waste."
-- Saul Alinsky
Psychology Today has told us that "a moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of society." It is "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media." Such a panic does not mean that that there is nothing to worry about. There really were Stalinist agents in the US Government when Joe McCarthy rose to denounce them. (We know this because the fall of the USSR led to many files becoming public -- for a while -- and names were named.) But the panic sets in when people begin to see Russians behind every tapestry or potted plant. It is the panic, rather than a rational caution or skepticism, that leads to overblown responses.
- An event, condition, episode or person is defined as a threat to the values, safety and interest of the wider society.
- The media then amplifies these apparent threats through inflammatory rhetoric These portrayals appeal to public prejudices, creating villains in need of social control (folk devils) and victims (the moral majority).
- The publicity surrounding the threat creates a sense of social anxiety leading to a public outpouring of concern.
- Government then responds to the public outcry and frames the alleged threat as being symptomatic of a wider social malaise that must be addressed.
- The moral panic and the responses to it transform the regulation of economy and society with the aim of tempering public outrage.
Once the panic is over, we can readily see it for what it was. Chastek mentions a few in our own lifetimes:
- The satanic daycare panic
- tampered Halloween candy
- stranger abductions
- AIDS transmission fears
- mass school shootings
- assault weapons
- the “cyanide in Tylenol” panic
- fears of subliminal programming (from, say, backwards rock lyrics)
To these may be added a number of others of your choice.
- the international Communist conspiracy
- the vast right-wing conspiracy
- the Salem witch trials
- Emmanuel Goldstein 😉
- Japanese-American internment (WW2)
- subversives/defeatists (WW1)
- terrorism/the jihad
- Dungeons and Dragons
- runaway Audis
These panics consumed a great deal of time and resources -- some warranted, some overblown. A legal maxim holds that "hard cases make bad laws." That is, with some exceptions, one ought not generally base laws upon exceptions or extreme values, but rather upon normal or typical situations. The jihadi attack of 9/11 led to the passage of the Patriot Act, including the formation of a new cabinet department with the creepy name of Homeland Security. Yet, had this Act been in force beforehand, it would have done nothing to forestall the attack.
Stranger abductions ran at about 12 per years. (Most abductions are custodial.) Yet, we no longer allow children to play in the front yard or roam free as TOF did during his own childhood. The cyanide in Tylenol panic led to
“tamper proof” packaging. Families took their Halloween candy to be X-rayed for years out of fear of tampering. In Massachusetts, day care providers were sent to jail based on children's testimony that was physically impossible. (Similarities to the 'spectral testimony' of children at Salem will be noted) but at the time reservations were denounced as being soft on Satanism or worse: "insensitive."
Wilson's loyalty oaths went beyond what was required to deal with German saboteurs (who would have had no problem swearing such an oath), and his press censorship concealed the H1N1 "Spanish" flu (it was defeatist and demoralizing) until it was too widespread to keep quiet about. One-off gun massacres are treated legislatively as though they were some sort of pervasive norm or systemic problem requiring the wholesale re-design of school architecture. And no one thinks twice about going through metal detectors to fly anywhere.
OTOH, there is also the 'ice-breaker' problem. Once something unthinkable has been done, the likelihood that it will be done again increases; likewise with 'copycars', and as we said above, just because we run around like chickens with our heads cut off doesn't mean there isn't a farmer with an axe around. But running around like said acephalus chicken may not do much good to address the problem. As the old joke has it:
- Something must be done!
- This is something!
- Therefore, this must be done!
Unfortunately, this is often ineffective, but those who proposed it bask in its glow.
- Chastek, James, "Cohen's stages of moral panic." Just Thomism (1 Dec 2020)
- "Moral panic" Wikipedia