On the Notion of ‘Moral Panic’

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A quick look into Chambers Concise 20th Century Dictionary reveals ‘moral’ as ‘of or relating to character or conduct considered as good or evil: ethical: conformed to or directed towards right, virtuous: esp. virtuous in matters of sex: capable of knowing right and wrong…’ and various other definitions that, when coupled with the accompanying, necessarily irrational, ‘panic’, call forth images of old ladies fainting, gentlemen catching the old ladies before they hit the ground and genteel society losing the run of itself as it seeks to drive back the incoming tide of ‘immorality’. This might be regarded as a slightly exaggerated, and perhaps even caricatured, depiction of the notion of ‘moral panic’, but it could also be argued that exaggeration and caricature are inherent in the very nature of the coupled ‘moral’ and ‘panic’ and, indeed, in the nature of the discourse in which the term first arose.

Which brings me to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics: the Creation of the Mods and Rockers  (1972), who is credited with having created the term ‘moral panic’. Cohen defines the term in the first paragraph of his study: ‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges 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; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.’ http://www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/Marsh_Melville_Moral_Panics_and_the_British_Media_March_2011.pdf

Cohen goes on to examine how ‘moral panics’ have centred around various youth subcultures in post-war Britain, particularly 1960s Mods and Rockers and the rivalry that developed between these two groups, sometimes leading to clashes at seaside resorts. Cohen does not appear to have sought to explain in any great depth the behaviour of these two subcultural groups other than in terms of how that behaviour was affected by media and societal responses to it. In a sense he seems to focus on how ‘moral panic’ transforms societies perception of these groups and in response the behaviour of these groups is transformed by that perception, with the media playing a central role in that transformation.

There were, of course, more nuanced responses to the public mutual animosity displayed by the mods and rockers, even within the mainstream media, which it would be difficult to categorise as ‘moral panic.  The Guardian of 19 May 1964, reporting on the disturbances at Brighton, stated that ‘Amid the masses of teenagers, however, there was no difficulty talking to individuals, most of whom shared the desire to keep away from physical violence’ and ‘The only boy who said he regretted that he had not yet been involved in a fight was speaking in front of several girls’. One BBC report seems more characterised by curiosity about dress style than ‘moral panic’, as can be seen from the video on the following link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/18/newsid_2511000/2511245.stm

Given the tendency of one of the main supposed purveyors of ‘moral panic’, the tabloid press, not to have easily accessible online archives, it’s hard to easily gauge how much of a panic there really was. And if there was a tabloid panic, did many people really treated it with any more seriousness than we treat tabloid sensationalism today?

So, I’m still not sure how much of a moral panic there was at the time or how much I might be projecting back a caricatured and perhaps exaggerated analysis embodied in Stanley Cohen’s notion of ‘moral panic’. To presume that theorists such as Stanley Cohen are completely objective and detached, simply because they are working within a sociological framework, would be, in my view, naive. The tendency among some writing from a sociological perspective to focus on what might be quite marginal groups in society, while interesting and worthwhile in itself, is not without the risk that they become part of the discourse that creates a heightened sense of how panicked society really was. Sarah Thornton in Club Cultures (2006) states that ‘Sociologies of ‘moral panic’ offer important theories of deviance amplification, self-fulfilling prophecies and composite stereotypes called ‘folk devils’, but they do not take a sufficiently sweeping look at associated processes of cultural production and consumption’; I think it’s also fair to ask if the discourse around these theories themselves does not become part of the process of deviance amplification. However, in fairness to Stanley Cohen, I should probably reserve a more definitive on his role or otherwise in deviance amplification until such time as I have read all of Folk Devils and Moral Panics.

On the issue of moral panics today, I feel we have changed greatly as a society since Stanley Cohen first created the term ‘moral panic’. As European society has become more secularised, the notion of what constitutes morality or immorality has become less clear and an attitude that some might categorise as laissez faire or non-judgementalor others might call moral relativism, has come to dominate mainstream discourse. In this context I would find it hard to think of any contemporary examples of the type of moral panic that Stanley Cohen wrote about. As youth has become more vaunted than feared, the tabloid press is more likely to focus on individuals as folk devils rather than on groups of teenagers. Perhaps the issue of the availability of psychotropic drugs in headshops a few years ago, and the press coverage that ensued, might fall within the description of moral panic outlined by Stanley Cohen, but I think it’s fair to ask if expressions of concern about the open availability of psychotropic drugs is really a case of ‘panic’. And perhaps therein lies the weakness of the notion of ‘moral panic’ and its inherent implication of irrational fear.

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