Moral Panic Can Cause Immoral Outcomes

Have you heard the term “moral panic?” A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society. Moral panics are often centered on people who are marginalized in society due to their race or ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, or religion. It often draws on and reinforces stereotypes. It exacerbates differences and divisions between groups of people. Stanley Cohen developed a theory of moral panic identifies five stages.
1. Something or someone is perceived as a threat to social norms.
2. Society depicts the threat in simplistic ways that quickly become recognizable to the public.
3. Public concern is aroused by the way news media portrays the representation of the threat.
4. New laws or policies are created as a way to respond to the threat.
5. The actions by those in power results in social change within the community.

An example of moral panic is the Salem witch trials that took place throughout Massachusetts in 1692. This moral panic was a threat to the authority of religious leaders and was perceived as a threat to Christian values, laws and orders. It was also called Satanic Panic. The War on Drugs in the 1980’s and 1990’s is another example of moral panic. Media attention linked crack cocaine to urban Black people and associated it with delinquency and crime. Laws and policies left white middle and upper classes untouched. “Welfare queens,” “cocaine babies” and the “gay agenda” are more examples.

According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, In order to be a moral panic, there must be characteristics of the following:
1. Concern that the group is deemed deviant and is likely to have a negative effect on society.
2. Hostility toward the group increases as do divisions of “us” and “them.”
3. Concern does not need to be nationwide, but there is enough of a consensus to be thought to be a threat to society.
4. Laws and policies are disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
5. Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as a new story catches media attention.

Let’s take a recent example of undocumented immigrants. President Trump casts Mexican immigrants as deviant, causing harm to America. He remarked “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He fans the flames of hostility and creates divisions between “us” and “them.” “These aren’t people. These are animals. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are.” Many would say that immigration laws, policies and proposals (border walls) are disproportionate to the actual threat.

Goode and Ben-Yehuda say “the fears and concerns underlying moral panics are said to be part and parcel of the human condition as expression of human frailty. All societies have them. We’ve seen them before and we’ll see them again. Let’s learn from history and avoid irrational and unjustified responses. The women of Salem were not witches. Crack cocaine is not better or worse than other substances of abuse, and people who use it should not be punished with longer sentences than other groups of people. We now know that “crack babies” are most often indistinguishable from babies not born to women who used crack during their pregnancies. “Welfare queens” are a myth. And there is no “gay agenda”.

We can be alarmed, be concerned, and be cautious. But let’s not panic. Panic produces outcomes such as separating children from their parents. I’m confident that Americans will deeply regret this policy, and their complicity, one day.

“Moral panic” tends to create immoral outcomes. Don’t get swept up by irrational fear.

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