What Are Moral Panics?

In the article “The Social Construction of Drug Scares,” sociologist Craig Reinarmar defines moral panics as a ‘bogeyman’ ideologically construed around “a wide array of preexisting public problems” implying that it is an artificial phenomenon (Reinarmar 1994:156). In the article, Reinarmar recalls the history of the so-called drug scares and related alcohol problem that were the reasons for the Temperance movement. He explains that a group of people of any size ranging from a small community to the nation perceive something as a threat and in response demand some ‘action’ from the authorities trying to get rid of it. Anything can become a threat starting from substances like drugs and alcohol to disliked groups of people like Gypsies, Jews, Christians or Pagans. There are different elements of moral panics including a lack of hard evidence, media magnification, moral entrepreneurs and others. Sociologists regard the phenomena of moral panics primarily as ‘constructed’.

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Explaining the history of drug scares in the US, Reinamar points out that “they are relatively autonomous from whatever drug-related problems exist or are said to exist” (Reinarmar 1994:156). Usually moral panics appear as a subconscious response to a changing political and economic environment of the country. For example, drinking as a problem was brought to public attention in the late eighteenth century when middle-class white Protestants felt threatened by Catholic immigrants who came from Europe to work at factories. Despite both groups being Christians, their religious outlooks and approaches to life were radically different and the battle against the drinking problem was “over whose morality would be the dominant morality in America” (Reinarmar 1994:156). The Protestant logics won because temperance and longer working hours could bring more profit whereas Catholics tended not to overwork and relax afterwards. Reinarmar explains that moral panic was so successful because it united “claims and interest” and made the alcohol problem “a scapegoat for most of the nation’s poverty, crime, moral degeneracy, “broken” families, illegitimacy, unemployment, and personal and business failure” (Reinarmar 1994:156). However, in reality each of these problems has a set of various reasons both personal and social, which could be solved only with the help of the state.

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Similarly, drug scare is also a moral panic construed as a response to increased unemployment at the end of the nineteenth century and a need to compete with Chinese immigrants. In all cases of moral panics, the threatening element has been present for a long time and once something attracts people’s attention, they decide that they have found something or someone who can play the role of a scapegoat. For example, in order to combat drug usage the anti-opium den law was passed, which was very narrow and directed primarily at opium dens owned by Chinese immigrants whereas other types of drugs did not stir any agitation (Reinarmar 1994:157). Cocaine became the focus of public attention only when African American males of the working class origin began taking it. Similarly, racial tension was at the center of a drug scare because in order to raise public’s attention officials began mass media campaign claiming that drugged black males raped white women (Reinarmar 1994:158). On the same note, a law against marijuana was directed primarily against Mexican Americans, crack scare was directed against poor minority while the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Control Act was directed overall at the middle-class youth who did not comply with society’s middle-class values (Reinarmar 1994:159). In all cases, new drug laws allowed the authorities to lock up unwanted groups of people and report to a society that the work was in progress and the state was solving the core problem.

Drug scare, as much as any other moral panic, is a result of a construed action that follows a social script. In order to be accepted in a society, moral panic should have “a kernel of truth”, which in case of a drug scare is the fact that people have always used mind-changing substances. Consequently, it can cause addiction and yet it cannot be responsible for all social issues at hand (Reinarmar 1994:159). As a rule, moral panic is picked up by mass media who hyperbolize and exaggerate it. Mass media often collaborates with politic-moral entrepreneurs. Mass media needs experts’ opinions and explanations to present as reliable. In other cases of moral panics, moral entrepreneurs are enough but drug scares need the presence of political figures (Reinarmar 1994:160). Similarly, professional interest groups join and arrange organizations to combat a moral panic. Furthermore, Reinarmar points out that for a moral panic to be effective it should be included into a larger historical conflict. For example, the Temperance movement had been active for several years before the Prohibition law was passed because at that time America had a large influx of Russian and Mexican immigrants fleeing from their revolutions, which created a threat of losing jobs for Americans (Reinarmar 1994:160).

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Thus, a threat makes a society search for a scapegoat, which is usually a minority and/or a denigrated group of people. For example, an ethnic minority. At some point in history, Christians were at the center of moral panics, then pagans, then Jews (Victor 1990:66). In the period of the Prohibition law, it was the working class white Catholics, then Chinese immigrants and the working class Mexicans and African Americans in the last decades.

The Constitution of the Moral Community

In all sociological materials related to deviance, stigma and moral panics, one can easily see that the role of a society is overbearing. Only social response can designate something as a deviation and initiate a moral panic within the community on any scale. Obviously, a social response cannot emerge randomly if all people suddenly decide that homosexuality is a sin or that Chinese people are filthy. Usually, it takes some people to play the roles of entrepreneurs and the community to respond. In order to make it a larger scale, organizations and professional interest groups should contribute. Therefore, the constitution of the moral community should include a community of any scale ranging from a small town to a country, moral entrepreneurs, and professional interest groups, who supply expert opinion and create context and theoretical material to support moral panics.

Commonly, unless something is named it is rather difficult to explain to another person what it is. Similarly, a problem is not a problem unless someone calls it so. In order to make something a problem, it should get attention of many people or the whole society. In Outsiders, Howard S. Becker gives an example of an aboriginal man who has lived in incestuous relations. Probably it lasted for a long time and relatives were aware of it, but it was not a problem until the clan chiefs found out about it. In this community, clan incest was a crime and the man was forced to commit a suicide. As long as no one has knew about their incestuous relations the couple had no problems, but once revealed the community had to name it a deviation because incest was a taboo (Becker 1963:122). Thus, moral entrepreneurs can initiate some action but they need support from the community.

An example of a moral panic involving a large part of the nation is Satan panics of the 1980s in the US. Jeffrey Victor’s “Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend” provides a detailed account of Satan panics’ formation and explains what underlies them and how they spread across the whole country. In a response to social and economic stress, people were eager to gossip about missing children and satanic rituals. Drawing on a long tradition of Devil’s opposition to God and its different manifestations, people’s minds were ready to accept the information about Satan cults. Therefore, disturbing social changes and remnants of religious upbringing served the breeding grounds for transforming urban legends into a Satan panic. Thus, “the story functions a collective metaphor to express a group’s or a society’s anxieties about its future” (Victor 1990:60). Parents always worry and when they hear about missing children and Satan cults nearby they lose their ability to think critically.

However, in order to prolong a moral panic and cover larger territories, moral entrepreneurs get involved. Any sensational stories find their way to mass media. The audience sees the event in the news and believes it even more. Therefore, moral panics spread out this way. Mass media finds experts, specialists and Satan hunters in case of such panic, who eagerly tell the audience how to exorcise devil and save victims, and simultaneously survivors appear to tell about their experience and confirm the rumors. Consequently, such activities heighten the moral panic and the community demands action from the authorities. The next step is the emergence of professional interest groups. During the Satan panic in the 1980s, rumors of satanic cults, their bloody rituals and child abuse initiated conferences all over the country and parents, police and social workers participated and learned about this information in detail hence becoming experts able to further educate about Satan cults. Victor points out that ‘survivors’ who testify their sufferings from the cult and subsequent giving birth and sacrificing their babies are oftentimes mental patients suffering from bipolar disorders (Victor 1990:68). Such testimonies and claims serve the grounds for the public to believe experts’ opinions having no hard evidence and research to prove them right (Victor 1990:69).

During the Satan panic of 1980s, no large organizations were formed to deal with this threat. However, throughout the decade, conferences about satanic cults and ritual child abuse gathered and churches organized prayer meetings. Extensive mass media coverage sustained mass madness. Many details and witnesses give the Satan panic plausible features and authorities take advantage of the situation. Religious organizations promote their values while political figures get national support by endorsing the situation, which makes the community susceptible to manipulation in the long run. Overall, the Satan panic has negative consequences. In particular, delinquent youth plays along rumors and commits crimes imitating Satan cults whereas people or companies falsely blamed in Satanism have financial losses as others stop buying from them. Finally, fear makes parents worry for their children even more and they restrict their freedom in various ways like prohibiting Halloween celebrations or removing some books blamed in occultism and Satanism.

Therefore, the moral community needs several components in order to exercise control over people. Starting from an individual moral entrepreneur an issue requires an endorsement from the whole community as well as support from mass media and professional interest groups in order to turn a phenomenon or an event into a moral panic or deviance.

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