What, me worry?

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Terms such as ‘moral panic’ and ‘folk devil’ – taken from the sociology of deviance and ‘labelling theory’ – are increasingly being deployed as catchphrases in debates about risk assessment, product liability and consumer regulation.

Who is this rhetoric aimed at and how does it work?

It’s rare enough for a phrase, having originated in one narrow corner of the academy, to make the leap across disciplinary boundaries and enter into broader scholarly usage.

It’s even less common for such a phrase to wander unchecked from the pages of scholarly journals, pass clean through the porter’s lodge and emerge, blinking like a mole, as an everyday watchword or rallying cry, borrowed regularly for legal advocacy and general journalistic usage.

To do so, such a favoured trope must possess (as both ‘moral panic’ and ‘folk devil’ do in spades) an uncommon sort of vividness and memorability. It must convey the speaker’s specialized knowledge while being intelligible to all. If it comes from the humanities or social sciences, it will lack the ready-made authority and easy glamour commanded by technical terms from the natural sciences. Its hopes for lexical survival rest on its figurative qualities, used for persuasive or rhetorical purposes.

But it can’t be functional for just any old end. To thrive in the world of opinion columns and other centralized, commercially-owned, advertising-driven communication platforms, it must serve the purposes of the powerful (whose conscious contrivance is not necessarily involved – though it can’t be ruled out).

And when such a term originates, as in this case, from putatively ‘left-wing’ scholarship, its suitability for use in mainstream outlets of political and cultural debate requires the fulfillment of one final condition.

The loanword must appeal to native speakers of the donor language from which it is borrowed.

Thus ‘moral panic’ and related terms are used, quite cynically, by the sort of people who blog for the Volokh Conspiracy, work at George Mason University, sideline at Cato or the Manhattan Institute, and who favour a jurisprudential doctrine placing property rights ahead of labour regulations and consumer-protection torts.

They seek, by employing such terms, to persuade a particular audience.

The latter is made up mostly of left-liberal people, who may have studied a bit of criminology, sociology or cultural studies, or who otherwise have acquired a stock of half-remembered phrases (e.g. ‘moral panic’) from reading group-appropriate opinion columns, bien-pensant editorials, reportage from approved periodicals, think-tank publications, and Serious and Responsible blogs.

These familiar phrases are supposed, when heard, to function as cues prompting such audience members to apply the appropriate mental response. Even if he knows nothing else, the ideal listener knows this: A person like me – progressive, tolerant and urbane – doesn’t go in for moral panics! In responding thus to the speaker’s appeal, the listener preserves his in-group identity, and signals tribal membership to his peers (an important goal in this milieu). The speaker meanwhile gains an ally.

In its original formulation, a ‘moral panic’ was said to occur when some behaviour common to (usually) juvenile ‘deviants’ was ‘presented in a stylized or stereotypical fashion by the mass media’, the latter driven by an ‘institutionalized need to create news’, then defined as a threat to the adult social order by ‘editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people… agents of social control, or law enforcement, lawmakers and politicians, and action groups’.

The objects of moral panics, in the concept’s initial guise, included the behaviour of Mods and Rockers, hippies, Hells Angels, paedophiles and Teddy Boys. The latter were then labelled (so the theory went) as folk devils.

Since these categories were not especially analytically rigorous to begin with, they were easily transferable and soon applied, often in absurd fashion, to various types of people and behaviour.

But in the latest twist, moral panic and related terms have been applied to an entirely different class of phenomena. Previously the term was used to describe hysteria surrounding a ‘condition, episode, person or group of persons’.

But moral panic, in its new sense, may now refer to ‘excessively’ critical treatment (by members of the public, concerned scholars or some figures in the mass media) of a saleable good or service, or to ‘disproportionately’ negative discussion of an industry or sector. It may describe a wave of litigation, criminal proceedings or government-imposed regulations. And, rather than the object of a moral panic being (as in the term’s original guise) a threat to a society’s prevailing norms, these new objects may simply be considered hazardous to the health, safety or environment of a population.

(This new usage, as I’ll explain below, originated with Stuart Hall, Martin Jacques and the other ‘Gramscian’ Eurocommunists at the CPGB’s Marxism Today. During the 1980s this Stalinist group brokered the British Labour Party’s final accommodation with the market economy. To achieve this reconciliation its academic ideologues came up with a less critical, more ‘nuanced’ analysis of market consumption).

Here is Norm Keith, a Canadian OHS lawyer:

It is suggested that corporations, especially large, publicly traded corporations, are easy targets of moral panic, leading to a more stringent punishment. When organisations are blamed for unsafe drinking water, workplace deaths and loss of one’s life savings, strong legislative and enforcement are demanded by the media and the public. Since a corporation, apart from directors and officers, cannot be incarcerated for crimes, the public and media may mischaracterise the corporation as above or beyond the law. This leads to a general distain [sic] for the entity itself, even though the corporation as a separate legal entity has tremendous economic, social and public importance and benefit to modern society. The process of labelling a corporation as powerful, unaccountable and socially irresponsible fuels media, public and political outrage and action to prosecute corporations. When the rhetoric of social panic threatens perceived order in modern society, strong political action often follows.

This is an extreme example of an obviously silly argument unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn’t already possess strong pro-corporate leanings.

But what about when similar arguments are employed to deter criticism of an industry, company or cultural product that itself dons the mantle of rebellion and plucky anti-corporatism? In that case, they may successfully persuade some well-intentioned people with vaguely anti-establishment agendas and ‘progressive’ political leanings.

The following example comes from Robert Corn-Revere, adjunct at the Cato Institute and counsel for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Here he describes a Californian law (struck down on First Amendment grounds by the US Supreme Court) which restricted sales of violent video games to minors:

The California law represents a long tradition of suppressing media popular among the young. These recurring campaigns are typified by exaggerated claims of adverse effects of popular culture on youth based on pseudoscientific assertions of harm that are little more than thinly veiled moral or editorial preferences. Such censorship crusades have been mounted against dime novels, ragtime music, cinema, comic books, television, and, now, video games.

This phenomenon even has a name among social scientists; it is called a “moral panic”…

Here is Steven Pinker, writing in defence of violent video games and other ‘new media’ in a New York Times op-ed piece:

New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.

So too with electronic technologies. PowerPoint, we’re told, is reducing discourse to bullet points. Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrinking our attention spans.

But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously.

And here is another prominent defender of violent video games, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M, Christopher J. Ferguson:

We know that new media experience cycles of moral panic during which they are blamed for all manner of social ills. In the 19th century dime novels were imagined harmful for young women who, it was believed, could not distinguish reality from fiction. In the mid-20th century a psychiatrist testified before the US Congress that Batman and Robin were secretly homosexual and would lead youth not only into delinquency but the homosexual lifestyle.

Further panics have surfaced over everything from waltzes, jazz music, Elvis Presley and comic books to Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, rap and now video games. In retrospect those panics appear absurd, but people can always think of reasons why new media is “different”. Movies were visual, television was available every day, Harry Potter made witchcraft fun, Dungeons and Dragons was interactive (in fact more interactive than video games). Nothing came of those panics and nothing is coming of video games. Our kids today are the least violent, most civically involved, least likely to use drugs, least likely to get pregnant, most likely to graduate from secondary education compared to the past several generations. The VVG [violent video game] issue is a crusade in desperate search of a crisis.

There are countless other examples from similarly dubious sources.

Frank Furedi is academic guru for a nest of corporate-sponsored contrarians, and erstwhile ‘Marxists’, at Spiked Online. He and his epigones are preocupied by, and relentlessly denounce, the ‘culture of fear’ and ‘moral panics’ incited by mass media outlets and paternalistic authorities. Such panics, they claim, cause unnecessary popular agitation about global warming, obesity, tobacco consumption, video games and the individual’s right to express his lifestyle preferences and consumption tastes in the manner he judges best.

Spiked’s message – mysteriously given a platform in the mass-media outlets it constantly bemoans –  is obviously crafted with attention to the needs of its corporate donors, then given a libertarian sheen.

As with many deleterious fashions in contemporary thought, this usage of ‘moral panic’ originated with Stuart Hall and the British Stalinists at Marxism Today.

During the late 1970s, Hall’s Policing the Crisis had denounced what he described as a conservative ‘moral panic’ around street mugging. This was incorporated, during the 1980s, into Hall’s analysis of the ‘New Times’ that had dawned under Thatcherism.

In the new ‘authoritarian populist’ regime, Hall saw moral panic elevated into a permanent state of affairs, in which new avenues for consumer choice coexisted with ‘law and order’ scares. Hall and the other ‘Gramscian’ Eurocommunists encouraged the Labour Party, with its proletarian base having supposedly been eroded, to ‘modernize’ and ‘learn from Thatcherism’.

Labour should acknowledge the forms of individual expression granted to individuals by the ‘post-Fordist’ market economy, and focus on identity politics and ‘new movements’ (several of these CPGB figures were close to party leader Neil Kinnock and helped to lay the ground for Tony Blair’s New Labour project).

Marxism Today thus provided its readers with guides to ‘post-Fordist shopping outlets’ like Toys ‘R’ Us, and Hall indulged in fascinated apologias for ‘consumer culture’:

Commodified consumption? Trivial pursuits? Yes, much of the time. But underlying that, have we missed the opening up of the individual to the transforming rhythms and forces of modern material life? Have we become bewitched by who, in the short run, reaps the profits from these transactions, and missed the deep democratisation of culture which is also part of their hidden agenda? Can a socialism of the 21st century revive, or even survive, which is wholly cut off from the landscapes of popular pleasures, however contradictory a terrain they are? Are we thinking dialectically enough?

(Of course, the postmodern Stalinists’ opposition to ‘moral panics’ didn’t stop Beatrix Campbell from joining, together with psychologists and feminist social workers, in a crusade against ‘satanic ritual child abuse’ in Nottingham.)

Several generations of humanities and social-science students have been taught these Eurocommunist-cum-New-Labour precepts as the sophisticated ‘left-wing’ view of culture, shorn of elitism and attuned to popular sensibility. A ‘progressive’ attitude towards ‘modernity’ thus excuses the renunciation of all critical faculties.

The tern ‘moral panic’ tars its object with the brush of fogeyish wowserism associated with the likes of Allan Bloom (or Fredric Wertham). And it reserves for the defender of ‘new media’ a levelheaded sophistication, a cool immunity to the conservative hysteria and unreason which swirl around him.

It is calculated to appeal to a particular bien-pensant middle-class milieu: a sizeable bulk of the academic world, the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants and architects), and the chattering classes (social workers, journalists, artists, etc).

The ideological dimension on which this group defines itself politically is given by the terms of the Culture Wars. Mention of ‘moral panics’, and to conservative strictures against rock music. etc., refers unmistakably to the New Criterion of Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, and to Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Presumably, for many who dwell in such circles, talk of the perniciousness of this or that cultural product automatically evokes memories of old battles, and prompts them to apply a familiar schema by which the speaker is mentally coded as a hidebound conservative (and habitual basher of academics) to whom no attention should be paid.

This is why none of them needs to go and read the scholarly research on the effects of violent video games, for example. The possibility that entertainment media (Hall’s ‘landscape of popular pleasures’) relentlessly brutalizes its audience is simply ruled out as appallingly unsophisticated.

The answers are thus known in advance for they are determined by one’s tastes, which in turn are a way of signalling group membership. Professional training has taught some the habit of ‘reading ahead’, whereby a piece of evidence or line of argument is immediately searched for the conclusion it is supposed to support. If the latter is deemed uncongenial (or alternatively pleasing) then the premises, and any supporting evidence, are rejected (accepted) accordingly. Prior probabilities and very general, foundational beliefs are arranged such that contradictory evidence is not allowed to impinge.

This is understandable, and might in other circumstances be forgiveable: nobody is a perfect Bayesian, and few of us are without character-defining commitments that lead occasionally to intransigence. Except that the purpose behind this resistance to evidence and reason is the signalling of correct thoughts, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

More on this to follow.

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8 Responses to “What, me worry?”

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    […] of the figures quoted in a previous post – Steven Pinker, Christopher J. Ferguson and Robert Corn-Revere –  lent their […]

  3. Australian Stalinist academics face the 1980s « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] recently described how prominent contributors to the CPGB’s Eurocommunist monthly Marxism Today – the cultural […]

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    […] always been necessary for academics to ‘pay the piper’ (several of these, as mentioned previously, are standard Whiggish retorts, used habitually by those committed to a Panglossian accommodation […]

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    […] In response, some Democrat bloggers, posing as sophisticated aesthetes, have accused such critics of Zhdanovite philistinism, of ‘aesthetic Stalinism’ and of behaviour befitting ‘Bill Donoghue and the Catholic League’. (Nobody yet has applied the ‘moral panic’ label, whose use I described here.) […]

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    […] Bleating about usurpation of the author’s property rights, he declares, is little more than moral panic. […]

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