Moral Panics: a useful political tool?

In 2010 I found myself in the middle of a moral panic, so began reading around the subject and watching how moral panics unfold. The panic was around East End strip pubs where I worked and that had been in the area for decades. Usually family businesses, run by the matriarch of the family, and an accepted part of the East End. Then a panic hit and suddenly these places were the gates of hell and all that was evil in the world emanated from them. People who had previously been oblivious to them were suddenly on a crusade. I went to a ‘debate’ in October 2011, called ‘Lap-Dancing: a choice or exploitation’ which demonstrated the mechanisms of power and politics perfectly and shocked me.

A small lobby group whips up fear until they create a panic. The narrative then moves on to ‘Something must be done!/Won’t anyone think of the children!’ and when it gets to this point you have manipulated your audience correctly and you will be able to legislate. But there was also a lot of manipulating being done to those who were creating the moral panic. A group that called it’s self Communities Against People Exploitation, that claimed to be helping the East London community, had a ‘feminist’ spokeswoman. This woman would give the full dramatic performance about the evils of ‘pornification’, ‘objectification’, ‘sexualisation’ throwing out all the fashionable buzzwords to appeal to her audience. However a little investigation using the Land Registry and the good old Internet showed that she was not running this organization. It was actually run by a man who lived in leafy Surrey but, surprise surprise, owned property right next to one of the strip pubs he was trying to close down. From this moment on I lost what little respect I still had for the 3rd wave feminist movement. Was this all about property development and investment? Were they being manipulated by the ‘patriarchy’ that they so despised in order for that ‘patriarchy’ to make money? Were they complicit or ignorant?

So it seems that moral panics can be very useful. They are generally created by pressure groups and lobby groups, often through good intentions and a genuine trigger, which is then picked up by media as they have a lot of space to fill. Column inches, 24-hour news, websites etc. There is a lot of content to be generated so even if the journalist or editor doesn’t really believe in the panic it’s their job to explore all the angles. They run opposing editorials asking ‘Is this right? Is this wrong?, look for the human angle, can they get a confessional piece from someone involved? Run the story for a bit as it gives you something to talk about, to fill airtime with, to fill column inches. These mechanisms of the media are borne out of necessity but do our governments look at these panics and view them as useful? Are they a very convenient smoke screen? Can they use them to implement certain policies that the public may find unpalatable?

The panic of the moment is porn on the internet, the very thing that drove the early development of the internet, and it makes sense if you look at it in an historical and political big picture way. So let us look at the timeline of the last 3 years, the changes that have happened and the role of the Internet in all of this. Three years is a really short space of time for governments to lose control and I’d take a bet that there have been some fraught behind closed doors meetings.

1.The first strand is that too much classified information has been freely distributed online beginning with Bradley Manning. The decorated US private released around 750,000 restricted documents to Wikileaks causing major embarrassment to the United States government and many of its allies. Including of course the UK but also allies such as Saudi Arabia when it was discovered they had been urging the west to go to war with their Middle Eastern nemesis Iran. Then between April and November 2010 Wikileaks and news outlets around the world published these documents to all their readers and viewers. To these news outlets this was like striking gold (or oil). Julian Assange is now running from the US government rightly fearing a fate similar to Bradley Manning. So first it was Bradley and Julian and then when all had seemed calm Edward Snowden struck. Releasing all the details of the Prism surveillance operation that included America spying on it’s European allies and once again causing great embarrassment to the US and UK governments. (As GCHQ had also been implicated.)

I would take a guess that western governments and especially the UK and US governments are no longer enamored with the idea of a free and open Internet.

2.The second political and historical strand that has been a feature of the past three years is revolution. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly ignited the Arab world into demanding freedom and democracy. From the success of Tunisia to the disaster of Syria, the Arab world has been finding it’s voice, and this has been coordinated on social media. Syria has been especially bad as Iran and Hezbollah are now involved and this could result in years of trouble. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Buzzfeed have allowed those protesting against their governments to organize and sometimes win. Western politicians have been watching, and saying carefully vague sound bites in support for democracy, as long-term allies like Mubarak were toppled. Even prosperous and relatively secular Turkey has seen a popular uprising that no mainstream media reported until the din on social media got so loud they couldn’t ignore it.

I wonder if there is a general fear in governments that us normal people are starting to get a little too knowledgeable and possibly feeling a little too empowered?

3.The third strand in recent years is the recession, which has hit Europe particularly hard. Countries like Greece are languishing in a terrible depression with lots of anger amongst people and extremist groups growing popular. There has also been a raising of awareness in the United States with the Occupy movement starting in November 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. One of the causes of the Arab Spring was youth unemployment and cost of living. The world is getting more and more populous and those at the top are not releasing any wealth so an anger is fermenting. Many young people in Europe are unemployed and over qualified with no hope of attaining the future they dreamed of. What if revolution is not confined to the Arab world? Which can be understood in terms of freedom, what if a European nation is the next to fall? Then it is no longer an ‘us and them’ situation it becomes something bigger? Maybe something about social justice in general?

Again, I can’t imagine our governments feeling very easy with all of this anger, and the information in the hands of the masses.

Information, revolution and recession; it’s like a perfect storm of poverty, over population, inequality, empowerment and access to all information and the ability to communicate it. I’m pretty sure these three strands have made our leaders feel rather uneasy. So what are the governments of the world going to do about this potential dangerous set of circumstances that have evolved in only three short years? Conveniently for the UK Government, the ‘sexualisation’ moral panic has been rumbling away for around a decade, and conveniently it has reached the ‘Something must be done!/Won’t anyone think of the children!’ stage. The groundwork has already been laid which is very handy indeed. So could it be that David Cameron’s recent attack on Internet porn is in fact a smoke screen?

The porn panic has been fuelled by supposedly well-meaning but extremely foolish people and lobby groups and will now come back to bite. After all we are not party to the late night phone calls from Washington that may go something like this,

‘The United States may be unable to work with the United Kingdom unless …… (insert instructions here)’.

It seems like this has everything to do with limiting access to information in general and protecting the power structure. The clamp down on Internet porn is, in my opinion, all about censoring the Internet brought to the fore due to recent world events and absolutely nothing to do with protecting the innocence of children. It may also be run by Chinese Internet filtering firm Huawei, who are no doubt censorship experts.

So beware of moral panics, as there may be a hidden agenda behind them. All is not what it seems on the surface and be aware of new ones forming. What is the end game of these panics and who exactly benefits from them?

14 thoughts on “Moral Panics: a useful political tool?”

  1. 4. The copyright industry and the media industry lobbyists who profit from it would like nothing better than to lock down, monitor and control as much data flow on the internet as possible. Worries about porn nicely shoehorn-in measures that can and will later be used to satisfy their demands.

  2. “From this moment on I lost what little respect I still had for the 3rd wave feminist movement.”

    I completely agree with you about how moral panic is being used for political gain but to make such a sweeping judgement about feminism (or the third wave) based on the interests of one woman seems a bit unreasonable.

    1. Unfortunately, the radfems do seem to have dominated the vocabulary of contemporary feminism to such an extent – and, in the process, presented ideological constructs as givens – that any feminist who challenges certain memes faces a serious backlash from the ‘liberal’ sheep within the movement who’ve allowed this to happen in the first place.

    2. I’m increasingly sceptical that 3rd-wave feminism is definable at all. 1st and 2nd wave had concrete goals and ideas. Post-1980ish there has been no one set of ideas that could be described as feminism, and no single movement that could be clearly identified. Just the label, “feminist”, claimed by competing groups.

    3. It came on the back of years of attack and similar madness. This particular ‘feminist’ (inverted commas there for a reason) was a pretty silly person and I have no doubt that others are far more intelligent 3rd wave feminists. However after witnessing the drama and hysteria of many of these ‘feminists’ performance/debate style I was horrified. It’s frustrating that the once honourable mantle of feminism should be hijacked by people who’d make Mary Whitehouse proud.

      Why do they have such a problem with sex and erotica?!?!?! I’m baffled!

      Years ago when they first started attacking us, we all naively thought ‘Oh no, they’ve misunderstood! We just need to go talk to them, we’re strong women I’m sure we’ll have a lot of common ground.’ However they would not speak to us and intensified their attack. Which is a shame because I still believe that way back then we would have found common ground.

      Also – nerd time – I just listened to this podcast which starts off with the reformation and one of the main drivers of that was the invention of the printing press. All that information suddenly being spread through the population made Europe go BOOM! There are similarities to today’s internet where suddenly there is all this information in the hands of the people and it causes change and disruption.

      It’s long but well worth listening to: http://www.dancarlin.com//disp.php/hharchive/Show-48—Prophets-of-Doom/Luther-Reformation-history

      1. It’s no wonder that Camille Paglia has repositioned herself as a ‘post-feminist’, in the face of the unappetising vegetable soup which passes for the 3rd wave…

  3. There are two clear necessary elements to achieve & maintain power, these are righteous indignation towards self-evident oppression to develop a basis of angry passion and a clear enemy upon whom that anger can be expended.
    The Nazis created the expanded myths of the Jews & Gypsies and their alleged impact on German society (all BS of course) and they then directed the anger at these unfortunate people with the well known consequences. While “FEMINISM” may not be calling for genocide it does seem to want to exert societal control at a level the Gestapo would have been envious of (let’s not forget that in 1943 German women married to Jewish men demonstrated publicly in Berlin against deportations & the Nazis backed down).
    Like anti-Semites before them, who asserted the right to define who is a Jew, FEMINISTS assert the right to define what is oppressive or exploitation of women, even if women willingly & freely participate in that activity.
    & what is left for FEMINISTS to argue about really? It’s illegal to discriminate against women and there are laws that effectively discriminate against men. More public money is spent on women than men at every stage of life. Women are more successful in education and in some commercial sectors. There are debates and proposals about making it mandatory to have a certain percentage of all company directorships filled by women – though oddly there are no similar demands that where women dominate in employment there should be specific provision for men.
    I suspect that like the Nazis before them, no matter how many demands society acquiesces to FEMINISTS will always want more.

  4. The issue of Bradley Manning’s theft of classified material from his employers and distribution to a foreign national is a serious military and employment issue. Many public sector employees in uniformed and non-uniformed roles have access to a vast amount of restricted material that is not appropriate for distribution to anyone not cleared to view that material, let alone a foreign national. But much of the assessment of Bradley Manning’s actions has been through a filter of prejudice.

    Let us consider what would our reaction have been if Bradley Manning had not been a US soldier but a UK social services data processor with access to the Child Protection Register etc etc, and that “in the public interest” he handed over the entire data sets to an overseas media body which published it all on the web.

    Who doubts that the outrage over the betrayal of confidentiality would ring out loud and Mr Manning would be in the dock, condemned in every quarter? At what risk would have Mr, Manning the social services employee have placed very vulnerable children? There would be howls demanding that he be hung for his actions, because we can all readily see the potential consequences.

    Bradley Manning is a professional soldier who willingly enlisted in the US Army knowing fully what the terms and conditions of service are. He swore he would uphold US law in all its forms. Not only did he break the law by stealing the data and passing it to Mr. Assange, he broke his oath. Whether we like momentarily like it or not, the corner stone of much of the public sector is based on individuals keeping their word to maintain confidentiality. Once that breaks down then virtually nothing is sacrosanct, and many of the protections we rely on fall apart.

    There is an issue of why Pfc Manning was assigned to that role in light of his known psychological state, but with an over-stretched US Army perhaps it is not ultimately surprising.

    1. Do I detect moral outrage?

      His oath was “to defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic.”

      Yes and “to obey those appointed over him.”

      Which takes precedence?

      Protect the Constitution, first, last and always.

      Instilling “moral panics” is just a mechanism of communitarian manipulation used against the mentally incompetent to gain control.

      The lack of moral courage is proof of mental incompetency.

      The willingness of Manning and Snowden to prove “the emperor wears no clothes” is testament to their moral courage. Foolish? Perhaps, but courageous none the less.

      1. The issue is that neither Manning nor Snowden have the insight to evaluate the consequences of their actions. So while handing over data to the media or foreign governments may seem like a noble thing, it may also have far reaching consequences for individuals beyond the ken of either of the “whistleblowers”.

        The problem seems to me is that since the end of the Cold War we have lost a tangible enemy and the obvious rationale for a lot of intelligence activity. The internet has fostered an increasing distrust in government and its agencies and an increase in irrational ideas.

        However for covert intelligence gathering and secret data management as occurs in other parts of government where we can readily see the objectives, such as the extensive databases kept on potentially violent and abusive individuals, we seem to understand better the reasons for secrecy and the risks.

        I feel sorry for both Manning & Snowden because I don’t believe they really thought out what they were doing. manning is now in prison and Snowden is effectively trapped in Russia. Yet neither is an unintelligent individual.

        The journalists are lapping up the money and status they have obtained – does Assange really give a damn for Manning if it means having to put aside his over-weaning egotism? Glenn Greenwald makes his vainglorious threats to release more data that will have long term harm for UK security after his partner is held at Heathrow. Mr. Greenwald conveniently overlooks the fact that he told the US media that his partner would be couriering material – how dumb can anyone get. But it makes good copy.

        As someone who formerly investigated whistleblowing complaints I believe that the UK govt should set up an independent office to carry out investigation into serious whistleblowing complaints and have the authority to enter any property (including all govt agencies), arrest any person identified in an investigation and seize all their property. While that may seem draconian, it is the absence of such a powerful independent body that allows so many corrupt senior public figures get away with their misdeeds and freely destroy the lives of complainants.

        1. “The problem seems to me is that since the end of the Cold War we have lost a tangible enemy and the obvious rationale for a lot of intelligence activity. The internet has fostered an increasing distrust in government and its agencies and an increase in irrational ideas.”

          You make that statement as though the government was the main repository of reason in this country, when it’s clear not only from the contents of confidential documents which have leaked or have passed the 30 year limit that this is often far from being the case – and don’t even get me started with the many obviously nonsensical public statements made by politicians and senior civil servants!

          “As someone who formerly investigated whistleblowing complaints I believe that the UK govt should set up an independent office to carry out investigation into serious whistleblowing complaints and have the authority to enter any property (including all govt agencies), arrest any person identified in an investigation and seize all their property.”

          In other words, create an unaccountable government agency with unlimited powers, with no checks and balances? Sure, because those powers would NEVER be open to abuse, would they?!

          1. I am not so naive to imagine that government is a repository of good or right. However neither can the media in all its forms, especially where it is used a platform for the egos of certain individuals. However by & large government in UK does broadly seek to do the right thing, but government is vast and naturally there exist subcultures where very disturbing levels of corruption exist.
            But we do expect government to act well and to be guardian of a whole variety of confidential matters. The issue with Manning is not that he released embarrassing videos of US forces “murdering” Iraqis, but that he took and passed on vast quantities of confidential and secret documents in such a volume that he could not have reviewed them and was therefore no able to claim that each & every document was released because it was in the public interest or evidence of crime.
            As for an independent investigatory body to investigate government, I did not imagine an unanswerable entity. Rather an entity that is independent of the arms of government that have demonstrated that they are incapable of investigating mismanagement etc themselves. How many incidents have there been where police forces have been investigated by other police forces, only to find no evidence of crime when a decade or so later lo & behold the evidence appears that shows the original offence. The problem is that many arms of government are profoundly resistant to self-examination and demanding high standards of their management. The absence of a serious threat means that every year hundreds of individuals get away with things for which minimally they should face serious disciplinary action.

  5. Just picked this up on the day Cameron makes the “moral case” for bombing Syria. I thought I’d reproduce my post on the Indy website for your thoughts. A few questions that (I think) need answers before yet more people get killed.

    Oh boy! Mr Cameron is in “no doubt”, is he? Does he have a “dodgy dossier” to support his case? And why are the weapons inspectors (again) not being allowed to complete their work? In case they find something that casts doubt on Mr Cameron’s certainty?
    And, while I realise it’s consistent CIA policy to support Al Qaida (after all, the CIA effectively gave birth to it in Afghanistan many years ago), why are we now supporting it? We’ve seen what Al Qaida is capable of, after all.
    And it’s “not about regime change”? So, what does bombing things achieve, then? Apart from saving Obama’s face, obviously.

    1. Just read the piece in more detail, and Syria is a classic moral panic. We are now at the “something must be done”, and “think of the million children in refugee camps” stage. I’m still confused as to how a bombing campaign will get them back home and in peace, though.

      PS: replying to myself: how sad is that?!?

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