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?

The Guardian And The “Sexualisation” Panic

According to Wikipedia, a moral panic is defined as: “…an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.”

Most societies experience panics on a regular basis, but Britain, thanks to the trashy level of our press, perhaps experiences more than most countries. Moral panics have a simple purpose: to convince a citizenry that something must be done. And that something is almost invariably bad, when viewed in hindsight.

A good moral panic needs a simple message so that commentators can easily push it into the public mind: a good panic needs good branding. Thirty years ago, a moral panic was in full swing under the label “Video Nasties”. For those who don’t remember, a Video Nasty was a term coined by the media for what we now call a horror video. Led by morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the media and politicians set out to convince the public that, unless something is done, British society would be engulfed by a tsunami of torture, rape and murder. Something was done: the Video Recordings Act (1984) imposed on Britain the most draconian system of video censorship in the democratic world. The Video Nasties panic may have been subsequently exposed as a fuss over nothing, but the censorship system, run by the BBFC, still operates today.

The “Sexualisation” panic has been in full swing for five years or so, and is reaching a point of saturation; it is regularly repeated throughout the media, and has been adopted by politicians not just from the religious right, but also from the left. As I blogged a couple of years ago, Sexualisation is an almost meaningless and certainly unmeasurable concept. It was largely brought into the public consciousness in 2010 by an evidence-free government report which was (bizarrely) carried out by a Christian organisation. It has become an umbrella idea that encapsulates various morality causes including (but not limited to) censoring music videos, censoring pornography, removing bare breasts from the Sun newspaper, banning “lad’s mags”, shaming parents into dressing their children more “modestly”; in fact, it is used to attack any kind of sexual expression, or even innocent nudity. Those leading the panic – including the pro-censorship “feminist” group, Object, politicians, and Christian morality campaigners – have learned from Mary Whitehouse’s “Video Nasty” success, and are turning up the level of hysteria until the government is pressured into taking action.

The scary thing about Sexualisation (as opposed to Video Nasties) is that it is undefined and undefinable. Thus, when we reach the something must be done moment, that something will be sweeping and draconian. Given that Sexualisation is a “disease” that allegedly affects men, women, breasts, children, shops, TV, video, the Internet and even (shock horror!) high streets, the only valid response to it must be a cross-society attack on all sexual expression. Perhaps we need a Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice? That might work.

I’ve expressed my sadness before that the normally liberal-ish Guardian becomes conservative and censorious when sex is on the agenda. This week, The Guardian entered full moral panic mode by inviting “the public” to submit “sexualised imagery from the high street”. The question is, how does the Guardian decide what “sexualised imagery” is? I’ve walked down my high street today, and have seen the following:

  • Women in mini-skirts. Yes! Women are revealing not just their ankles, but their knees and their thighs!
  • Women revealing cleavage!! Low-cut tops are surely the devil’s work, designed to “objectify” breasts and thus cause men (who as we know, have literally no impulse control) to rape people.
  • A teenage girl in shorts and fishnets: because the perverts who see Sexualisation everywhere are particularly (and disturbingly) obsessed with the way children and teens dress.
  • Builders with no tops on: False alarm – topless men are actually OK, because the neo-Whitehouse crowd (in common with all morality campaigners) only want to cover female flesh. Men, of course, can dress however they like.

But I could find no recent explosion of “sexualised imagery”. Of course, there are porn mags, but there have always been porn mags; in fact, porn magazine sales have collapsed under the pressure of competition from DVD and the Internet. The term Sexualisation implies that things are changing for the worse. But unless I’m missing something big, they aren’t. Indeed, the debate has moved away from “harm” to the far broader measure of “causing offence” – and the reason for this is simple: the pro-censorship movement can provide no evidence of harm.

So why not submit your own images? Since the Guardian has joined the “anything that offends anybody must be bad” brigade, photograph things that might offend somebody and send them in. Seen gay men holding hands? Muslim women showing hair from under their hijab? Mixed-races couples kissing? All those things represent Sexualisation, and are offensive, right? To somebody?

As we are led headlong into a new wave of censorship, it’s saddening to see Mary Whitehouse’s Mediawatch-UK organisation joined in its endless morality campaigning by “feminists”; and the Daily Mail joined in its “cover up women” fetish by the Guardian. These are conservative times indeed.

Pornstars (Audio)

Having encountered many myths and scare stories about the evils of pornography, I decided to ask the people whose voices don’t tend to be heard: the women in the industry. This podcast features interviews with seven British female pornstars.

Links to research material: Porn Up, Rape Down: http://tinyurl.com/oc54u ; The Sunny Side Of Smut: http://tinyurl.com/3wx5dp7

Feminism For The Few, Guardian-Style

Stripper Edie Lamort
Photo of Edie Lamort, courtesy Millie Robson Photography www.millierobson.com

Welcome back MoronWatch guest-blogger and Striptease Correspondent, Edie Lamort, as she takes on the Guardianista approach to “feminism”

Occasionally on those Sunday morning TV discussion shows, there will be a topic entitled ‘Has Feminism Gone too Far?’. A rather patronising title as no-one would ever have a discussion entitled ‘Have Civil Rights Gone too Far?’ or ‘Have Rights for Homosexuals Gone too Far?’ Better questions to ask would be something like ‘Why is Feminism so divided?’, ‘Has Feminism lost its way?’ or ‘Why is Feminism Obsessed with Moralism?’

The recent resurgence in a certain type of ‘feminism’ has certainly polarised debate and alienated a lot of women due to its anti-sex stance. This has been pioneered by fanatical fright groups like Object who are given a voice by media such as The Guardian. The patron of Object is the ever-angry Polly Toynbee so this is not surprising. I no longer even bother to read what she writes as it is just so negative. The same goes to Julie Bindel, who seems to be so full of righteous rage and venom, that I can no longer bear to listen to what she has to say. Her recent tirade against Dr Brooke Magnanti was appalling and surely cannot be called journalism? Dr Magnanti’s response to this was far more magnanimous and reflected positively on her.

The article was entitled Brooke Magnanti Vs Julie Bindel so I clicked through, thinking it would be an interesting debate between two strong women, who both describe themselves as Feminists, but come from very different ends of the spectrum. I was shocked to read the one-sided, abusive rant from Julie Bindel and wondered why The Guardian would print such a thing. Why employ this provocateur to write in this ‘playground bully’ style? Isn’t this supposed to be a reputable paper?

Then I read the comments below, which generally condemned Ms Bindel’s bile, and realised how many clicks and comments this article had generated. Could this be the reason? As we know, many forms of media have suffered large revenue losses in the past decade, due to free online media and recession, so have to rely on dwindling advertising revenues. I wonder if the only reason they print these kinds of articles is to generate unique page visits and up the volume of clicks on their website? People always love a good cat fight don’t they?!

Imagine how much good this is doing for the web stats of the Guardian and how they can use this to sell their brand. When presenting the medium as a good place for advertisers to raise brand awareness, they need to demonstrate a healthy readership, who also interact with the medium, thus increasing advertising revenue. Call me cynical but it’s always worth looking at the financial angle. The prohibitionists and rescue industry have long been making careers and money out of the workers in the Erotic Industries. Stanley Cohen, in his groundbreaking book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics describes this phenomena as “deviance exploitation”. It is where the control culture financially exploits the current “folk devils”, supported by the tool of moral panic.

Another major contradiction in this paper is the question of who has the ultimate control over a woman’s body. The main theme of Feminism has been about women gaining ownership over themselves yet the Guardian takes differing stances depending on the debate. It depends who we’re talking about: women wanting abortions, those choosing to wear the burka and then those choosing to strip for a living.

In Guardian World the right for a woman to choose whether to abort or not is sacred. Fine within reason and I agree. The right for a woman to wear a burqa, as long as it is her choice, is not questioned. OK, banning an item of clothing is a silly idea and it can be argued that the symbolism of the burqa is changing. From the ultimate objectification; saying a woman is a black hidden mass, fit only for cooking, cleaning and breeding. (Full burqa only applies here because if you can see someone’s face you can see who they are.) To what is now sometimes a political stance, an anti-establishment gesture, especially in countries like France, that have banned the burqa.

However if you’re a stripper, your right to choose what you can and can’t do with your body, is forbidden in Guardian World! We must be roundly condemned as poisoning society and leading to the abuse of women. You will be told that you have been brainwashed and suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. To dance naked and celebrate feminine beauty is a betrayal in Guardian World. To enjoy and exhibit your sexuality is seen as ‘bad’ and ‘corrupt’.

I find this new slut-shaming ‘feminism’ ridiculous and unhealthy. I don’t want to be part of it. A feminist revival that alienates and denounces other women is not the kind of angry and divisive ideology I want to sign up to. They say Feminist, I say Witch-Finder General, stoking the bonfires of moral panic.