Opinion | Do Not Panic. It’s Just a Moral Panic.

Opinion | Do Not Panic. It’s Just a Moral Panic.

Not to freak you out, but you may be in the middle of a moral panic.

A moral panic is the pervasive belief that some great wickedness is threatening society and must be stopped. Calling something a moral panic is a way to argue that people’s fears or concerns are silly and baseless and that any effort to address them must be stopped.

The latter may now be the bigger problem.

Consider the spate of moral panics supposedly astir. According to the panic police, if you are worried about children and social media, you are succumbing to moral panic. If you’re troubled about your employees ruining the corporate brand on TikTok, that’s right: moral panic. Trepidations about artificial intelligence, crime, teenage Juul use, policing, gender ideology, privacy, self-driving cars, feminism, A.D.H.D., racism — moral panics, all.

Moral panics have existed since well before the Salem witch trials — perhaps the paradigm case. But thanks in part to social media, they are increasing in number and changing in nature. While moral panics have always served a political function, stoking passions and naming scapegoats, accusing someone of fomenting a moral panic has itself become a political tool, a way to delegitimize the opposition as somehow foolish and hysterical.

These back-and-forth accusations of whipping up moral panics didn’t exist before social media, according to Nachman Ben-Yehuda, who with Erich Goode wrote “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, a seminal book on the subject. “When one group decides to stigmatize another group, social media gives a chance for those people to respond and make similar accusations and themselves exaggerate,” Ben-Yehuda, a professor emeritus and the former dean of the faculty of social sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told me.

Though moral panics have a long history, the concept was first defined in the 1972 book “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen. “Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic,” Cohen wrote. “Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight.”

This isn’t to say that moral panics start for no reason. They often arise in response to a genuine issue. But the extent and significance of the problem is exaggerated. As Cohen explains: “This labeling derives from a willful refusal by liberals, radicals and leftists to take public anxieties seriously. Instead, they are furthering a politically correct agenda: to downgrade traditional values and moral concerns.”

Consider the feminist fight against pornography in the 1970s and ’80s. Many people dismissed the anti-pornography crusade as a moral panic because some of its gravest charges — for example, that pornography would lead to a greater incidence of rape — turned out to be false. But that doesn’t mean all aspects of the “panic” were unwarranted. “Is pornography degrading to women? Yes. Is it in other ways undesirable? Yes,” Erich Goode, who is now a sociology professor emeritus at Stonybrook University, told me. “There’s a range of concerns in any moral panic.”

Many moral panics emerge on the political right, which has long styled itself as protecting traditional moral values. But the left has helped fan the flames too. Take the “recovered memory” scandal of the 1980s, in which children were encouraged to remember instances of childhood sexual abuse that never happened. Psychotherapists, feminists and educators on the left joined together with conservative Christian groups to stoke fears of an epidemic of satanic worship and sexual predation that were later shown to be wildly exaggerated.

The irony — wait for it — is that those accusing others of moral panics are often the most proselytizing of moralizers themselves. It’s the loudly homophobic politician caught having sex with another man in a bathroom all over again. The chutzpah is almost admirable.

There’s a preemptive-strike quality to contemporary accusations of moral panic: “You better not get worked up about this or you’re just another pearl-clutching matron.” You’re “concern trolling.” These kinds of characterizations mirror what sociologists refer to as “techniques of neutralization.” Say you’re a liberal parent concerned about open cannabis use outside your kids’ elementary school. If you express any reservations, your opponents will say you’re succumbing to moral panic and somehow in cahoots with a right-wing cabal or being manipulated by one. The goal in exaggerating and distorting the opposition’s concerns is to nip them in the bud.

An accusation of moral panic is a little bit “the boy who cried wolf” and a little bit “I know you are but what am I?” It takes advantage of a polarized landscape by caricaturing anyone who takes issue with a social, cultural or political development as some kind of raving fanatic. It causes people across the political spectrum, particularly in the broad, reasonable landscape of liberals, centrists and principled conservatives, to question their own convictions. And it effectively distracts them.

“I’m sure a lot of accusations of moral panic are made that are iffy because it’s a way of dismissing the gravity of the concern,” Goode says. “The seriousness of the charge seems less serious if you say, ‘Oh, it’s just a moral panic’ — and poof, it’s gone.”

So perhaps you are in the middle of an alleged moral panic. The best response may be not to get distracted by what anyone labels your concerns and to focus instead on the actual problem that needs addressing. You might even do something about it — and that’s what panics the scolds trying to stop you most of all.

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