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NOVEMBER 23, 2021

The Merchants of Moral Panic


In his famous Understanding Media published in 1964 Marshall McLuhan used the term ‘moral panic’ to refer to the fright experienced by certain cultural elites when confronted by the written text’s loss of influence before emergent forms of electronic media.

A few years later, Stanley Cohen, a British sociologist born in South Africa, made McLuhan’s phrase the focus of his study on the tensions between “mods” and “rockers”—two youth sub-groups of the working class—in British society.

Cohen highlights the key role played by “moral entrepreneurs” from the media in greatly overstating the degree to which the skirmishes between these groups of impoverished youth could and would endanger social peace. He further argues that these sustained campaigns of exaggeration had the effect of turning these lower-class beings into ‘folk devils;’ that is, “a visible reminder of what we were not to be,” a formulation which, in turn, bolstered the existing values ​​of bourgeois society.

The British historian Helen Graham has made very useful use of the concept of moral panic in her analyses of the treatment of women in the early years of the Franco regime (1939-1975). The liberation of women on many social fronts during the Republic (1931-39) had, in many ways, shaken the pillars of Spain’s then still very traditional society. Upon winning the Civil War and establishing the dictatorship, the Francoists greatly exaggerated supposed moral transgressions of Republican women to legitimize the repression they were using to return them to their ‘natural’ place in the social order. 

No matter how aggressive and cocksure both the entrepreneurs of moral panic in the media and their acolytes in the general population might at first glance appear to be, the main driver of their actions is always the spirit of defeat, that is, the consciousness of having lost the level of social control that they thought was their perpetual inheritance. 

When dominant social elites encounter phenomena that not only disturb them, but do not even fit minimally within the phenomenological frameworks about “reality” they have engineered for themselves and others, they invariably respond with coercion, and if that does not work, eventually with violence.

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