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Moral panic

Quick Definition

A moral panic is an event where a large segment of the population become terrified of something that threatens to destroy or severely harm the social norm.

Unfortunately, the actions taken to protect society from these threats typically do more damage to society than the threats themselves could ever pose. In fact, many of these events appear bizarre or even ridiculous to those that were born after the moral panic had run its course.

More Details

Moral panics are, as the name suggests, a widespread panic over something that has been labeled immoral. Historically, they have followed a fairly predictable formula that is perhaps best explained by a popular and well-known folk tale known as Henny Penny, Chicken Little or Chicken Licken. There is a Disney movie entitled Chicken Little, but that movie is intended to be a sequel to the folk tale rather than an adaptation of the tale itself, and thus isn't relevant at the moment.

For those unfamiliar with the story (or for those who need a quick refresher), it takes place in a large barnyard and focuses on the animals that live there. The story begins when a young chicken, Henny Penny, gets hit on the head by a falling acorn. This leads Henny Penny to mistakenly conclude that she was hit by a piece of the sky, and in turn, she believes that the entire sky is about to fall. Fearing the worst, she immediately tries to warn the other animals. At first, the other animals are skeptical and don't believe that there is anything to worry about. However, the more the subject is discussed, the more the they begin to worry that the sky really is about to fall on everyone. This panic is soon taken advantage of by a wily fox, who uses the looming threat to encourage all of the chickens to take cover in his den. After all, if the sky was to actually fall down, then everyone who was underground would be safe. By this point, many of the animals are too scared and panicked to think through this obvious trap, and rush to the fox's den. Once everyone else is inside, the fox calmly enters his home, rolls a large stone over the entrance, and proceeds to dine on the trapped population. Happy ending for the fox, game over for everyone else.

Real moral panics tend to go the same way. Someone comes to believe that a product, type of media, or new form of entertainment is dangerous. In an attempt to protect others, they make an effort to warn others about this perceived danger. Eventually, some form of media (such as a talk show or local news outlet) gives them a platform and lets them spread their message to more people, most of whom won't believe it or take it seriously. However, the more people talk about the topic, the more news outlets pick up the story, and things start to snowball from there. As time goes on, the original person who sounded the alarm is forgotten about, and the story takes on a life of its own. At some point, religious organizations rally against the alleged evil out of a need to protect their flock, and soon the crisis is in full swing. Scared parents throw out anything that resembles the current bogeyman, separate their children from any friends or family members that are polluted by this evil, and call for local PTAs to "save the children" from the doom that is at hand. After this has gone on for several months or longer, someone calms down enough to actually consider looking at the offending work. Typically, the dangerous work is revealed to be entirely safe, and soon society begins to collectively stop caring about it. In time, people who still fear the work are considered crackpots and laughed out of the public sphere.

Unfortunately, by this point the damage is done. Children who were forced to cut ties with friends or who had their belongings thrown in the refuse bin rarely forget about it. During the crisis, these children were familiar enough with the product or media to know that their parents were being misled by made up claims, but they also found that their parents were unwilling to listen to anyone about it. Afterwards, these children are often unable to completely trust their parents again. In some cases, they grow to hate the churches that encouraged this inappropriate behavior, and when this happens, they often reject the faith entirely as they don't make a distinction between an errant congregation and the religion itself.

Now, parents have a duty to protect their children and raise them in a safe environment, so it make sense for them to try and protect their children from something that will allegedly hurt them. But, along those same lines, parents need to be able to discern when something is actually a threat or not. You'll also need to be alert to situations where dishonest people are using fear as a means to sell a product or push an agenda. The fox in the original story wasn't made up out of whole cloth -- there are plenty of people who, just like him, are always lurking around, seeking an opportunity to manipulate others for their own gain. Be especially wary when the person sounding the alarm has recently published a book or offers some sort of program that helps those suffering from the current crisis. Outrage and panic are some of the best marketing tools ever discovered, so you can bet that someone will try to keep as many people afraid of the new bogeyman for as long as they can.

Also, there's another thing I've noticed about moral panics. It doesn't happen every time, but it happens often enough to warrant a lot of suspicion when it's encountered. Basically, every moral panic starts with a specific claim. Such-and-such will cause this-and-that to happen. These early claims usually make some vague amount of sense; for example, since Pokemon revolves around magical creatures battling each other, it's often criticized for encouraging cockfighting and animal abuse. However, later on the message changes to something along the lines of "such-and-such will cause people to practice witchcraft and worship Satan". I'm not sure why the message changes to this so often, but if you hear that something will lead your children to forsake their current beliefs and become evil Satan worshipers, the odds are that someone isn't telling the truth. To be rather blunt, it's been my experience that people who practice witchcraft or became Satan worshipers did so for the same reason anybody converts to a religion -- they decided that it seems to work for them. Granted, I don't agree with their choice, but I've never encountered a Luciferian who converted because they were an avid Harry Potter fan.

Speaking of which, let's end this article on moral panics with a few examples.
  • Dungeons and Dragons
    Originally claimed to encourage suicide, the fantasy elements quickly led people to conclude it was a recruitment tool for Satanic covens. A particularly infamous Chick Tract took things a step further, which didn't help matters. In fact, it helped create a derogatory and warped stereotype of Christianity that persists to this day.

    In truth, D&D is a form of collaborative storytelling. The players control the actions of some of the characters in the story, and together they solve puzzles, defeat fantastic monsters, and create their own legends in a large and expansive high fantasy world. The myriad of rules, charts, dice, and other things are there to ensure that everyone is playing by the same rules or add some unpredictability to the story.

    Something else to remember is that Dungeons and Dragons has heavily influenced gaming culture and the high fantasy genre over the years. As a direct result, you could throw a stone in a random direction and either hit someone that has a basic idea of how D&D works or a work of fiction that was inspired by D&D. Thus, nobody will believe claims about it being satanic or dangerous anymore.
  • Harry Potter
    A children's fantasy series about a boy attending a school of magic naturally set off a small panic about it indoctrinating people into witchcraft and Satan worship. It didn't take long for people to realize that the series has nothing to do with either real magic or Satan. It's largely about the power of friends of all ages working together to achieve a common goal, which is a good message that anyone can appreciate.
  • Pokemon
    Some of the more common claims about this series include that it promotes slavery, encourages cockfighting, normalizes animal abuse, and indoctrinates children into the Shinto religion. If you're not paying much attention, then some of these claims seem reasonable: the games do focus rather heavily on Pokemon fighting each other, and more than a few Pokemon species were based on things from various religions and cultural beliefs. But, Pokemon is far from the only series that does this. A large number of video games involve the player capturing, owning, and controlling magical beasts of different kinds.

    Something to keep in mind about this series is that in both the games and the cartoons, the bond between a Trainer (eg, the player) and their Pokemon is extremely important. In a way, you could explain it by saying that the player takes on the role of a coach that helps a boxer train and become stronger. Characters that abuse and mistreat their Pokemon are universally considered to be in the wrong, and are often the game's villains. In the series, Pokemon are considered to be partners that willingly work with humans, not something to be exploited.

    On a side note, Pokemon games and trading cards are often not allowed in schools. This isn't because of anything mentioned on this page, but rather because these items have been known to be disruptive.
  • Rock music
    Allegedly, this encouraged disobedience and rebellion among teenagers. Teens typically become rebellious for a bit anyway -- apparently it's due to the fact they are at that stage where they are just starting to have control over their own lives, but aren't mature enough to know their limits or how to exercise that control without being confrontational about it. This makes it redundant to blame their behavior on their choice of music. Regardless, it's been a long time since anyone really thought that rock and roll would corrupt the youth of America, but I felt it should be included because it shows how things that were once feared become very mundane later on.