19th Century Engraving

A moral panic about moral panics?

We are in danger of making unhinged generalisations about unhinged generalisers

Artillery Row

The Deluge, by Adam Tooze, is one of those books that enough of my intelligent friends have recommended that I feel like I should pretend that I have read it. “The Deluge? Adam Tooze? Yeah, yeah. Fascinating. Fascinating. My favourite part? Er — too difficult to choose.” 

I have read some of Professor Tooze’s newsletter, Chartbook, and he’s undeniably a very erudite and thoughtful man. 

It was disappointing, then, to see him post an extremely silly tweet. Professor Tooze linked to a Financial Times article which showed that Sweden is being scarred by more fatal gun violence than any other country in the EU. “At its worst in September and October,” the FT’s Richard Milne reported, “Barely a day went by without a shooting, bombing or hand grenade attack — sometimes several.”

For Professor Tooze, this violence is fuelling a “moral panic”. “For perspective,” he wrote, it remains at [less than] 1/10th of the gun murder rate in the US.” Why on Earth is that the “perspective” that Sweden needs? Many parts of the US are fantastically violent. I may drink too much, this is equivalent to saying, but for perspective I don’t drink as much as Oliver Reed. Sure, I’m drinking vodka for breakfast. But it’s 1/8th of what John Bonham drank for breakfast. Get away from me with this “moral panic”.

“Moral panic” is one of the left’s favourite pejoratives when it comes to dismissing concerns about their policies

Okay, deconstructing a tweet is a bit of a cheap thing to do. Tweets are rarely final versions of people’s thoughts. But there is a broader point to be made here. “Moral panic” is one of the left’s favourite pejoratives when it comes to dismissing concerns about their policies. To be sure, I appreciate that moral panics exist. In a moral panic, Stanley Cohen, the author of Folk Devils wrote, “the untypical is made typical”. The Satanic Panic was a very real example of this. Satanists exist and sometimes carry out child abuse but this a rare-to-freakish occurrence — not the pervasive evil people feared in the 80s. 

But the extent to which the term has been deployed to pathologise right-leaning opinion should make us very sceptical about its usage. The term describes people who abandon rigour and fair-mindedness in their qualitative and quantitative judgements. Ironically, its use often exhibits such deficiencies.

Academic commentary has diagnosed a “moral panic” about South Asian grooming gangs, for example, yet not on the basis of the phenomenon being manufactured or especially exaggerated but on the basis of definitional nitpicking and egalitarian clichés. (“Although  hegemonic masculinity is a causal factor [in rape],” Gill and Harrison wrote, “solely ascribing it to a particular culture or ethnic identity ignores that it is premised on cross-cultural  patriarchal  values  and  norms; there  can  be  no  South Asian/Muslim “version” of hegemonic masculinity.” I’m not sure what “hegemonic masculinity” is — or how someone could “solely ascribe” it to X while maintaining that X had a specific “version” of it — but the fact that something can be universal in broad terms while having local differences strikes me as embarrassingly obvious.) 

We face a “moral panic” about trans people, various publications have suggested. I’m not going to pretend that there have been no hysterical comments about trans people. There obviously have. But these articles lump all criticisms of trans ideology into a big ball of panic. Comments about gun-toting guards being stationed in women’s toilets implicitly end up being associated with, say, sensible objections to irreversibly medicalising childhood dysphoria.

In the Guardian, for example, Alex Gallagher wrote:

To draw from an admittedly extreme example, not long ago the Vatican put out a statement in which they suggested trans people’s mission on this earth was to “annihilate nature”. Which is, of course, super-empowering. I was unaware I had such capabilities.

Let’s look at the Vatican statement he refers to:

This oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks’, and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy. Similar theories aim to annihilate the concepts of ‘nature’, (that is, everything we have been given as a pre-existing foundation of our being and action in the world), while at the same time implicitly reaffirming its existence.

Hm, seems ‘a bit too keen’ about putting apostrophes around ‘random words’ without being ‘clear on what it’s quoting’ to me. But does this sound hysterical to you? It seems like the author is suggesting that modern ideas about sexual identity deny natural differences while simultaneously reaffirming them. Arguable, perhaps, but there’s no sense that he’s about to run across St. Peter’s Square screaming, “AAARGH! AAARGH! THE TRANS PEOPLE! RUN! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”

If I was being mischievous, I would be tempted to suggest that left-wing opinion faces a moral panic about moral panics. After all, here is clear evidence of an attempt to make the untypical — groundless hysteria — typical. It has certain “folk devils” — bigots and purveyors of “disinformation” — which attempt to undermine the well-being of communities. While there might be some truth to these narratives, the claims of “moral panics” exaggerate, to repurpose Stanley Cohen’s assessment, “the seriousness, extent, typicality and/or inevitability of harm”.

But I think there’s more laziness and opportunism than panic involved. We can’t admit that right-wingers are even of sound mind. Otherwise, people might start listening to them.

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