The strange career of moral panic: What's the nature of moral panic? And where does such panic come from?
We can't necessarily explain moral panic, but we know it when we see it! Consider a few examples or offshoots in this morning's press.
We're so old that we can remember when liberals and progressives thought there were too many people in jail. That said, we're currently being served heaping portions of schadenfreude concerning the "college admissions scandal" as parents are marched off to jail.
Kate Taylor's brief report in this morning's New York Times starts off like this:
TAYLOR (10/23/19): Jane Buckingham, a youth marketing consultant who has written advice books including “The Modern Girl’s Guide to Life,” was sentenced by a federal judge on Wednesday to three weeks in prison for paying to have a test expert take the ACT exam in place of her son.Without criticizing Taylor, the source of the schadenfreude is obvious there. We love the fact that a hoity-toity "youth marketing consultant" (whatever that is) is being frog-marched to jail.
To be sure, this consultant's behavior was pitiful and deeply pathetic, as you can see from reading Taylor's brief report. Journalistically, though, we were most struck by the way the short report ended:
TAYLOR: “I know that words alone are never going to make up for what I’ve done—nothing’s going to ever make up for what I’ve done,” Ms. Buckingham told the judge, choking back tears.In that way, this brief report ends. On a journalistic basis, we'd call that a highly peculiar ending. As a literary form, that's an old-fashioned morality tale.
“I wake up every morning,” she continued, “and when I remember what I’ve done and how many people I’ve hurt, I know that I’ll never be able to forgive myself.”
For a more striking example of moral panic, consider the reaction to Donald J. Trump's attempt to create a distraction yesterday by using the newly fraught term, "lynching," in a way which would make people mad.
In response to Trump's attempt to create a distraction, our Dimmesdales have swung into action. After Candidate Biden scolded Trump from his misconduct, Biden himself is being scolded for having misused the term on one occasion in 1998.
But it wasn't Senator Biden alone! In this morning's Washington Post, two reporters are willing to name other names:
VISER AND WOOTSON (10/24/19): Biden, whose standing in the race has been supported by a huge advantage among black voters, was not alone, however.Viser and Wootson are too correct to note that three of these other miscreants—Davis, Meeks and Rangel—are socially identified as black. Today, all must repent or be frogmarched far away, into the countryside.
The Post identified at least five other Democratic lawmakers—current and former congressmen Danny K. Davis (Ill.), Gregory W. Meeks (N.Y.), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.)—who talked about a “lynching” or “lynch mob” when it came to Clinton’s impeachment.
Was something actually wrong with saying what those miscreants said? We'll suggest that you consider the possibility that the answer is pretty much no.
We'd have to say that this latest wave of recrimination is the latest moral panic. It's the kind of "cultural revolution" which tends to come from those who are posturing, can't think of something constructive to do, or are morally lost.
We were especially struck by Michele Norris' full-length opinion column on this topic in today's Washington Post.
Norris has always seemed like the most decent person in the world, which she probably is. Today, she's warning everyone not to "trifle with the history" locked inside that newly-fraught word.
Question! Did Norris fashion any such commentary back in 1998, when the aforementioned miscreants were misbehaving in the manner described? We're going to guess that the answer is no. This leads to a question:
"Man [sic] is the scripted animal," top anthropologists keep telling us. Plus, these experts keep telling us that we humans just aren't all that sharp.
That said, what's the nature of moral panic?
We think it tends to come from those who are perhaps a bit morally lost. It tends to traffic in guilt and self-loathing. We're not sure this actually helps.