Moral Panics and How to Spot Them
A guest post from the smart, good, insightful and wonderful Some More News team
Hello, and welcome to The Present Age. I’m your host Parker Molloy, and I am very excited about today’s edition: a guest post from my pals over at Some More News (Specifically Cody Johnston, Katy Stoll, Will Gordh, Jonathan Harris, and David Christopher Bell). I’m a big fan of their work, and I’m delighted they’re letting me send this out.
They recently put out this great video about moral panics, and were kind enough to let me run the transcript of that video as its own standalone guest post. Please go subscribe to the Some More News YouTube page. Without further ado… here it is:
The Present Age is a reader-supported publication about media, politics, and culture, by Parker Molloy. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a subscriber.
Anyway, news! Here’s some news! For you! Switchblades! Did you know that they were once like… really scary? Here’s a 1950 issue of Women’s Home Companion featuring the article “The Toy That Kills”. The author recognizes that even though, quote, “a knife to a growing boy is as important as lipstick to a young lady,” that a switchblade’s “chief purpose – as any crook can tell you – is for committing violence.” The article was based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence, and for that reason, it got some major things wrong. For example, the author writes that “crime statistics everywhere reveal that knives cause far more trouble than guns.”
Now, that statement is obviously, laughably false in 2022, but it probably seemed entirely plausible back in 1950, even though it was verifiably untrue. Nevertheless, this was the catalyst for a national moral panic around switchblades. Congress held hearings, and states banned them. New York State became the first to ban automatic knives in 1954, resulting in the arrests of tens of thousands of New Yorkers – mostly Black and Latino – over the subsequent 60 years.
The panic permeated pop culture, resulting in a surprising number of very famous film sequences directly involving this awesome knife. It’s worth noting that those bodacious movies all came out within a span of six years, suggesting that popular media was completely inundated with the idea that switchblades were a pervasive threat. More specifically, that they were the preferred tool of young street toughs threatening “civilized” suburban areas, which is code for “white people.” Weird, racist stuff. But hey, thank goodness we live in a more sophisticated time where we don’t lose our turds over meaningless moral panics like this one. Yes. Definitely not a thing that happens today. No sir. You can bet your coward goose on that. Not a problem at all. Closing the book.
Panic-tastic Freaks And Where To Find Them
Yeah, okay. Sure. Let’s talk about moral panics. As an episode! THIS episode! Just to define them real quick… moral panics are exactly what they sound like. Overblown media events that prey on our fears and insecurities… and though they may have hints of truth to them, they ultimately lean on hyperbole or lies. And the thing about moral panics both past and present is that they all have a tendency to follow a very similar script. Though you won’t see many people these days freaking out about knives unless they’re a vampire in a Blade sequel, the switchblade discourse of 70 years ago perfectly mirrors the same arguments you hear today about all kinds of horseshit… be it violent movies or video games or dirty song lyrics. Of course, one thing we know from all the data we purchased from Facebook is that our viewers are really smart and well-read… and so we’re probably not going to spend a lot of time explaining WHY a moral panic is silly. Instead, we want to break down the actual anatomy of them. So that we can, perhaps, start avoiding them in the future. That’s right, we’re going to really dig into moral panics using an intellectual shovel, an incisive pickaxe, and a cerebral switchblade that I just bought on eBay.
Step One: Take A True Story And Lie About It
The first thing to keep in mind is that these panics typically start with something actually real. That real thing can be benign or malignant – a fantasy role-playing game or a series of kidnappings and murders. The Moral Panic purveyors love their truth kernels, mind you. It gives a sense of validity to an entirely incorrect and destructive panic. It also makes it harder to argue with these panics, because people feel like by recognizing the true parts they are showing some kind of weakness. The reality is that it’s extremely important to understand and acknowledge when a moral panic comes from some morsel of truth. Because sometimes that truth is a REAL thing we SHOULD be concerned about… just not in the way these moral panics are trying to spin it.
For example… teens and Tide Pods come to mind. Remember that panic? It was something the media specifically wanted parents to worry about, and framed as this huge trend. It was often regarded as a “deadly” challenge. And here’s the thing – it’s absolutely true that eating Tide Pods is deadly – in that it has killed eight people in the United States. Except none of those people were teenagers. It was a couple of children under the age of two, and the rest were older people with dementia.
And so while there was absolutely a spike in teens poisoning themselves because of this meme – a total of 86 in the beginning of 2018 alone – that number is absolutely nothing compared to Tide Pod incidents among elderly adults who have Alzheimer’s or dementia and WAY more among children under 5 – about 10,500 cases in 2017. You see how, while the headlines are technically using true statements… they completely omit all the context in order to sell a specific narrative. The context being that your boomer parent is more at danger than your shitty teen child. And they are shitty. I mean, just look at them. Awful stuff.
Or better yet, here’s something real: one established side effect of SSRIs, which are commonly prescribed anti-depressants, is a decreased sex drive. That’s something true that everyone agrees on. It’s acceptable to some people with depression who are seeking treatment, and to others, it’s not. But, let’s just see how far that true thing gets us when we’re trying to inspire a new moral panic.
[clip of Tucker Carlson making a claim about SSRIs making people “impotent, infertile, violent.”]
Jeez, okay. So I really don’t have time to get bogged down debunking every moral panic, but I simply must spare a few seconds to verbally slap Tucker in his waxy little cherub cheeks.
First of all, nobody is saying “ignore it, only cult members care” when discussing the sexual side effects of SSRIs. It’s a conversation pretty much every patient has with their doctor before they start taking them. Secondly, there’s no firmly established link between antidepressants and increases in violence – and there’s certainly no link between antidepressants and mass shootings, as Carlson and some elected officials have irresponsibly suggested.
That Swedish study cited by Tooks Carlby - that’s his Hobbit name - specifically says, quote, “We don't claim that SSRIs cause the increased risk we see in our data.” They clearly state that the disorders that SSRIs treat, such as depression, are driving the association. The researchers also cite the “rarity of violent crimes” in Sweden as a reason that it might be tough to extrapolate too much based on the data.
Remember, Sweden has significantly lower rates of violent crime than the U.S. Probably because they’re all too busy listening to ABBA. So increases from small numbers are going to be more pronounced than they would in a place where violent crime is higher. You simply can’t start with “anti-depressants lower your sex drive,” which is true for some people, and then go right into “they turn you into murderers.” That’s just – not true, my creepy dude. And it’s incredibly disingenuous and creates a real-world stigma that impacts the very people on whose behalf you’re manufacturing your outrage. And that kind of disingenuous twisting is the first step in any moral panic. At some point, somebody has to fib or stretch the truth. Probably some teen, am I right? Terrible humans. Don't tell them I said that.
But that 40-second clip is duplicated with different topics every night on Twacker’s show, or some other also bad show, or in talking points across Twitter, or in your racist gam-gam’s Facebook feed.
Compare it to late 2018, when a group of several thousand migrants from Central America approached the U.S. border seeking asylum. Many of these migrants said they were fleeing persecution or threats from criminal gangs in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These were desperate people, many of them families with children, taking a huge risk while undertaking an arduous 2,700-mile journey to get to the U.S. And that part is all true – nobody is disputing it. But the Trump administration and conservative personalities painted a very different picture of what was happening – extrapolating the real story into a worst case scenario, casting the migrants as a serious and even existential threat to “honest, hard-working Americans,” which – once more – is code for “white people.”
[clips from Fox News hosts talking about the “caravan” being “heavily male and highly dangerous” and promoting the “great replacement” conspiracy theory]
Those clips make it VERY clear what the argument is and who the supposed “victims” are. And I dunno, it feels like maybe promoting the racist Great Replacement Theory to inspire panic in your white, conservative audience is a way more likely inspiration for mass shootings than fucking Zoloft. Remember, the entire argument here is based on one piece of evidence: that thousands of people from Central America wanted to immigrate to the United States. Literally walking thousands of miles to escape violence, uninhabitable conditions, and extreme poverty.
Never mind that in the year 2000 there were far more migrants moving unchecked through the southern border, and that the percentage of single men crossing, as opposed to families including children, was significantly higher back then. But of course we all know why lies like these get by, right? It’s a word that starts with an “R” and ends with an “-ISM.” And this is where Step Two comes into play – which is the use of scornful, othering language that casts a typically marginalized or easily feared group of people as the villain and frames the panic as a good vs. evil, us vs. them fight. We love our little teams, don’t we folks?
Step Two: Othering Language
Before we dig into the language specifically, we’ve got to acknowledge the overarching role that the concept of the “other” plays in moral panics. Stanley Cohen, the criminologist who coined the term, defined a moral panic as when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." In his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, he details a moral panic that overtook Britain in the 1960s, involving two subcultures of young people: the Mods and the Rockers. And while it is extremely British to be frightened of two groups that sound like charming roller derby teams, here in America we’re currently terrified of books that confirm the existence of gay people, and M&Ms that aren’t sexy enough. So, whomst are we to judge-st?
In brief, these Mods and Rockers held a series of parties over holiday weekends, getting into some fights and initiating minor acts of vandalism. Over time, the media exaggerated the threat these groups posed to “regular people” and their families, or as Cohen said, “to societal values and interests.”
And this is the key thing to understand: there are no moral panics about an asteroid hitting the earth, or hurricanes, astercanes, hurricoids, humble sharknados, or any other such force majeure. It’s always groups of people who are seen as the threat – People who are outside of what those in power consider the cultural norms. Sometimes that’s just… disgusting teenagers. Other times it’s a f*cking skin color. But the panic can only happen if there’s a visible enemy, in the form of a group of people who are “othered” and separated from the status quo.
President Donald January Trump called the migrant caravan an “invasion” and described many people in the group as “gang members,” without citing any evidence to back up those claims. He pretty much ran on the othering of immigrants. Similarly, the modern right-wing has attempted to connect basically the entire LGBTQ community with pedophilia by labeling them “groomers,” a move dangerously similar to the child-safety-paranoia of the Satanic Panic.
You know, that time conservatives thought fantasy improv theater with dice was a recruitment tool of the literal devil. Heck, even Tipper Gore labeled a group of musical artists the “Filthy Fifteen” when she was railing against song lyrics she didn’t like in the 1980s. Those songs were by artists that included Madonna, Prince, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Cyndi Lauper. And as you might have noticed, none of those managed to bring about the collapse of society. Black Sabbath had already been recording music for nearly two decades by the time Tipper singled them out. In fairness, there’s still time for them to bring about a nuclear apocalypse or some such. And honestly, anything can happen at this point. Good luck to Black Sabbath.
There’s a reason Cohen’s book about moral panics starts with “Folk Devils.” It isn’t about a disagreement, or a political difference, with another group; it’s the idea that one group is fundamentally less valuable than the other, and thus less human. The panicked group is “civilized” while the scary “others” are not. The late researcher Amanda Rohloff summarized the “civilizing process,” as described by sociologist Norbert Elias, as quote: “the process whereby one group of people come to see themselves as more ‘civilized’ than another group of people, thereby enabling these self-identified ‘civilized’ people to commit acts that at other times would be seen as ‘uncivilized’.”
In other words, convincing yourself and your followers that you are more civilized than your enemies provides an extremely effective excuse to do some pretty f*cked up things. We see this every time a transgender person or someone mistaken for a transgender person is harassed in a public restroom. We see it every time people are harassed for not speaking English in public. And we see it every time an honest goose tries to buy a switchblade.
The othering language allows the harassers to feel justified in their actions. It’s a tool of dehumanization. It’s the same reason Dwayne Johnson called people “jabronis” before rock-bottoming them into the center of the earth. He wants us to clap, not boo. This is of course what makes the language often contradictory. A targeted group can be both “intrusive” and “exclusive.” Another can be “lazy and inert,” but also “aggressive and pushing.” The enemy has to be both laughably weak and indescribably powerful at the same time. It's the language of fascism. Antifa is a bunch of soy boys who are dangerously violent! And you, of course, know one of the best examples of this.
[clip from Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign announcement where he said that Mexicans were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people”]
The contradiction in language, often in the same breath, kind of gives the whole game away. Whatever the panic is supposed to be about, isn’t really what it’s about. The only goal is to demonize a group of people. Donald Jobinette Trump didn’t cite a bunch of charts and data to back up any of his rhetoric. He merely shambled onto a global stage and just… started saying sh*t. Contradictory and dehumanizing sh*t, wholly untethered from reality. And while that’s f*cked up, there is of course a second component there. It’s not enough to make these claims – someone also has to amplify them. But before we do that… we need to amplify these ADS! Oh boy! I hope one of them is for that ball shaver that looks like a switchblade!
But this language is, of course, tolerated and spread, often by some sort of accomplice hijacking the attention that the panic creates. And while technically that could be just like… a dude on a bike with a bullhorn… spreading panic is often way more efficient when you have access to some kind of media conglomerate. Plus, everyone threw rocks at me and I fell off the bike.
Step Three: Media Exacerbation
Any burgeoning moral panic might fizzle out and die were it not for a media ecosystem willing to carry its water. “The media” maybe sounds like a bogeyman since it’s such a broad and generic term, but when talking about moral panics, it’s not enough to just say “Fox News” or “grifting pundits”. Giving validation to and aggravating the severity of moral panics really is a media-wide problem. Sure, right-wing media is a huge part of it, but news magazines, local news, and even narrative content play a key role. After all, there was no News Corp back when 60’s Britons were getting their dodgy ‘ol knickers in a twist over the Mods and Rockers. Why, Rupert Murdoch was just a spritely young – 30-year-old newspaper tycoon back then. Good god, that guy’s old. Oh my goodness. The point is, the game the media plays with moral panics has been consistent for decades. The “rage clicks” of the present were the Newsweek subscriptions of eras past. The poster child for modern, media-inspired freak-outs is arguably Dungeons & Dragons, a key target in what later came to be known as the Satanic Panic.
[clip from a 1980s news segment about the Satanic Panic]
The “kernel of truth” here was that a game exists – and at the time, that game was played primarily by people perceived as social outcasts. Nerds, geeks, book-f*ckers, et cetera. And a few people who played that game in the 1980s died under tragic circumstances, the same way a small portion of all the people who watch football will succumb to alcoholism, or Velveeta-related heart disease, or just, you know, unrelated tragic accidents. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, yada yada you get it.
But after one college student disappeared in 1979, a private investigator hired by his parents concluded that the student’s enjoyment of Dungeons & Dragons was somehow involved. Even though the student had a history of depression and drug abuse, and his enjoyment of tabletop gaming was never shown to be a factor in his disappearance and suicide, that story generated a surprising amount of breathless media attention. And because of all that attention casting Dungeons and Dragons as a “dangerous” underground movement instead of fantasy little league for indoor kids, sales of the game shot up, which generated MORE media attention suggesting that the concern from frightened, religious parents about their children falling prey to satanic cults was warranted. Also, that private investigator who was totally wrong wanted to capitalize on his wrongness so he wrote a book about the whole thing. By the way, that same private detective would go on to write an entire book claiming that O.J. Simpson’s son actually murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, because he is… [checks notes] a guy with some theories. And lies. Who makes sh*t up. To sell books.
Because while creating the panic was done with negative intent designed to vilify an entire group of people, spreading it is often done with no agenda whatsoever beyond making that sweet, sweet paper. Sure, news organizations will absolutely highlight and amplify stories that align with their worldview or advance their own interests or the government's interests… but sometimes it’s just plain laziness, or a ratings chase.
One good example would be media coverage of crime rates since early in the pandemic. As we discussed in previous episodes, there’s been a real disconnect between the reality that murder rates increased while other violent crimes decreased and what the media is saying. Rising murder rates are of concern to people, which fuels a feedback loop of journalists writing about them. But then you’d think the reporting would have a duty to reference that murder rates are still significantly lower than they were decades ago, and to include that information somewhere above the 16th paragraph of an article.
But of course, that’s less interesting. And even when crime WAS a problem, like New York in the 1970s, rarely did the media explain the economic problems and mob involvement that led to that situation. Instead, the narrative was heavily reliant on street thugs and gangs – which absolutely were also a problem. But it’s not like they all just showed up one day. There’s far more nuance than a bunch of Warriors types invading the streets. However, this is what the media… and then of course, Hollywood glommed onto. Sometimes resulting in entire film series devoted to shooting brown people.
[clips from the Death Wish film series]
Ah yeah, you shoot that man in the back, you… hero of the film, you! This is also how we get movies like the Tom Hanks alarmist classic Mazes and Monsters, and the heavy metal-slash-babysitting cautionary tale The Gate. Narrative films pick up what the news media is putting down, and once you’re hearing about the Satanic Panic in Hollywood movies as well as every night on the seven o’clock news, it is as real as Santa Claus. Who is fake, but paradoxically also real enough to secure lucrative soda endorsement deals.
Remember all those switchblade films from earlier? Those narrative films didn’t need to make an argument or justify their use of knife-wielding street toughs. They were just true things that existed! Unalterable truths that keep rattling around our brains and thus distort our thinking. It’s called the Availability Heuristic. For example, around six deaths in the U.S. every year are attributed to venomous snakes and lizards. But, if each of those six was a national news story, you’d probably be looking over your shoulder for gun-toting salamanders everywhere you went. And we would make competing films where people have shootouts with giant reptiles – which, saying it out loud, sounds awesome. Snake Guns… Lizard Shooty Story… sorry, not a title guy.
This is what happened in the 1990s with the panic over “frivolous lawsuits.” Individual silly lawsuits were highlighted by corporate groups seeking to clamp down on litigation against them, and the media played along. The most famous example concerned 79-year-old Stella Liebeck. In 1992, she was fixing her coffee between her legs while in the parking lot of a McDonald’s when she spilled some on herself, resulting in third-degree burns across 6% of her body, and other burns over one-sixth of her body.
The burns were so severe she was in the hospital for eight days and had to get skin grafts. That’s… oh, what’s the word? Too f*cking hot. As in, roughly 180 degrees. Like, are you kidding me? Why should any liquid intended for human consumption ever be kept at a temperature sufficient to literally melt the flesh from your body? Are you hunting demons with that coffee? Are you going to throw it into Harvey Dent’s face to score a mistrial for Boss Maroni? The only food item that should be that hot are McDonald’s apple pies.
Liebeck even admitted the spill was her fault, but insisted that the temperature of the coffee was unreasonable and unsafe. She was only initially seeking $20,000 to pay for her medical expenses… but because McDonald’s had received at least 700 reports of coffee burns over the previous decade, a jury decided to send a message and awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. It was a classic story of a corporation cutting corners, resulting in harm caused to their customers. At least, that’s how it should have been reported.
[clips from 90s news broadcasts framing Liebeck’s case as ridiculous, often misrepresenting the facts of the case]
Haha, joke’s on you, 79 year old woman who had to get skin grafts! It appears that people will just sue over anything these days… is apparently the lesson from that? And once that kind of narrative gets established, it’s just out there in the world. It’s just a thing that exists now. Everyone knows that frivolous lawsuits are a major blight on society, right? It’s now something that doesn’t need to be backed up with evidence and can simply be commented on by our popular sitcoms.
[clip from Seinfeld where Kramer spilled coffee on himself and sued over it being too hot, playing it for a joke]
Yeah, Kramer’s right! It wasn’t supposed to be that hot! Even though this particular story has been revisited in the years since to try and set the record straight, none of that does much good for Stella Liebeck, who was permanently disfigured from the coffee and turned into a nationwide laughingstock. She died in 2004 before the media caught up and told the truth about her story.
She also didn’t live long enough to see the end of The Stella Awards, created by a syndicated columnist who made a nice little living writing about so-called frivolous lawsuits until he shut it down in 2012. But don’t worry - he’s still selling the book.
Again, the truth to all this was obvious to anyone who was really paying attention or wanted to do the research. That reporter we showed earlier said Liebeck held the coffee cup between her legs while driving, which was false. She wasn’t driving. This was known at the time, and many outlets got it right. And sure, that’s a comparatively minor mistake, right? We’ve made them ourselves. Like that time we said the Iraq War was started by President Urkel – not sure how we screwed that one up. But the point is, that once a lie is casually repeated enough times by the media, it becomes as good as fact to the public.
And this is, predictably, tragically, where we talk about social media. And how it’s now just so much easier to spread this kind of lie.
Take the recent “groomer” panic that has right-wingers all bunched up in their grundles about supposed pedophilia and out-of-control wokeness in Disney cartoons and public schools. The Libs of TikTok account, which we’ve talked about before, takes advantage of the fact that moral panics usually begin with factual events before escalating to absurd gibber-fibs. In this case, sometimes gay or bi or trans teachers or caregivers will talk to students about their identity. If anyone sits and really thinks about this – it’s not a big deal at all. There’s no formal instruction going on about gender identity or sexuality with young kids, and if you watch the videos posted by the account, it’s typically just a teacher or caregiver talking about identity in a totally reasonable way. The same way you might explain to a child why some people’s skin is a different color than theirs.
But, Libs of TikTok’s audience hates queer people, so once they establish the true story of some teachers speaking to their students about gender identity, they begin to build on that story with manufactured bullsh*t designed to whip people up into a sudsy panic. A real froth-fest. The Great British Hate-Off. And the people buying into the panic are none the wiser. Because it confirms their prejudice, they’re disinclined to verify whether or not it’s actually true. That was the case when the account promoted blatantly false information about Boston Children’s Hospital, including the lie that the hospital gives hysterectomies to young girls. Those lies resulted in threats against the hospital and their staff. It’s also the case in this other Libs of TikTok post where, quote, “it was revealed that a Michigan school placed litter boxes in the bathroom for students that identify as cats.” Spoiler alert for this video: that was not revealed at all.
[clip of woman attending a school board meeting where she repeats a rumor about litterboxes she admits she hasn’t confirmed]
Oh, did you do your investigating? Did you buy a Super Sleuth Spy Kit and get out the little magnifying glass and walk around a public school like Inspector Gadget? No, you didn’t, because if you had, you would’ve found that nobody is putting litter boxes in student bathrooms. That’s not a thing, nor has it ever been. It has never claimed membership to Thinghood.
But, once you’ve been in Frothing Moral Panic Mode for months, you have to keep upping the ante with your examples. This lie would go on to spread on the Facebook group Protect Nebraska Children, force an Iowa superintendent to say that it wasn’t happening, led a Nebraska state senator to apologize for further spreading the rumor himself, and forced local newspapers to keep having to print fact checks about it months later. It’s become that identical party anecdote that everyone repeats. “My cousin knew a kid who ate pop rocks and soda and exploded.” But nobody stops to think about how illogical and silly it is. An urban legend. Or rather, a Roganism.
[clip of Joe Rogan spreading this rumor, claiming that his friend’s wife worked at a school that installed litter boxes in bathrooms]
In fairness, he later clarified that by saying “my friend’s wife” he actually meant “a thing I read on the internet while high and then pretended I was personally connected to because perhaps I shouldn’t be as prominent of a media figure as I am or at the very least be more discerning, like an ounce more”. [note: this is not a direct quote]
Anyway, the right wing’s groomer spectacle has whipped people up for months with outrage based on non-stories and fake stories. It’s resulted in real-world harm in the form of harassment and death threats and regressive bills being proposed and passed across the country. Media of both the news and social variety have perpetuated this cycle, and instead of having any reasonable discussion about what and when children should be taught about sexuality and gender identity, people are believing that teachers are sexualizing children in pre-school and that students are literally shitting in litter boxes.
By the way, I lied when I said that “nobody is putting litter boxes” in schools. They actually are doing that… as emergency toilets… in the event of a school shooting. What a perfect example of how moral panics completely divert from the actual conversation.
So… it’s time to talk about why this all matters. I mean, of course it matters… but I want to talk about the very real consequences and motivation for these bullshit frenzies. The actual moral panic we need to worry about here.
To recap a lot of what we’ve said so far: everything we’re talking about, these moral panics, are often really easy to spot after the fact. Or even during the fact. The migrant caravans didn’t take over America or “replace” all of its white people, studies have never reliably shown that video games inspire real-world violence, comic books are not responsible for teenagers acting like teenagers, the GOP banning books is far more of a threat to free speech than students walking out of a lecture, teaching white children about the history of racism in the U.S. is not forcing them to feel perpetually ashamed, almost nobody of teen age was eating Tide Pods, kidnappings of children by strangers are pretty rare, there are basically no actual Satanists and the only Satanists that do exist are either harmless edgelords or atheists highlighting religious hypocrisy, and shoplifting, even if it is on the rise which there’s not a ton of great data to suggest that it is, is not some kind of national crisis.
So, if you and I all know this already, how does this keep happening? If panics can be quickly identified, how do they get so out of hand? There’s a few reasons, but what sticks out is that once these moral panics begin, a lot of people simply don’t want them to stop. For, let’s call it, reasons…
Step Four: The “Right” People Are Victimized
To sum it up: modern moral panics are no longer anomalies, but tools being used specifically to drive an agenda. I mean they were also that in the past, except the process has been so streamlined that they’re now easily and quickly wielded like weapons. Specifically, and perhaps almost exclusively, from one side of the political spectrum.
In his 2004 book, What’s The Matter With Kansas, historian Thomas Frank argues that, since political debates have become so framed around hot-button culture war issues, low-and-middle income rural Americans regularly vote against their best economic interests. He details how Democrats ceded this ground a long time ago to focus more on affluent professionals and rarely make the populist case that their economic policies would actually improve the lives of lower-income rural people. In other words, the deck is currently stacked against dispelling moral panics, because they are now the primary issues of our political discourse. Specifically, as a distraction. Because the most frustrating thing about most modern moral panics – critical race theory, cancel culture, drag shows, the incivility of protesting outside someone’s house – is that the most vocal people know it’s bullshit.
Josh Hawley doesn’t really think that Disney is a “woke” corporation. He knows very well that Disney would feed one out of every ten kids riding the Matterhorn to the Yeti if it would boost their quarterly profits. He just doesn’t care. It’s convenient for him to have a tangible enemy in his “woke” panic so he can pretend it’s not just for spite over Disney’s eventual denouncement of the Don’t Say Gay bill and pulling of some of its political donations. They’re not even trying to hide it. Here’s conservative “activist” Christopher Rufo admitting that the attack on Critical Race Theory was just a branding exercise in order to meet the Right’s political ends.
[Rufo tweet: “We have successfully frozen their brand – ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”]
It’s a smokescreen. A banana peel in the political game of Mario Kart. Because if you have people up in arms about pronouns or immigrants, then they won’t notice when you’re completely f*cking them over.
[clip of Josh Hawley pretending not to understand what someone means by “people with a capacity for pregnancy” and a clip of Rep. Andrew Clyde asking someone to define the word “woman”]
Cool, yeah, score those culture war points you weird ghouls. That’s from back in July, when Congressional committees heard testimony about the impact of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Pretty weird that in this congressional hearing concerning what they claim to be protecting human life – which they claim to be really invested in – they also want to stop everything to do a Dave Chapelle-style tight five? Feels very unserious and perhaps a distraction from how they are actively taking away the rights of Americans.
The same goes with the panic over protesting outside of the homes of Supreme Court justices. Supreme Court justices are public figures, holding the highest seat of authority in the land. It’s totally reasonable for people to gather outside their homes to peacefully protest their authoritarian decisions. But the panic over protesting at justices’ homes of course diverts attention from the actual really bad thing going on and directs it toward something that generates bipartisan anger – in this case, disrupting the sanctity of the suburbs. That’s something both parties can get nice and riled up about enough to take immediate action! We need to protect those extremely powerful millionaires, or else they might actually hear some negative feedback about their decisions!
See, it’s a really effective system. Because even if we know it’s bullshit, the media has to then spend a lot of effort talking about why it’s bullshit. It creates a fact-checking ecosystem, and so even when the misinformation is obvious, it still accomplishes its goal of distracting everyone. If you take a dump in the middle of a Walmart, someone has to clean it up. No matter how silly you look, you have successfully used up resources that could have been spent elsewhere.
Can you even imagine a productive news cycle covering parents at school board meetings talking about how schools in poorer neighborhoods get far less money per student than those in wealthier neighborhoods? Seems like it would make a lot more sense to make that the discussion about the state of education in the United States instead of whether or not a classroom mask mandate counts as child abuse. That’s one of our favorite things to do these days: be outraged about “child abuse” as a way to distract or even pushing actual child abuse.
Wild sh*t like inspecting teen genitals as a result of trans panic. Talking about drag shows as a danger to kids as opposed to the supremely fucked up child beauty pageants that continue to exist. Hey, remember when Netflix made a movie about how the sexualization of pre-teen girls is bad and everyone accused it of sexualizing girls without actually watching the film? What a perfect example of this. There are so many real problems in the world, and these panics seem perfectly designed to distract from all of them.
But of course, a moral panic’s use as a distraction is just the bonus feature. The main course… and the reason it’s so hard to break this cycle, is that the people they ultimately hurt are the exact people the purveyors want to see hurt.
[clip of a news broadcast talking about Tennessee’s anti-LGBTQ laws, including a bill that would “criminalize drag shows in public places.”]
Never mind the fact that there’s been absolutely no epidemic or even any evidence of drag queens molesting or grooming kids. That’s something you can easily look into and disprove right now. It’s certainly something history will confirm when it looks back at this era as a kind of weird Jim Crow for LGBTQ people. But of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. Because the moral panic, in this case, drag shows, will victimize the “right” people. People deemed morally wrong by the people pushing the lie. It doesn’t matter that the panic isn’t real, because for them, the ends justify the means. And so here we see a completely fabricated moral panic used to justify actual laws designed to remove people’s human rights.
That is of course, the actual thing we should be upset about. And it happens way more often than it should. For instance, remember all the bullshit over the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit? That created a real scare over lawsuits, which in turn created real laws passed two or more decades ago that are still on the books today.
A 2016 poll found that 87% of voters continued to believe that there are “too many lawsuits filed in America” even though the number of annual lawsuits has steadily declined, and Republicans still promote legislation aimed at shielding businesses from liability. It’s become harder and more cost-prohibitive for people with real grievances to sue corporations. The frivolous lawsuit moral panic worked, aided by the media and hundreds of millions of dollars spent by industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
You don’t regularly hear about Satanic Panic anymore, and yet the fear of Satanists is still a running theme in American politics. It inspired f*cking QAnon and led a whole bunch of people to believe that a million American children had been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. Video games are still regularly blamed for incidents of teen violence, and 37% of Americans believe violent movies and video games are a cause of mass shootings. Police get millions in new funding every time there’s a new crime scare, and a bunch of states still have goddamn switchblade laws, as though the country were regularly besieged by greaser bullies from Stephen King movies instead of radicalized right-wing terrorists buying AR-15s at Walmart.
And while we can’t do anything about past examples, it’s pretty gosh darn and dang important to think about what we can do about the moral panics happening right now. So it’s time to see every piece of a moral panic – the lies, the othering, and the media exacerbation – all in one clip.
[clip of anti-trans activist Matt Walsh appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast, falsely claiming that “millions” of kids have been put on hormone blockers]
That’s Daily Wire thunderchud Matt Walsh spitting absolute garbage about trans people on one of the largest talk shows in America. He begins by taking the truth that a few thousand adolescents started puberty blockers between 2017 and 2021, lying about it, and making it millions of kids instead. When he was caught in that giant lie, he just sort of shrugs it off… because he’s not ACTUALLY interested in the facts.
He also says that he read a study saying there was an explosion of kids being given mastectomies from 2016 to 2019. Joe qualifies it by asking if he means “prepubescent” girls and Matt yes-ands him without either of them realizing that you can’t get a mastectomy without, ya know, breasts. He doesn’t cite a specific study but he’s probably talking about this one… reported about here in the totally credible Christian Broadcasting Network under “Faithwire”. But even in that pretty fucking dubious article, they recognize that the average age for these surgeries were done on 17 year olds. And the increase between 2016 to 2019 is the difference between 100 and 489 procedures: the total being 1,130 chest reconstruction surgeries in that three-year span.
When you actually look at the numbers given, it’s not really an epidemic. Matt Walsh probably knows that, which is why he has to act like any number is too many. His beliefs being, I guess, that if you’re a teenager you shouldn’t have surgery done on your private areas? So one imagines that he’s equally upset that in 2020 a total of 3,200 18-year-olds got breast implants… or that another 4,700 teenagers between 13 to 19 had reduction surgery. Does that also bother him?
Why do I feel like he doesn’t care about those numbers? Why do I feel like the only thing he wants to portray as a big scary epidemic is that which relates to trans people? But because he can’t just say “I hate trans people” he needs to frame it as some kind of health issue or about the decision to change one’s body… even though he certainly doesn’t give a sh*t about all the other ways people do that every goddamn day. There’s a moment in this conversation that’s really telling, and speaks to what Matt really thinks…
[clip from the same Joe Rogan interview with Matt Walsh. Rogan says that adults should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies, but teens shouldn’t; Walsh says “I actually think that this shouldn’t be happening to” before trailing off]
Hey Matt, finish that sentence. You actually think that this – as in gender-affirming care– shouldn’t be happening to… who? Considering what Rogan said, it sure seems like he was gonna say that he doesn’t think adults should have this care either. Because he’s just a bigot who wants to inflict his will on everyone, using lies to scare people into thinking there’s an epidemic to be concerned about. A perpetuation of a moral panic.
The trans panic… that we’ll inevitably look back on as being silly. Joe Rogan is the media component. He expresses confusion as to why the conversation they’re having is perceived as bad… and why people are supporting procedures done on minors. Because what Matt has disingenuously omitted from the conversation is that these are teenagers… often older ones. And not prepubescent kids.
It’s a really solid example of everything we’ve talked about. He took a REAL fact, the rise in gender-affirming care, and then twisted it to seem way more widespread and insidious than it was, even trying to lie about the numbers before getting caught. He fudged the age group being talked about to make it seem more outrageous and omitted all the context… like how we’re talking about people making these decisions with their doctors. People he couldn’t possibly know the lives of.
And Joe Rogan, while doing some fact-checking, ultimately just shrugs it off and continues to give him a podium. Walsh knows what he’s doing. He has an agenda… a really hateful one at that. Apologies, but I’m going to have to read two of his tweets to demonstrate this. Tweets specific to those abortion hearings which read… “These hearings on abortion are instructive. The liberal witnesses have refused to condemn infanticide, refused to define the word ‘woman,’ and claimed that men can get pregnant. We cannot share a country with these people. There can be no unity. They are lunatics and monsters.” And then… “I don't respect them. I have nothing in common with them. I detest everything they believe and stand for. They feel the same about me. We simply cannot go on this way.” Cool, Matt. No, seriously, chill the fuck out.
Just to remind you, the actual facts Matt is reacting to is that pro-choice witnesses refused to label abortion as “infanticide,” because according to every medical definition, it isn’t. And used inclusive language when speaking about abortions because there are people who do not identify as female - such as trans men - who can become pregnant. That’s, um, it. But to Matt, this thread of logic is the domain of “lunatics and monsters” with whom he cannot co-exist. Note the severity of Matt’s conclusion… it’s not “I don’t agree with these people and I never will.” It’s “these people should not be allowed to live in this country.” Which is a goose step and a jump away from “these people should not be allowed to live.”
How else are we, and more importantly Matt’s followers, supposed to interpret that? He ends his rant by saying “There can be no unity” and “We simply cannot go on this way.” You can’t finish that line of thinking without violating Twitter’s terms of service. At least before Twitter’s moderation team was hollowed out by a rich weirdo. He’s inciting violence, and he knows it, and his followers know it. Because, again, for Matt, the ends justify the means. The means being lying and the ends being the victimization of the specific people he doesn’t like. People who have done nothing wrong and are just trying to, like, exist, who Matt very clearly wants to do away with.
But he can’t say that, so he has to pretend that these people create some sort of danger. He has to dehumanize them with “othering” language so as to justify any cruelty that results from his terrible speech. It’s almost like… jeez… it’s almost like the damage caused by a moral panic is way worse than the actual pretend thing the moral panic is about. And the people who perpetuate these are often aware of that fact, and are doing it specifically to hurt people.
And I dunno, f*ck those people. F*ck them right in neck. Or failing that, mock them. Or ignore them. Or mock and then ignore them. And then focus on the people they are trying to hurt.
Because a key component to all of this that we haven’t really talked about is the word “panic.” Panic is the actual factor that makes this so easily weaponized. Because when you are panicked, you aren’t thinking, you’re scared – or horny, if you have a panic fetish. And even when there is a real threat, the panic still leads to some terrible, often worse decisions. See terror, comma, the war on. We got 9/11ed, remember that? I forget the exact date… but the result was a series of wars, rollbacks on privacy, and racist paranoia that resulted in way more death and destruction than what sparked it all. Not to mention the terrible, terrible, TV and movies that soon followed.
[clip from The Newsroom]
Powerful, hilarious stuff. See, moral panics come and go, but their effects can last for decades or more. And the first step in dealing with them is to, well, not panic… even when there’s something to panic about.
Things like climate change and fascism and genetically enhanced smart-spiders are real things that can make you feel quite panicked. But the solutions to those things require us to tackle them with a level head. It’s weird to say the answer is to “stay calm” but that’s seriously a key component to combating this problem. And always remember the actual people that these moral panics hurt, and do what we can to help those people. Like maybe if they need some fruit sliced for them, we can do that with our brand-new switchblade!
Guess what just came in the mail while we were talking? Gonna be the coolest kid on the block now…
[Cody produces a PACKAGE and begins to open it and reach inside…]
Gonna be just like one of them James Deans or like, Bill Paxton in The Terminator or like– OW F*CK! [drops the package] F*ck! Sh*t! What f*ck, man? These things are dangerous! Damn. Damn it. Someone should put a warning on them or something!