December 29, 2015

If I Could Turn Back Time: Regressive Social Movements

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When you imagine what an activist looks like, what comes to mind? The stereotypical "tree hugger?" A young, idealistic college student? A radical hippie from the 1960s? These are common images we have of activists, but they certainly don't fit all, or even most people involved in social movements.

We often think of social movements as progressive: a push for reform, a call for new ways of looking at an issue, or perhaps an expansion of rights for an oppressed group. But social movements can also be regressive: when people observe a change that has taken place that they feel is harmful, they call for a reversion to what they see as a better past. Rather than the stereotypes of activists mentioned above, activists might better resemble a college student's grandparent.

People who support regressive social movements believe that a particular change has caused problems, and they publicize their concerns, their aim often to create new restrictive rules or laws to reduce the threat that they perceive.

I studied a number of regressive social movements that took place during the twentieth century for my book Pop Culture Pcp coverPanics: How Moral Crusaders Create Meanings of Deviance and Delinquency. These movements all focused on attempts to regulate forms of popular culture, from movies when they first became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, to pinball machines, comic books, rock and roll in the middle of the twentieth century, and even Harry Potter books in the early 2000s.

What made these movements regressive? They all relied on complaints about changes which activists blamed on popular culture. Concerned about the rise in immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the early twentieth century, some activists argued that the movies triggered the "baser" instincts in these people and thus movies (and immigrants) posed a threat to public safety.

Other fears emerged about popular culture because young people increasingly had more leisure time after World War II; thanks to postwar prosperity, young people could spend more time in school and were needed less in the labor force. This change gave rise to fears about juvenile delinquency (despite a reduction in juvenile crime after the war) and about the kinds of activities young people enjoyed, like comic books and playing pinball.

Concerns when rock and roll first emerged in the early 1950s coincided with the civil rights movement and a shift towards racial integration. One anti-rock and roll activist (and pro-segregation activist) in the segregated south used fears of racial integration to claim that rock and roll music would destroy their way of life, as both black and white teens often listened to the music (although mostly in segregated arenas at the time). Other activists were more subtle, instead claiming that rock and roll performers (some of whom were African American) would cause riots among teens, drawing on postwar fears of juvenile delinquency.

Activists achieved varying degrees of success. In the first decade of the twentieth century in some places like Chicago the police had the authority to censor movies. Activists succeeded in getting the U.S. Senate to hold hearings about the dangers of comic books, and brought concerns about pinball machines as gambling devices into many court rooms around the country. And in the 1980s, a group of activists—many of whom were married to national political leaders—succeeded in convening a hearing in the U.S. Senate, calling for record companies to put warning labels on some albums with "explicit language." Activists claimed that the music "had gone too far" and implied that it might be to blame for other social problems like teen pregnancy, youth violence, or something nearly impossible to measure: an overall decline in values.

For more information, take a look at this New York Times video about the 1980s activist group Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) (for which I was interviewed):


Regressive social movements draw on pre-existing fears and suggest a solution to widely held concerns that many people have. These movements often gain public support by heightening these pre-existing fears through hyperbole and commentary that is easily spread through social media now and historically by traditional media like television news and before that newspapers and magazines.

While progressive social movements argue that a new change will make something in society better, regressive social movements are triggered by new changes—and are sometimes a backlash to the results of progressive social movements.

Can you think of some contemporary examples of regressive social movements? What changes triggered them? What are their activists hoping to achieve?


"But social movements can also be regressive: when people observe a change that has taken place that they feel is harmful, they call for a reversion to what they see as a better past."

Maybe I'm simply picking up on a bad word choice, but are you saying (implying?) that 'harm' is the indicator of 'regression'? Doesn't it imply that your 'harm' might be someone else's 'relief'. Is your 'pain' on 'the left' any greater (or less) that mine on 'the right".

I'm not looking for an argument, just wondering who gets to choose.

I'm a 70 year old post-masters grad. (1975) from City University of New York, BTW.


Not all movements are progressive. Was Hippie movement progressive according to you? Free sex and drugs and what not, how can that be progressive? The legacy of that movement, the premarital sex, is that progressive? Or the torn jeans, short skirts, obscenity in movies and media, which one of these sound progressive to you? In the last seventy years we have become lunatics and call regression progression. We mouth words of the devil against our own comfort because he is forcing us to say so. May God bring that day soon when man could be sane again.

It seems to me, the postmodernist movement in academia is the most significant regressive movement of our time. The irony being that it is packaged and sold to young impressionable minds as progressive. A rebranding of radical leftist Marxist conflict theory ideology, replacing the proletariat with another group of victims; the emergence of identity politics. Cultural Marxism takes hold; the end of free speech, liberty and capitalism and a return to the horrors of the impoverished police state.

One of the biggest movement that comes to mind is the Rodney King riots of 1992. That was a movement that people protested for not convicting the police offices that brutally beat a man that had broken the law. Yes the police officers where out of hand using excessive force. But at the same time why do some people feel they are above the law and continue to break laws and push their limit with authorities? Society has become disrespectful and entitled. Instead of making this a better world we have made it unbearable and most have no respect for law enforcement.

If other people were more like me, the world would be a better place!

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