November 16, 2020

Moral Panics in 2020

Jessica polingBy Jessica Poling

It is no secret that 2020 has been a time of public unrest. Mounting outcries regarding police brutality, gender inequality, and the Trump administration’s mishandling of climate change and COVID-19 dominate the daily news cycle, our social media pages, and conversations with friends and family.

Alongside these very legitimate concerns are political conspiracy theories that have slowly gained space in the public discourse and enraged (predominantly) conservative Americans. We can use sociologist Stanley Cohen’s theory of “moral panics” to understand why these conspiracy theories have gained public prominence, and what their impact has been on our country.

The concept of “moral panics” was developed by Cohen in the mid-twentieth century to explain moments of pervasive, collective anxiety experienced by members of a society. According to Cohen, social groups may periodically experience widespread feelings of panic due to some triggering event that is collectively perceived as a threat to the group. Often, these events seemingly pose a threat to the group’s traditions or cultural values. Unlike social movements, wherein groups of people work collectively to produce some social change, moral panics are a collective negative reaction to some existing social phenomena.

Cohen outlines the five stages of moral panics:

1) there is some triggering event that catches the public’s attention and is perceived as a threat;

2) the threat is amplified by the media, and in many cases a symbolic villain is constructed to rally against;

3) growing collective concerns;

4) higher-powers (ex. Political or religious leaders) formally recognize the panic and note that it must be addressed;

5) said higher-powers introduce some change to address the concerns and decrease panic.

In many cases the phenomena triggering the moral panic may not actually pose a real threat to society, but instead may touch upon some existing anxiety. A classic example of such a moral panic is the Salem Witch Trials, in which dozens of women (and some boys) were accused of witchcraft out of growing public concern that witchcraft was on the rise. At the time, witchcraft was the perfect catalyst for a moral panic not only because Salem citizens worried for their physical safety, but also because it stood as a threat to religious and gendered colonial values.

We can also use this concept to understand our current political moment.  In addition to the many legitimate threats we face this year, many Americans have grown increasingly alarmed by populist conspiracy theories that speculate about numerous encroaching threats to our nation. The far-Right’s fascination with “QAnon” epitomizes this new trend.

In 2017, an anonymous 4chan user, “Q,” publicly posted that they had special government security clearance that granted them insider information regarding the “deep state.” In his “drops,” Q periodically leaks new information regarding the State’s supposed corrupt activity; many of these drops accuse prominent politicians of pedophilia and child sex-trafficking.

Recently, the internet became obsessed with a supposed scandal involving the online furniture site, Wayfair, after users stumbled across a series of wildly expensive cabinets on the site, all of which were identified with female names like the “Jessica.” Pointing to the fact that many of these names matched those of recently missing children, conspiracy theorists argued that the cabinets were a guise to purchase trafficked children.

While these theories sound absurd on paper, they have entered the public discourse and gained the attention of many Americans. Even Americans who do not follow QAnon have recently joined national conversations about child sex-trafficking and pedophilia, trying to raise awareness on platforms like Instagram with the hashtag #SavetheChildren.  

However strange and unfounded, it is clear that QAnon has raised public anxiety regarding corruption and the safety of children. For this reason, QAnon is an excellent case to study moral panics. QAnon’s baseless conspiracy theories have raised collective panic that our society is under attack--not because we are facing a deadly, uncontrolled pandemic or rising white supremacy--but because pedophilia and corruption has supposedly infiltrated the State. Moreover, as Cohen predicts, this panic has been formally recognized by State officials like President Trump, who has refused to denounce QAnon.   Symbolic scapegoats, like Hillary Clinton, have been brought forth to take the blame.

Understanding QAnon’s theories simply as our country’s most recent moral panic is illuminating for several reasons. Like all moral panics (such as the Salem Witch Trials, the 1980’s “Satanic Panic,” or the War on Drugs), the root of QAnon is not a realistic threat, but rather a growing fear that something integral to our society is changing or under attack.

Given Democrats’ gradual march towards more progressive policies, it is no wonder that some of the far-Right is convinced that something is fundamentally corrupt in our democracy. Moreover, as David Roberts of Vox discusses in his article, “Why conspiracy theories flourish on the right.” conservatives are already more likely to be critical of government and other institutions and thus more likely to believe conspiracy theories that point to their flaws. Conspiracy theories thus support what many Republicans already believe to be true: that the system is broken and they will suffer for it. QAnon’s theories are thus a convenient message to collectively rally behind because they speak to growing political anxieties that already exist. In essence, QAnon has given a voice to a panicked collective who is distrustful of mainstream institutions and political change.

Cohen’s work gives us useful language to think about these issues and understand their true nature.  They are the moral panics of a current, turbulent society and not true dangers.

Comments

2020 is a year with too many bad changes. especially the covid virus

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