“What we can learn from debates of penal populism is first and formost that attitudes about crime and punishment are not rational, and the causes of crime have to be found, not primarily in its sanctioning system of punishment, but in the macro conditions of society rather than in individual micro considerations. ” Societies everywhere have at time been gripped by moral panics and yet, as Cohen (1972) says, they have received insufficient systematic attention. Focusing on moral panics in the guest lecture raises questions in my head.
How much concern in how many individuals constitutes a genuine case of moral panic? Why do some panics occur among certain segments among the public but not others? Moral panics frequently erupt in our modern society, a fact that should cause us to question their sophisticated and tolerant towards nonconformity. It is entirely likely that moral panics serve as a mechanism for simultaneously strengthening and redrawing society’s moral boundaries, the line between morality and immorality, just where one leaves the territory of good and enters that of evil.
When a society’s moral boundaries are sharp, clear, and secure, and the central norms and values are strongly held by nearly everyone, moral panics rarely grip its members, nor do they need to. However, when the moral boundaries are fuzzy and shifting and often seem to be contested, moral panics are far more likely to seize the members of a society (Ben-Yehuda, 1985).
In the moral panic, the public’s fear may be mistaken or exaggerated, but they are real, they do not have to be “engineered” or “orchestrated” by powerful agencies, institutions, bodies, or classes such as the media, the legislature, or the government. For instance, during times of stress and crisis, the public translates its anxiety into an irrational fear of being victimized by street crime, and this, in turn, leads the public to accept, even demand, punitive approaches to the crime problem (Scheingold, 1991).
Therefore I think moral panics should include the dimension of public concern. There must be latent potential on the part of the public to react to a given issue to begin with, some raw material out of which a media campaign about a given issue can be built. The public may hold a more sophisticated view of the issue than the press, but if the media is infused with hysteria about a particular issue or condition which does not generate public concern, then we do not have a moral panic on our hand.