Choosing to panic: Moral ‘panics’ require volunteers

Choosing to panic: Moral ‘panics’ require volunteers September 7, 2015

“In 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft.” So begins Stacy Schiff’s engrossing, beautifully written account of “The Witches of Salem” in The New Yorker. It’s as good a brief introduction as you’ll find to the infamously lethal moral panic that swept the colony in that year — all told with wry understatement and a wickedly sharp eye for detail.

The Salem witch trials are the granddaddy of American moral panics. I find moral panics fascinating — more because of circumstance and necessity than because of personal taste or opinion. After watching the religious tradition I was raised in get thoroughly redefined by a moral panic, and witnessing that same panic transform and deform my country’s national politics, I couldn’t really help but be interested in the subject.

DPSchiff’s description of the hysteria and witch-fever that swept through 17th-century Puritan New England illustrates many of the dangers and dynamics of moral panics. It also illustrates why it is that I don’t like that term: panic.

Panic suggests a kind of involuntary response. We encounter some grave threat — or perceived threat — and become overwhelmed by fear. Our fight-or-flight instinct takes over and we start to behave irrationally. We become out of control.

The language of moral panics reinforces this notion that such “mass hysteria” is a kind of involuntary, fear-driven response. We speak of it as a fever or a disease — something external that afflicts the population against their will.

But that’s never entirely true. And sometimes it isn’t even partially true.

The truth is that even at the height of a moral panic choices are being made.

Here is Schiff’s account of a key moment in the witch trial of George Burroughs:

Burroughs extracted a paper from his pocket. He seemed to believe it a deal-clincher. He did not contest the validity of spectral evidence, as had others who came before the court, who did not care to be convicted for crimes they committed in someone else’s imagination. Instead, Burroughs, reading from the paper, asserted that “there neither are, nor ever were witches, that having made a compact with the Devil can send a Devil to torment other people at a distance.” It was the most objectionable thing he could have suggested. If diabolical compacts did not exist, if the Devil could not subcontract out his work to witches, the Court of Oyer and Terminer had sent six innocents to their deaths.

That possibility — that the court “had sent six innocents to their deaths” — confronted the court with a choice. And it chose to double-down, Bad Jackie-style, sending another eight innocents to their deaths.

That’s not how they articulated that choice to themselves, of course. They told themselves they were doing something righteous, something to protect innocent lives from the evil servants of Satan. They told themselves they had no choice, only a duty to do this righteous thing.

In a sense, though, it’s true that — by this point — the Puritan worthies on that court really didn’t have a choice. Their decisions, like the outcome of Burroughs’ trial (guilty, hanged), were all predetermined by a whole series of earlier choices and decisions. They had no choice but to condemn witches to death because they had already made dozens of previous choices to believe in the threat and existence of witches. Those choices, in turn, involved a host of decisions as well — the decision to accept fanciful assertions as solid evidence; the decision never to allow themselves to look squarely at solid evidence to the contrary; the decision to embrace all of this supernatural drama and pageantry and to indulge in its self-congratulatory fantasies.

Those are the choices without which a moral panic can never develop the momentum it needs to catch fire. And when we speak of moral panics eventually burning themselves out, what we really mean is that enough people, eventually, stop making those choices.

Academic studies of moral panics emphasize the function of demagogues, “moral entrepreneurs,” and credulous media accounts. Those all play a role, but they all play largely the same role — that of recruiting volunteers. Without a critical mass of such volunteers volunteering — choosing, deciding — to play along, then would-be demagogues and moral entrepreneurs can never be anything more than cranks.

Schiff’s account of Salem focuses on the role of Cotton Mather, but without a willing battalion of volunteers who chose to play along with his outlandish accusations, he would’ve been nothing more than Abe Simpson: “Dear Mr. Magistrate: There are too many witches nowadays killing our cattle, afflicting us with disease, and causing women to levitate. P.S. I am not a crackpot.”

It’s tempting for us today to look back at the witch-crazed moral panic that swept Salem with a kind of historical condescension, imagining ourselves to be superior to those benighted 17th-century Puritans. That, too, can be a kind of self-indulgent fantasy.

One way of guarding against that is to do what Stacy Schiff does, reminding ourselves of the limited resources those folks in Salem had and the ways their context was very different from ours:

In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, and imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. The 17th-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented. …

A visitor exaggerated when he reported that New Englanders could “neither drive a bargain, nor make a jest, without a text of Scripture at the end on it,” but he was not far off. If there was a book in the house, it was the Bible. The early modern American thought, breathed, dreamed, disciplined, bartered, and hallucinated in Biblical texts and imagery. St. John the Baptist might well turn up in a land dispute. A prisoner cited Deuteronomy 19:19 in his own defense. When a killer cat came flying in your window — taking hold of your throat and crushing your chest as you lay defenseless in your bed — you scared it away by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. You also concluded that your irascible neighbor had paid a call, in feline form.

But it’s just as important, I think, to remember the ways in which these ancestors were not at all different from us — to remember that while our context and culture and understanding of the natural world may have changed over the years, human nature hasn’t. We may not call it “spectral evidence” anymore, but we’re still just as tempted to find it appealing, for all the same reasons.

And we still do. Modern-day Cotton Mathers are still inviting Americans to pretend they have reasons to fear imaginary dangers, and Americans are still eagerly volunteering to play along. Choices are being made. That may be irrational, but it’s not panic. It’s pretense.



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