The world is NOT going to hell in a handcart, as I have discussed elsewhere. But people like to think it is. People are, indeed, susceptible to panicking, to over-egging the sense of danger that there is, and probably for good evolutionary reason. After all, it is better to overstate the case, in causal terms, when you see the leaves of bush rustling. Far better for longevity to assume it is a lion than merely the wind.
However, we no longer live on the savannah. We need to get things right. It’s what science seeks to do; and yet we are emotional creatures. Heck, check out the last few weeks on the atheist and skeptical blogosphere. I have just moved house and have been without the internet mostly for the last few weeks, and I have no idea what is going on, or who half of the people are (I still don’t understand who or what went on at Elevatorgate). Someone tried to update me yesterday and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of confusion and frustration. There seems to be, on all sides of every attack and defence, a lot of conjecture. That many people can sit at their computers and believe either allegations or defences at face value and without access to anything nearing objectively verifiable facts bespeaks some interesting psychology, to say the least.
And much of what appears to be being thrown around on Twitter or Buzzfeed (whatever that is) could, perhaps, be generalised under the category of moral panic.
But what is moral panic?
Wikipedia defines it as follows:
A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.
There is certainly a role played by media, and in more modern times, by social media, in propagating feelings or cultures of moral indignation, often fuelling gross overreactions to situations with moral dimensions. That said, I don’t want to minimalise issues which are bona fide and demand attention. I do, however, doubt that everybody online, in the atheist communities, is acting as rationally as they think their own worldviews emphasise.
Such moral indignation looks to certainly upset societal values and interests within the loosely affiliated movements, projects and organisations associated with atheism and skepticism. People are incensed about all sorts of things on many different platforms around the virtual world.
I gave a talk on free will recently to a skeptics group in the UK. I went to the pub with some of them afterwards, and it turns out that only one person (the organiser) other than me knew what or who atheism+, PZ Myers, Michael Nugent and any number of other people and issues were (and this is not any value judgement on the people mentioned at all; I am not interested in that). In fact, it seems to maney athists (especially of older generations) that Dawkins is about the only prominent modern atheist about whom they know. So there is definitely a sense that the sorts of things that people are vociferously debating about on Twitter and any other social media platform are irrelevant to the general population, when in reality 99% of the population has no idea what or who these people are getting their gender-neutral underwear in a twist about. This is an important point since perspective is a core characteristic within the moral panic paradigm.
Disproportionality is one of the defining features, which have been set out as:
- Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.
- Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.
- Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganised.
- Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
- Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic. [Jones, M, and E. Jones. (1999). Mass Media. London: Macmillan Press]
Here are some examples of subjects rip for moral panic, as might be seen from right-wing media outlets like the UK’s Daily Mail or FOX News:
- immigrants and immigration
- Christian persecution
- Islam, both post 9/11 and now
- deconstruction of society
- deconstruction of nuclear families and family life
- increase of violence across society
- education going downhill
- homosexuality (especially during the rise of AIDS)
- video gaming
Now all of these may have genuine issues associated with them (and I have written and talked about some of them negatively), but moral panic falsely inflates or creates issues which are not technically real or that extensive.
The reason why the media has such an important role to play is the increasing influence it has on attitudes and as a source of information. That we record crimes better and report them in more detail and more often than ever before, gives us an inflated sense of criminality, whether crime has actually risen or not.
One of the most famous examples remains the period of McCarthyism in the Cold War era, with government and media heightening the pervading fear arousal to a problematic level, destabilising society.
Moral panic, in this more recent manifestation, is not solely within the domain of the right-wing. The left-wing could be accused of the same. Feminism is potentially a new battleground for moral panic, from both sides of the fence. Many claim that feminism is overreactive whilst others point towards counter-movements such as men’s rights movement A Voice for Men which goes under the banner of a prime example of moral panic: “Humanist Countertheory in the Age of Misandry”. Is this really an age of misandry? Really?
I don’t want to get into a debate on feminism (FYI, I am feminist in outlook, and think that intersectional approaches to equality of opportunity are a good thing). However, with some topics, things are pretty empirical, and as evidentialist skeptics, we should always favour an empirically sound approach. Thus, about my recent posts about my own rational ‘Islamaphobia‘, I would like to make sure I can back my sentiments up with good data, such as finding out whether most modern terrorist actions are really Islamic in nature (proportionally) etc. With regards to feminism, we can certainly look at sound data collected to establish empirically based points; for example, using sound reports such as this one. Data seems to be the key to steeling ourselves against disproportionality which can lead to consensus hostility.
As ever, cognitive biases have their own very important parts to play in the flourishing of moral panics. If we can mitigate against those nasty gremlins in our minds, then we have a fighting chance to stave off creeping flirtatiousness with moral panic.
Primarily, though, in my books, the media and news organisations need to take a look at the way they present information. Or misinformation. This is a pipe-dream, of course, since panic sells newspapers. See the Daily Mail. See FOX. In a perfect world, evidence-based news and information sharing would be the order of the day. And this needs to stretch to kneejerk reactive blog posts, tweets, facebook posts and statuses, and so on. Tidal waves of moral panic allow invective, moral intuition and nonsense to surf in; all the while the waves erode the once solid shores of society. But society is an island, and those waves can come from every direction.
Start thinking about building defences. Start determining ways we can control the weather system.
Let’s hope for calmer waters.