Moral panic

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A moral panic, as defined by Stanley Cohen, is a sporadic episode which, as it occurs, subjects society to bouts of moral panic, or in other terms, worry about the values and principles which society upholds which may be in jeopardy. He describes its characteristics as "a condition, episode, person or group of persons [who] become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.[1] In the third edition of his book, he identifies clusters around which moral panics form:[2]

  1. Young, working-class, violent males; youth culture and juvenile delinquency
  2. School violence
  3. Bad drugs; Wrong drugs, used by wrong people at wrong times
  4. Child abuse: sexual and Satanic
  5. Sex, violence and blaming the media
  6. Welfare cheats and single mothers
  7. Pornography
  8. Refugees and asylum seekers

Certainly, some of these clusters have elements that are real and hazardous. Moral panics ensue, however, when they are sensationalized, and the society feeds on the sensationalization, creating regenerative feedback and a failure of control.

While Cohen's work focused on the "Punks and Rockers" of the 1960s, moral panics, and the creation of an enemy that threatens one's civilization is not new. The Holocaust was, perhaps, the extreme of the moral panic, in which Nazi ideology blamed Jews as the source of all ills.

Not all moral panics are disastrous as the Holocaust, but moral panics can interfere with civil liberties, such as the presumption of innocence, part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under sufficient public pressure, government officials, in many nations, wish to be seen as "doing something". Taking Cohen's first example of violent youth, consider the balance between public safety and "rounding up the usual suspects" in an area such as soccer hooliganism. The British Home Office is restraining the movement of individuals suspected of disorder at matches. This has been questioned on the basis of proportionality of threat versus safety. [3] While people do get hurt and killed in sports violence, police measures can stop many riots, it is a different level of risk than presented by someone presenting characteristics of a suicide bomber — and deadly mistakes still are made.

Elements of truth

Societies can be torn when one accused of complicity in the current moral panic, such as Communism by Joe McCarthy, will have great difficulty in clearing one's name — the accusation is sufficient. Were there real Communist conspirators inside the U.S. government at this time? Unquestionably so, as VENONA and other sources indicate. Was attention, however, drawn from the true threats?


Moral panics, however, do not explain all societal insecurity. Highly visible moral panics may invite politicians to take visible and popular action against them, while avoiding more complex issues such as unemployment or health care. [4]


  1. Hayley Burns, What are 'moral panics'?
  2. Stanley Cohen (1987), Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Routledge
  3. Geoff Pearson (September 2005), "Qualifying for Europe? The Legitimacy of Football Banning Orders ‘On Complaint’ under the Principle of Proportionality", Entertainment and Sports Law 3 (1)
  4. Daniel Béland (October 2005), The Political Construction of Collective Insecurity: From Moral Panic to Blame Avoidance and Organized Irresponsibility, Center for European Studies Working Paper Series 126