This time, the right kind of moral panic

At last we may be entering what sociologists call a “moral panic” over guns. While the term may sound ominous, moral panics historically have been behind may progressive (and conservative) social changes.

According to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) and credited as creator of the term, a moral panic occurs when ” condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as “folk devils.”

Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo.The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they are not consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.

Moral panics have several distinct features, first delineated by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda.

Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative impact 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.

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