According to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), a moral panic occurs when:
“[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”
Analyses of different quotes have a common contemporary theme of core components, which are; escalation of fear or misunderstanding; about an imminent deviant threat to societal norms; about a certain labelled entity, which is; propagating a stereotype through the mass media. This can be seen in the usual political propaganda squeezed out over an election. The Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline:
“Stop boat people getting on boats – Julia Gillard PM”
This simple headline shows the escalation of fear or misunderstanding of illegal immigrants. The word ‘stop’ is a call to action and implies that something needs to be done. ‘Boat people’ is the label which implies the threat of illegal immigration and it ran in a national newspaper, purportedly endorsed by the PM and used to bring to the attention of the voting public an issue which is considered to be of grave concern. In reality, a study conducted by UQ research group says there were only 1033 boat people out of 48,700 illegal immigrants in Australia.
It must be argued that moral panic could occur as a catalyst to sway the majority into backing an idea that contravenes our human rights or not opposing oppressive draconian statute. This is not meant to imply that any of the immoral or socially unacceptable actions are engineered, simply that a situation might be manipulated to better serve the manipulator. In this paper it must be argued that moral panic is fundamental in allowing legislature to demonise a sector of society, highlight a ‘problem’ and then provide us with an oppressive solution which we must accept.
Morality is a very complex issue with no definitive answers, however there is some consensus that morality is subjective, normative and relative. The fact is that a moral action is relative and can become immoral or vice versa and subsequently, an act that was not deviant suddenly becomes so and there is ebb and flow with regards to laws and legislation. It should be argued that everyone can see the relative nature of morality throughout their life time, within woman’s rights, civil rights, rights in the workplace and human rights.
What are human rights? It must be argued that human rights are inalienable; they are innate within us as a sovereign inhabitant of Planet Earth. Proponents of the concept usually assert that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human. The right to liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and art are a few examples.
The result of moral panics which contravene our human rights include the censoring of classic books and art, legislature creating oppressive statutes regarding peoples’ private sexual practices, restrictions in adult entertainment, over sensitivity to perfectly normal practices like kissing your own children on the lips and taking photos of them at school. Also, there are those which border on the ridiculous, for example, Tinky Winky the Teletubby and Dumbledore from Harry Potter being gay and the banning or censorship of these materials.
By distorting statistics or omitting the whole truth politicians can play to whatever emotion or sense of moral righteousness they want. It must be argued that the concept of moral panic is one of the most important factors in the public acceptance of normally unacceptable behaviour. For example the continued detention of prisoners under the Dangerous Prisoners Act in Queensland allows for the indefinite lawful detention of prisoners after the completion of their sentence. This reduces rights by the deprivation of liberty but most importantly it contravenes the doctrine of the separation of powers, a fundamental principal of democracy.
Other oppressive practices such as the mandatory internet filter contravene our basic rights. It should be argued that the internet is an amazing instrument for free speech and freedom of expression and therefore net neutrality is a vital ‘even and level’ playing field. It is because of this equal playing field that enables access to some information of a questionable nature. The moral panic over online sexual predators can be seen in a Perth Now headline saying:
“POLICE have issued a warning to all parents after identifying disturbing new tactics being used by sexual deviants to entrap children”
And then in their next breath make the claim that;
“Police have not yet arrested or charged anyone for directly grooming children through X-Box 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii consoles”
It is understandable that the most vulnerable members in our society need protection from a very small minority and the topic of sex offender rights is never going to be popular, however the draconian measures given by our politicians and the unabashed trampling underfoot of the most precious and fundamental human rights, need to be seriously questioned. It was William Blackstone who wrote:
“[t]he law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer”
So what is the process?
The press create a “Folk Devil” or something which is instantly identifiable as a problem, for example Islamic people as terrorists, Dennis Ferguson as the face of a child predator or the baby face of Jon Venables as the poster boy of moral decay in society. At the height of the moral panic, after a scapegoat has been demonised, the press or politicians introduce an otherwise unpopular solution that will save us from this again in the future. Because of the panic created, the fear, the twisted statistics, omissions and sometimes bare faced lies, the public willingly give away something that should not be so easily given. It was Benjamin Franklin who said:
“They, who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
What have we given away? As well as the examples mentioned already, there are hundreds of examples of human rights erosion, for example in terrorism legislation. The Australian Human Rights Commission states that:
“Counter-terrorism laws can have a profound impact on fundamental human rights and freedoms, including: the right to a fair trial, the right not to be subjected to arbitrary detention, freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of movement, the right to privacy, the right to non-discrimination, the right to an effective remedy for a breach of human rights.”
Would we have been so keen to hand all of these rights over if not for the scare of 9/11, 7/7 or the Bali bombing when in reality, since 9/11 not a single Australian has been killed on Australian soil from terrorism?
It must be concluded that the moral panic surrounding terrorism, the demonization of Islam and the fear drummed up in the press was an integral part of the process. The same must be argued for refugees arriving by boat that are essentially locked up in prisons while they are being processed, and sex offenders being tortured in jail by inmates with the possibility they may not be released and many other examples.
A question must be raised when addressing these issues, which is, why are the government and legislature throwing away fundamental human rights? The answer is something which cannot be answered here; however, a concise suggestion might be that in an attempt to establish a social order within a landscape of an ever changing society and the instant gratification of the masses that get their information about the world from TV and the tabloid press, measures are enforced quickly rather than thoughtfully.
It must also be concluded that without moral panic and the trial by media, we would not be so quick to give away our basic human rights, rights that our forefathers fought for and rights that we should be protecting for our children.