THERE’S no panic quite like ‘moral panic’, a term that was coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen in the 1960s and defined as: “a widespread fear, often irrational, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society”. If this sounds familiar that’s because we are frequently subjected to such panics, be they caused by the Aurat March, smartphones, the occasional ad/ serial / movie or, most recently, TikTok. Moral panics are fun for (almost) all and are (almost) always engineered by an elite eager to hold on to (and increase) their authority.
First: something or someone is designated a ‘folk devil’; a threat to social values and norms. Second: the media and community at large present the issue in the most simplistic, black-and-white way possible, adding apocalyptic seasoning and predicting the imminent collapse of society in the face of this trumped-up threat. In response to this ‘symbolic representation of the threat’, public sentiment is whipped up and in the final stage politicians, regulators and the judiciary get into the act, simultaneously fanning the flames and disproportionately responding to the threat with legislation, bans and in extreme cases, persecution, with the end result of increasing their own power and authority.
It’s a story as old as civilisation. Ancient Rome saw moral panic over the ‘foreign’ Bacchanalia cult, which operated outside the framework of the Senate and the moral codes of Roman society. It started with the complaint of a woman whose lover was planning to join the cult and would thus have to break up with her, and, once the Senate whipped up a frenzy, culminated with the massacre of thousands. This overreaction was aided by the fact that the Senate and state, reeling from Hannibal’s invasion and the threat of victorious generals gaining public favour, needed to reassert its authority and invent a common enemy to unite against. It worked beautifully.
Similar are the European witch-hunts of the 14th-17th century; here, we saw a moral panic whipped up by the church, aided by entrenched patriarchy, that resulted in the murder of countless women. Here too, we see the need to assert authority play a key role: the worst persecutions took place where rival Christian sects were battling for dominance, and each latched on to this ‘cause’ in order to prove their religious credentials. The Inquisition, having run out of Jews and Moors to persecute, also found this new frenzy to be useful in maintaining its importance and the secular courts, unwilling to see their authority weakened, went further and led the charge when it came to executing suspected witches. A good time was had by all, except the thousands of women tortured and killed as a result.
In Pakistan, moral panic usually culminates in bans.
Luckily, such panics became considerably less genocidal with time, if no less ridiculous. Take 17th-century England where a scare was created over the fact that people were … reading too much. You see, advances in printing methods and paper-making led to books (usually pulpy novels) being available to the masses. And my Lord, was there a panic: these cheap novels were blamed by politicians, activists and the clergy, all eagerly amplified by tabloids, for crime and vagrancy and even murder and suicide and, in retrospect, the language used mirrors contemporary language used against mass and social media.
When Victorian England encountered the bicycle, panic ensued with the clergy shouting that these newly mobile women would now engage in all manner of licentious behaviour like infidelity and prostitution. There were also concerns that cycling would make women infertile. (Interestingly, these are all much the same arguments made by Saudi clerics against women driving.) The panic quietly ended once the clergy realised cycles allowed more people to get to church, much like how clerics in our part of the world rejected TV until they realised they could use this medium to their benefit.
We have seen global panics over youth subculture, activism, comic books, movies and, most recently, smartphones and social media. In Pakistan, these usually culminate in bans by overactive regulators or court-mandated bans in response to frankly frivolous petitions. Take TikTok which has (thus far) been banned and unbanned thrice due to ‘obscene and immoral’ content. It doesn’t matter that such content has to be sought out, or is displayed as the algorithmic result of your search history and not because evil TikTok wants to corrupt this pious nation. It doesn’t matter that TikTok removed over six million such videos from its Pakistan service in just the first half of the year. It doesn’t matter that such arbitrary bans are viewed dimly by international investors. What matters is that amplifying such panics allows you to cast yourself as a saviour of society and morality while also accruing more power to yourself. Why speak sense when panic is so profitable?
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2021