Moral panic, as described by creator of the term, Stanley Cohen in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) occur when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to social values and interests.”
Sighting those who start moral panic are refered to as ‘moral entrepreneurs” where the people who ‘threaten the social order’ are refered to as ‘folk devils. This such panic, generally starting with the press, when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values.
Cohen first used this term when he examined the mods/rockers movements in the 60’s and 70’s. Although credited as polar opposites (class notes) The group termed “rockers”, usually manual workers who wore clothes such as black leather jackets and rode big motorcycles in gangs.
The other group, known as “mods”, were mostly from the cities who wore suits and rode scooters, and who saw rockers as “out of touch”.
Moral panic clearly existed prior to Cohen creating the term. Virtually every dance style introduced in the 20th century created such panic. Even the waltz was condemned much earlier as a sure path to sin because the couples embraced each other.
Moral panic has occurred over a number of varied social issues, for example, football hooliganism of the 1970s, acid house parties in the 1980s, the rise of punk music and more recently explicit video games.
Defining features of moral panics
Moral panics occur when the media turn a reasonably ordinary event and
present it as extraordinary.
• The media, in particular, set in motion a deviance amplification spiral, through
which the subjects of the panic are viewed as a source of moral decline and
• Moral panics clarify the moral boundaries of the society in which they occur.
• Moral panics occur during periods of rapid social change and anxiety.
• Young people are the usual target of moral panics, their behaviour is ‘regarded
as a barometer to test the health or sickness of as society’.
(Jewkes, 2004, p 67)
A contemporary example of Moral Panic lies with the influx and banning of head shops.
Head shops sprang up around the country, selling alternatives to the likes of coke and cannabis, perfectly legal alternatives because of various loopholes in the Irish law.
The head shops would also sell drugs paraphernalia – smoking, snorting and plant growing equipment – again, all perfectly within the law,
Dangerous or not, a moral panic whipped through the country.
Because of the bad press accompanied with these head shops the Irish government had a knee jerk reaction and banned all substances and their derivatives.
Rather than explore the possibilities of introducing a legal & taxable alternative to drugs, and more importantly a method to exterminate drug dealers for good they were banned.
Some politicians were in favour of outlawing the shops while others argued this would be a “huge mistake” which would allow illegal street dealers to thrive