March 6, 2020
If you were living in Great Britain in 1964 you might have thought the country was coming apart at the seams. The newspapers were full of stories of mods and rockers in pitched battles, terrorising local communities, foreshadowing widespread revolt. If you remember the movie Quadrophenia you’ll have a good sense of the zeitgeist.
Except, what the county was sold as insurrection was in reality more youthful exhibitionism. The difference between what the public believed about mods and rockers and what really happened was so stark that it led Stanley Cohen to coin the label ‘moral panic’.
For Cohen, and sociologists after him, the term had a very specific meaning. It described how society repeatedly over-reacted to expressions of youth culture. In the process, it saw , new forms of dress and music as existential threats rather than simply markers of social change (the subtitle of Cohen’s work was ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’).
But since Cohen popularised the term, ‘moral panic’ has taken on a wider meaning. Today it is used to describe a widespread fear that is (typically) irrational, and often stigmatises those that are already marginalised. And just like in the 60s with the mods and rockers, these panics often create a perfect storm of misinformed media and spooked politicians, resulting in ham-fisted and heavy-handed responses.
Watching the response to the coronavirus (COVID-19), it’s hard not to conclude that this is a moral panic too. This is certainly the view of McGill University’s Samuel Veissière, who made the link in last month’s issue of Psychology Today. Veissière’s point is that the fear associated with the virus is significantly out of proportion to its actual danger. According to this week’s New York Times, COVID-19’s mortality rate could turn out to be similar to that of a severe seasonal flu. That’s certainly severe enough to be vigilant but Veissière’s argument (and mine) is that we don’t close borders and restrict flights and freeze exports no matter how bad the flu season gets.
This is not an argument to do nothing, rather an opportunity to question why we have done so much. Using the lens of a ‘moral panic’ helps us understand why stories about (and fears regarding) the virus segue so easily into anti-Chinese Xenophobia. There have been plenty of local stories of anti-Chinese sentiment disguised as health concerns but (as is often the case) nobody went quite as low as Fox News. There, one of the hosts demanded China apologise for spreading the disease, claiming it started because they eat “raw bats and snakes”.
So far so depressing, but there’s an important local angle here that’s hard to miss. As Christchurch heads towards the first anniversary of March 15th, the ease with which COVID-19 has become a moral panic shows just how far we are from genuinely embracing the principle that “we are one – they are us”.
- Carl Davidson is a Social Scientist at Research First Ltd