Moral panic is a viral spread of fear throughout society. Memetics fuels its growth, distorting our perception of reality and keeping us from focusing on what matters.
A moral panic is the spread of fear throughout society that some fundamental value is being threatened. Such panics are highly narrative-driven; they create a frame – a memetic structure – to which facts and memes are added. Every new incident adds to the bank of prior occurrences, and deepens the panic among the infected.
Moral panics share certain characteristics:
- Concern: there is a stereotype, intrinsic or manufactured, that a group or action is threatening to society or its values
- Animosity: division is sown, hatred towards that group is encouraged and publicized
- Consensus: a significant number of people have absorbed the concern and are exhibiting the animosity
- Disproportionate attention: the real threat posed by the subject of concern is not a true reflection of its threat level
The first three of these are drivers of memetics; the latter is a memetic effect.
The Memetics Of Moral Panic
Moral panics spread fear virally throughout a society; this is a key factor in their rise. The extraordinary power of moral panic is driven by how effective their memes are.
Fear is an instinctive drive in human beings. Memes that play on fear and danger are particularly prone to virulence. Recognizing and communicating fear and danger is one of the key factors in why we have benefited from language.
The memes that underlie moral panics take advantage of this tendency. Memes go viral by repetition; and memes of fear and danger are most likely to be repeated.
Two stories are in your local paper. One is about a few incidents in town, where cars have been broken into, burgled, and then set on fire. The other is about a road-funding measure being voted on by the local council. Which story is likely to be the talk of the town at the pub? It’s the carjackings, of course; but the road-funding measure is not only more likely to be relevant to each individual, but even more likely to be relevant to their cars.
Yet there’s no fear about a council vote. Breaking and entering, robbery, and arson? That gets our instincts buzzing. And so we talk about it.
Moral panics play on our inherent tendency to repeat claims of fear and danger.
Humans are social animals; we are instinctively respectful of ingroup-outgroup mechanics, and guarding of group traditions. This is a crucial factor in the spread of moral panic. Not only is there a dangerous threat that is to be feared; but it is a dangerous threat to our society and our values.
Interpersonal communication underlies society. Without it, we would be unable to spread memes, or get anything done collectively. So our biases in spreading memes – units of information and instructions for behavior – will tend towards discussing our communities, when relevant.
Moral panics combine the memetic potency of fear and danger with the catalyst of community concern. These are impulses so deep within us that they’re genetically coded. We cannot help but perk up when threats to our societies and values are raised.
Not only that, but discussing the community we’re participating in gives everyone a common touchstone. If you’re talking about what was on TV last night, it’s possible the other person may not have watched the show. But if you’re talking about how drug use is spreading among children, everyone can participate. And everyone does. And the memes keep spreading.
As creatures of comfort, we are biased towards maintaining the status quo. Moral panics spread memes about explicit threats to the status quo, and so activate our group survival mechanisms. Outrage goes viral. The combination of fear and danger, community values, and threats to our comfortable worldviews makes moral panic rapidly reach consensus in a given population.
Once the moral panic has been seeded, conformism kicks in. Once other people in the community are under the grips of a virulent and powerful meme, who will stand up against it? To do so will not only bring the usual difficulties of standing apart, but bring the additional pressure of siding with a threat that is violently hated. Standing apart from the consensus makes one a target for mob outrage, and often a more proximate target than the perceived threat is.
The safer path, and the most comfortable, is to accept the meme. Or, at least, not to fight it. And so it continues its spread unabated, growing in power and increasing the level of fear and panic.
Disproportionate Attention: The Threat Of Moral Panic
These memetic effects make it inevitable that the real threat of moral panic is blown out of proportion. We cannot help but continue to spread the memes of moral panic, and so they keep rising to fever pitch.
In reality, moral panics are rarely justified. Consider how damaging the War on Drugs has been; is weed really as damaging as we’ve pretended it is? “Rape culture” on college campuses; is university more or less accessible and safe for women than it has been in the past? Illegal immigration: is it really the number one issue we face as a society? And so on.
Moral panics distort reality even when they are based on fact. Perhaps one of those examples I just used triggered a negative response in you. I know so many people whose lives were ruined by weed! or Look at all the rapes on college campuses! or Look at all the rapes by illegal immigrants! or Look at all the bombings by Muslims!
Sure. And those are all true; I won’t argue their incidence with anyone, and have seen plenty of examples myself. But anecdotes and individual incidents do not social threats make. Yes, Muslims commit disproportionate shares of acts of terrorism (the vast majority, in my eyes). But: there simply aren’t that many Muslims in the country. I am concerned about the violent streak in contemporary Islam. I am also concerned about increases in violent crime, but the former gets more attention. Likewise, it’s concerning to hear about actual rapes on campuses. But rapists are a tiny minority of male students; and female students outnumber male students almost two-to-one.
Once the memetic structure for a moral panic is set, simply reporting more facts will inflame the passions of the infected, and spread the moral panic even further.
You see this all the time in politics. I chose somewhat political examples for a reason. Trump wants to stop illegal immigration: so he gets families who have suffered at the hand of illegal immigrants up on stage at rallies and speeches. He’s an expert communicator, and knows how to move the memetics in his favor. Their anecdotes will do more to move the needle than a million statistics. If you want to get a drug banned, just publicize a few examples of kids dying or ending up in hospital. Can’t you see the threat to our society? Ban this poison!
Moral panics use memetic effects to have disproportionate impact on our society. They are affecting the way you think. I can say with certainty that there is something you are concerned about that doesn’t warrant the level of worry you have. Perhaps it’s a fear of flying; it’s safer to take a plane than to take a car, but we don’t see car accidents plastered on front pages.
Moral panic makes for irrational policymaking. Moral panic makes for irrational actions by individuals. Moral panic makes for degeneration in public discourse, as simple passions are inflamed and complex issues ignored.
We can’t change our biology. This is going to keep happening. What can you do? First, take a look at your own mind. What information are you consuming? Whenever you see something and say “of course” or “there they go again”, you might be caught in a moral panic. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that – we all have our priorities. But when you focus on one thing, you blur out the rest and literally change your reality. So choose to focus on what matters.