Moral Panic Part II – A Sense of Proportion

In my last post, I discussed one of two interesting features of moral panics, the tendency for people to pile on the alleged perpetrator instead of standing up for them even when, in retrospect, at least, they did little, or nothing wrong.

In this post, I discuss a second feature of moral panics, that people frequently favor draconian punishments for even mild offenses. Modern Americans recoil when they hear of hands cut off to punish theft. We similarly shake our heads about Singapore, where the death sentence is mandatory for, among other things, possession of 15 grams of heroin.

But the American penal system is also panicked about drugs. Three strikes laws have been used to condemn prior offenders to life sentences for absurdly tiny offenses, like stealing a pair of socks. (The court also imposed a fine of $2,500; the issue of working wages in prisons is a topic for another time.) A high school student who sends an explicit picture of themselves to someone who has asked for just such an explicit picture – consensual sexting – often faces felony charges as well as being required to register as a sex offender.

I like this rendering (Critcher, 2017) who, talking about disproportion in the context of moral panic, puts it this way:

Fundamentally, “the concept of moral panic rests on disproportion” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009, p. 41, emphasis in original). It is evident where “public concern is in excess of what is appropriate if concern were directly proportional to objective harm” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009, p. 40). Statistics are exaggerated or fabricated. The existence of other equally or more harmful activities is denied.

In short, disproportion is a key, repeating element in moral panics.

In my last post, I referred to the case of Aziz Ansari, and quoted Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic, writing about the case, which I render again here:

… what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.

The key point from the perspective of moral panics is the latter end of the scale, “the disappointing.” Suppose we understand Ansari’s behavior – not, to be clear, that I am saying that this is how I take it – to be within the boundaries of the law but perhaps outside the boundaries of gentlemanly conduct. Is the punishment merited? Should years of work put into a profession be erased because of one “disappointing” episode?

Maybe. After all, if we agree Ansari’s is free to be ungentlemanly, we must also agree that people are free to tweet whatever they want.

Still, Flanagan’s remark about the “clinical detail” strikes me as insightful. The moralization of scenarios such as one played out in Ansari’s apartment opens up a space for venom, a space the mob can inhabit, throwing shade with near impunity. The victims of the moral mobs are dehumanized, and – as befits animals – no treatment is too severe, as indicated by the stolen socks case, above.

It’s important to note that the mob mentality can penetrate organizational structures. Worries about harassment in and around the workplace were an important part of the #metoo movement. Should Justine Sacco, whose story I discussed last time, have been fired from her job? Suppose that the employees of her firm were screaming for her firing, but cooler heads deemed the tweet an obvious (if ill-considered and offensive) joke? The urge that people have to jump on the bandwagon and join the moral mob shapes decisions made by those who determine the fate of people such as Sacco. What ought they to have done? How should they think about the “right” punishment?

One might be tempted to reply that of course they should still have fired her. The firm is a private concern, and should protect itself. If the mob is coming, throw them their victim.

This is a tempting line to take, especially since nearly everyone, statistically, will be part of the mob, rather than its victim.

But to return to Flanagan’s quote, above, again, should the punishment for a disappointing date be the end of a career and the destruction of a life? Should the punishment for one vile public statement set against countless other countless benign private acts be global humiliation? Given that moral norms change rapidly, how does anyone know that their particular shortcomings – and we all have them – won’t be moralized and – here’s the key – weaponized?