Moral Panic 101: Safe Schools and the new folk devils

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Sociologist Barry Hindess reviews Benjamin Law's new book about Safe Schools from a wider historical perspective (Image via

Many social scientists of an older generation will have felt a warm glow at the appearance of Benjamin Law's recent Quarterly Essay, 'Moral Panic 101'.  

Its title reminds us of important battles over academic and public discussion of deviants at a time when, as now, universities, and social science faculties, schools and departments within them, were under pressure to show that they could made useful contributions to public policy. While Marshall McLuhan had used the term "moral panic" to refer to a pervasive sense of fear, its most familiar usage and the closely associated concept of "folk devil" were introduced by a few junior academics in British Universities, most notably Jock Young and Stan Cohen. This part put their careers at risk by arguing that significant  policy concerns relating to policing and social control were responses, not so much to what was happening in the wider society, but rather to what we would now call media "beat-ups".

The British story of moral panic – the American story is rather different, while the Australian story draws on both – begins in Clacton in Essex, the closest seaside resort east of London, over the rain-soaked 1964 Easter weekend, when groups of bored young people, collectively known as mods and rockers, deprived of their anticipated beaches, fought in the wet streets frightening bystanders and damaging public property – a few seats and lamp-posts – in the process. Mods versus rockers fights resumed a few weeks later at a number of seaside resorts in the South of England.

Mods, for the most part, got around on scooters, while rockers used motor bikes. They dressed differently, if only because most bikes available in Britain at the time leaked oil onto their riders' clothing and scooters did not; rockers wore jeans and leathers, while mods dressed more conventionally and generally looked smarter. 

Media reports of their clashes referred to riots and represented both groups, along with young people in general, as threats to public safety — a view reinforced by ill-informed pronouncements by an Anglican Archbishop, police and politicians. Moral panic, in this case, was not based on a total fabrication — groups of young people did indeed fight in Clacton over Easter 1964 and in other resorts a few weeks later. Yet the scale of the violence and the threat posed to innocent bystanders and to public order more generally were vastly exaggerated.

The moral panic here was the fear that Britain's youth were getting out of control — a fear both promoted and reported as fact by the media and by important public figures. The folk devils were the mods and rockers who were represented as threatening public order and social values. One important implication of the Cohen/Young approach was seen to be that, rather than allowing media beat-ups or politicians to define their research problems, social scientists would do better to investigate how social problems came to be identified, if not actively fabricated, both in the media and by politicians.

While they would now be seen as rather conservative, Cohen and Young's arguments were widely interpreted in their time as a radical critique of current policing practices and of conservative thinking in the fields of criminology and sociology. This critique was soon given a distinctly Gramscian twist in Stuart Hall's powerful analyses of Thatcherism and neoliberalism. Many of its supporters hoped, naively perhaps, that this critique would reduce the impact of, if not put an end to, moral panics around what was seen as deviant behaviour and the associated stigmatisation of the alleged deviants — and, for a time, it did seem that police chiefs and other public figures were becoming a little more circumspect in their pronouncements.

In the longer term, however, the impact of this critique is not so clear. What many of us read as critical of current thinking and practices could also, with a bit of effort, be read as an admirably clear guide to action, showing would-be perpetrators what they need to do to mobilise a successful panic.

Subsequently, police chiefs and senior clergy have become more imaginative in the threats they claim to identify, while the mainstream media appear to have fewer qualms and political parties continue desperately promoting moral panics, particularly around law and order, in the hope of electoral advantage.

Overall, leaving aside wildly successful campaigns to demonise asylum-seekers and Muslims, moral panics involving coordinated action on a national scale between police, clergy, politicians and media organisations seem relatively uncommon. In the Australian context, however, this observation should be qualified in at least two ways: first, the existence of distinct state police forces makes coordinated perpetration of panic more difficult to achieve in Australia than in the more centralised British system; second, it is hard not to notice the contemporary international moral panic promoting fear of Islamic radicalisation, which has taken hold right across Australian jurisdictions. Like the British mods/rockers panic of the 1960s, this last has not been built entirely out of nothing: there have been documented cases of young Muslims becoming radicalised. Yet, again, as in 1960s Britain, the extent and significance of this phenomenon have been greatly exaggerated.

We should also note a number of more or less successful Australian attempts to conjure up Moral Panics: John Howard's campaigns against the "black-armband" view of Australian history; the Children Overboard affair; the Coalition's valiant efforts  to demonise latte-sipping elites and trades union activists, and its unscrupulous use of security as an excuse for granting draconian powers to police and security agencies; Labor's effective Mediscare campaign during the 2016 election; the current "No" campaign's efforts to demonise supporters of marriage equality, representing them as intolerant extremists; and, of course, the anti Safe Schools campaign's attempts, admirably dissected in Benjamin Law's Moral Panic 101, to convince us that safety for LGBTQI kids would make schools unsafe for heterosexuals.

As a recovering sociologist, the first thing. I looked for in Moral Panic 101 was some reference to the Cohen/Young material, the work of their successors and the rather different American history of the idea. Since he was not writing primarily for an academic audience, Benjamin Law decided, not unreasonably, to follow a different route by providing an angry but careful account of the scandalous campaign against Safe Schools. My only worry about his impressive discussion concerns a point noted earlier, that a good, clear examination of an only partially successful Moral Panic campaign might provide future panic perpetrators with a practical guide to action and what they might do to be more effective in future — exactly as the 101 in his title suggests. 

Quarterly Essay: Moral Panic 101 by Benjamin Law is available in paperback (128pp, RRP 22.99) HERE.

Barry Hindess is an emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations. You can follow Barry on Twitter @barryhindess.

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