«MORAL PANICS by Simon Watney In 1941 the English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to an American friend comparing the German propaganda machine ...»
MORAL PANICS by Simon Watney
In 1941 the English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to an American friend comparing
the German propaganda machine to "a clown with homicidal mania - ludicrous and terrifying
both at once". However we may personally respond to the general sleep of reason surrounding
Aids, we are nonetheless obliged to try to make some wider sense of the social climate in which
we find ourselves. Writing in London Portrait earlier this year, John Withington described the number of people with Aids in the United States as "fairly small" (16,000), a figure which in itself offers a profound and significant underestimate. The 300 British cases were regarded as "small beer" compared to the notorious influenza epidemic which killed some twenty million people worldwide after the First World War. Such judgements and comparisons are all the more odious for the casual, matterof-fact way in which they are presented, as if Aids and the influenza epidemic of 1918 co-existed in some timeless dimension of
medical statistics, as well as mischievously conflating the very different issues of infection and contagion.
Withington suggests that the HIV virus "seems to behave completely differently" in Africa where, we learn, it "seems to affect men and women equally", concluding that "perhaps the virus just behaves differently in the tropics." It is nonsense such as this which makes up the greater part of Aids commentary in the West, with an ideological stethoscope stuffed firmly in its ears to block out any approach to Aids which does not conform in advance to the values and language of a homophobic science - a science, that is, which does not regard gay men as fully or properly human. Thus, according to Peter Seitzman, a Manhattan doctor, American "hospital policies have more to do with other patients' fears than a concern for the health of Aids patients".
Five years into the epidemic, the "commonsense" of Aids commentary continues to register endless concern at the (non-existent) threat of infection by casual contact, to the complete disavowal of the real and constant threat which other sick people in hospitals present to people with Aids, whose damaged immune system render them so vulnerable to other people's disease. Thus, commentary produces expectations, and expectations fan out into lived experience. "An eighteen year-old Coventry man, who thought he had caught Aids after drinking from the same bottle as a gay man, punched and killed him, Warwick Crown Court heard on Friday." The man received a three-months sentence in this "wholly exceptional case''.' "Theatre cleaners are threatening to boycott a group of gay actors because they are frightened of catching Aids".
Such stories are invariably accompanied by denials that Aids can be contracted via casual contact, but their framing is always top heavy, focusing on fear rather than allay
panics. Drawing on the influential school of "new" criminology from the 1960s, which tried to explain the social context of crime and "deviance", Stanley Cohen described in 1972 how societies "appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media;
the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people;... Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way that society perceives itself."' For Cohen the mass media provides "a main source of information about the normative contours of a society... about the boundaries beyond which one should not venture and about the shapes the devil can assume."' The mass media is understood to construct "pseudo-events" according to the dictates of an unwritten moral agenda which constitutes newsworthiness.
Thus "rumour... substitutes for news when institutional channels fail", and in ambiguous
situations "rumours should be viewed not as forms of distorted or pathological communication:
they make sociological sense as co-operative improvisations, attempts to reach a meaningful collective interpretation of what happened by pooling available resources."
Subsequent writers such as Stuart Hall have opened up this debate about the representational strategies behind different types of moral panic, arguing that they are indicative of how people are persuaded "to experience and respond to contradictory developments in ways which make the operation of state power legitimate, credible and consensual. To put it crudely, the 'moral panic' appears to us to be one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a 'silent majority' is won over to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, and lends its legitimacy to a 'more than usual' exercise of control".'' Hall's work on the historical structures of British racism has encouraged him to develop a "stages" theory of moral panics, leading to ever increasing punitive state control (although he would be the first to admit that it is not only the state which is involved, however loosely we may define it). This is equally a problem for anyone trying to analyse the representation of homosexuality in terms of available theories of moral panic, since the entire subject is historically constituted as "scandal", with subsequent calls for state intervention. In an important essay on Aids, Jeffrey
Weeks relies heavily on moral panic theory, explaining how its mechanisms "are well known:
the definition of a threat to a particular event (a youthful 'riot', a sexual scandal); the stereotyping of the main characters in the mass media as particular species of monsters (the prostitute as 'fallen woman', the paedophile as 'child molester); a spiralling escalation of the perceived threat, leading to a taking up of absolutist positions and the manning of moral barricades; the emergence of an imaginary solution - in tougher laws, moral isolation, a symbolic court action; followed by the subsidence of the anxiety, with its victims left to endure the new proscription, social climate and legal penalties." 1 " Gayle Rubin also sees sexuality, 3 observing that, special "political moments" in the history of "moral panics rarely alleviate any real problem, because they are aimed at chimeras... They draw on the pre-existing discursive structure which invents victims in order to justify treating 'vices' as 'crimes'... Even when activity is acknowledged to be harmless, it may be banned because it is alleged to 'lead' to something ostensibly worse.” Dennis Altman also discusses Aids in terms of moral panic, but modifies the notion against local and national factors. Thus, "the Australian panic is not only a product of homophobia but is also tied to the... belief that they can insulate themselves from the rest of the world through rigid immigration and quarantine laws" and "a less sophisticated understanding and acceptance of homosexuality than exists in the United States".
Calls for draconian legislation in such disparate societies as West Germany and even Sweden, lead him to conclude that "the link between Aids and homosexuality has the potential for unleashing panic and persecution in almost every society." Whilst such analyses offer a certain descriptive likeness to events, they also reveal many severe limitations, which suggest the inadequacy of the concept of moral panic to the overall ideological policing of sexuality, especially in matters of representation.
To begin with, it may be employed to characterise all conflicts in the public domain where scape-goating takes place. It cannot, however, discriminate between either different orders or degrees of moral panic. Nor can it explain why certain types of events are especially privileged in this way. Above all, it lacks any capacity to explain the endless "overhead" narrative of such phenomena, as one "panic" gives way to another, or one anxiety is displaced across different "panics". Thus one moral panic may have a relatively limited frame of reference, whilst another is heavily over-determined, just as a whole range of panics mayshare a single core meaning whilst others operate in tandem to construct a larger overall meaning which is only partially present in any one of its individual "motifs". Clearly there is not (yet) a moral panic in British or American government circles, compared to their public profiles over, for example, immigration, pornography or abortion. But this is only to say that the theory of moral panics makes it extremely difficult to compare press hysteria and government inaction, which may well turn out to be closely related. In both instances we are facing symptoms - symptoms of sexual repression which manifest themselves across a spectrum which ranges from stammering embarrassment to prurience, hysterical modesty, voyeurism and a wide variety of phobic responses. In other words, the theory of moral panics is unable to conceptualise the mass media as an industry which is intrinsically involved with excess, with a voracious appetite and capacity for substitutions, displacements, repetitions and signifying absences. Moral panic theory is always obliged in the final instance to refer and contrast "representation" to the arbitration of "the real", and is hence unable to develop a full theory concerning the operations 4 of ideology within all representational systems. Moral panics seem to appear and disappear, as if representation were not the site of permanent ideological struggle over the meaning of signs.
A particular "moral panic" merely marks the site of the current front-line in such struggles, we do not in fact witness the unfolding of discontinuous and discrete "moral panics', but rather the mobility of ideological confrontation across the entire field of public representations, and in particular those handling and evaluating the meanings of the human body, where rival and incompatible forces and values are involved in a ceaseless struggle to define supposedly universal "human" truths. What we are dealing with in such phenomena is the public forum in which modern societies and individuals make sense of themselves. Together with the increasing industrialisation of this forum, we should note its centrality for political debates where interest groups attempt to bypass the traditional structures of democratic process in order to force the enactment of laws in the name of the "good" of a population which is never actually consulted.
This is precisely what the mass media were invented to do, since they have evidently never responded to the actual diversity of the societies which they purport to service. We are looking at the circulation of symbols, of the basic raw materials from which human subjectivity is constructed. It is not in the least surprising that those attempting to manipulate conscious attitudes should play on themes which possess deeper, unconscious resonances. Hence the danger of thinking of newspapers or television as being primarily concerned with "news" values, as distinct from entertainment, or drama, or sports coverage, or advertising, or whatever. For all these categories of production share an identical presumption about their audience, which is projected across them in different genres as a unified "general public" over and above the divisions of class, age and gender. This subject audience is massively worked on to think of itself in the terms which familiarity has established through repetition. The very existence of homosexual desire, let alone gay identities, are only admitted to the frame of mass media representations in densely coded forms, which protect the "general public" from any threat of potential destabilisation. This is the context in which we should think about the crisis of representation with which Aids threatens the mass media, understood above all else as an agency of collective fantasy. Aids commentary does not "make" gay men into monsters, for homosexuality is, and always has been, constructed as intrinsically monstrous within the entire system of heavily over-determined images inside which notions of "decency", "human nature" and so on are mobilised and relayed throughout the internal circuitry of the mass media marketplace.
It is the central ideological business of the communications industry to retail ready-made pictures of "human" identity, and thus recruit individual consumers to identify with them in a.
fantasy of collective mutual complementarity. Whole sections of society, however, cannot be contained within this project, since they refuse to dissolve into the larger mutualities required of them. Hence the position in particular, though in different ways, of both blacks and gay men, who are made to stand outside the "general public", inevitably appearing as treats to its 5 internal cohesion. This cohesion is not "natural", but the result of the media industry's modes of address - targeting an imaginary national family unit which is both white and heterosexual.
All apparent threats to this key object of individual identification will be subject to the kinds of treatment which Cohen and his followers describe as moral panics. What matters is to be able to understand which specific groups emerge as threats to which "societal values and interests".
Moral panics do not speak to a "silent majority" which is simply "out there", waiting to listen.
Rather, they provide the raw materials, in the form of words and images, of those moral constituencies with which individual subjects are encouraged to identify their deepest interests and their very core of being. But in so far as these categories are primarily defensive, in so far as they work to protect the individual from a partially perceived threat of diversity and conflict, they are also themselves vulnerable. Hence the repetition of moral panics, their fundamentally serial nature, the infinite variety of tone and posture which they can assume. The successful policing of desire requires that we think of "the enemy" everywhere, and at all times. This is why there is such a marked conflict throughout the entire dimension of Aids commentary between the actual situation of people with Aids, and the model of contagion which they are made to embody.