Moral Panics, Then and Now
by Derek Royden
For at least half a century, at least once every decade in the English-speaking democracies of the West there’s been a moral panic of some sort, usually related to progressive social change. In the 1980s, it was the now almost forgotten ‘Satanic Panic’, which spread like a sociological wildfire in Canada and the United States, despite only extremely dubious anecdotal evidence to support it.
Without the internet or social media to stoke it, the escalating panic relied on traditional news sources, especially magazine format shows like ‘20/20’ and ‘60 Minutes, who drew ratings alleging that (fictional) ‘Satanists’ were going into the daycare business to engage in the ritualized abuse of children. People later exonerated by the legal system were tried in the court of public opinion and had their lives turned upside down, often on the basis of visibly coached testimony from supposed victims.
That mainstream outlets embarrassed themselves by running with this story was bad enough, but those claiming to be liberals often publicly gave it credence. There is no small amount of irony in the fact that in our own time ‘QAnon’ and ‘Pizzagate’ have recycled aspects of this debunked panic to accuse some well-known Democrats of doing similar and even more outrageous things to children.
The Satanic Panic was also, in a sense, a preview of what was to come just a few years later, as mainstream political figures figures like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton tried to outdo their opponents on the right by promoting stories of non-existent ‘crack babies’ to burnish their tough-on-crime personas at the expense of criminalizing a whole generation of Black women and then their children.
After the earlier hysteria around Satanism in daycare centers had passed, it was clear that at its core the panic was a sexist reaction to the growing participation of women in a workforce previously dominated by men, which led to an ever-greater need for childcare for working parents.
That both the Satanic and ‘crack baby’ panics were squarely aimed at women simply repeats a pattern that existed with witch trials in early modern Europe and perhaps most famously in the North American context in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony beginning in 1692. Widows, usually the only class of women who held property rights in these societies, were among the most common victims of these panics.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and states began passing laws to further restrict the long-established (50 years for the nation, longer in some states) right to abortion in the country, many politicians on the American right began to target the right of women to use birth control to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. All this is nothing more than an authoritarian ploy to take control of women’s lives and forcefully return them to their previous status as second-class citizens.
Helped along by the internet and a global pandemic that isolated most of us for almost three years, we are now seeing multiple moral panics at the same time, often grouped together under the nonsensical idea of ‘woke’ ideology (and its close cousin, ‘cancel culture’) by a reactionary right that substitutes personal grievance and hatred of tiny marginalized groups like trans people for policy making.
Derek Royden is a Canadian journalist.