We human beings are interesting creatures. We view the world through various social lenses, and use that information to make interpretations about everything that surrounds us. During times of desperation or uncertainty, however, those social lenses are distorted by fear and a desire to quickly identify a source of such distress, aided by those who stand to gain from the propagation of such fear. Welcome to the world of moral panic.
Moral panics have long been a heavily researched topic for both sociologists and psychologists, most notably in the work of Stanley Cohen (who is credited with coining the term “moral panic”), and more recently, in the work of Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Simply put, a moral panic is a sense of outrage amongst a group of people that is directed towards a source that, upon further examination, does not merit such outrage. Typically, such moral panics are accompanied by calls for changes in public policy to “curtail” such sources (which Cohen labeled “folk devils”), as well as by a nostalgic longing for the “good ole days,” when such folk devils were supposedly non-existent.
In spite of the sheer lunacy of some moral panics, as Goode and Ben-Yehuda insightfully note, such moral panics nevertheless tend to “leave an informal, and often an institutional, legacy.” Comic books were once said to be actively poisoning impressionable young minds, and hence, some were edited en masse after a public outcry. The growing popularity of hip hop music in the 1980s led to similar unjustified concerns, and eventually led to the advent of parental advisory labels on any music that was deemed “explicit.” After the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, much national discourse was devoted towards debating whether violent video games were largely to blame (as if computer programs can actually produce deep-rooted psychopathology).
And now we find ourselves in the midst of perhaps the most asinine moral panic yet: the availability of birth control. The manufactured outrage exhibited by some towards birth control is exceptionally transparent. Yet, many of us still find ourselves fighting a completely unnecessary battle against groups who fancy themselves as victims in a “war against religion.” The real victims, of course, are women. In spite of the fact that many states have long required that birth control be covered in insurance plans, and in spite of the fact that many women use birth control for issues unrelated to pregnancy prevention (such as debilitating pain during menstrual cycles), those responsible for turning these women into folk devils have accused such women of wanting birth control simply to engage in “wildly deviant sexual promiscuity.” There have been accompanying calls to completely remove birth control from the spectrum of insurance coverage altogether. And tragically, women who use birth control have been disparaged and slut-shamed to a despicable degree in recent popular discourse.
We cannot allow this level of misogyny to continue. But, perhaps our greater responsibility lies with understanding our human tendency to disparage the innocent during those times when we hastily seek out blame.