-Contemporary or Urban Legends
-Mass Hysteria and Collective Delusion
-Persecutions and Renewals
Cohen not only launched the term "moral panic," he was also to notice its collective behavior-like quality (1972, pp. 11-12, Collective behavior is defined as behavior that is relatively ous, volatile, evanescent, emergent, extra-institutional, and d; it emerges or operates in situations in which there are no, equate, clearcut definitions as to what to do from mainstream Collective behavior operates outside the stable, patterned s of society; it reflects the "maverick" side of human nature. d with conventional, everyday life, collective behavior is less and more spontaneous, more changeable and less structured, ved and less stable (Goode, 1992, pp. 17-21).
Day to day, week to week, year to year, and even decade to we can make certain predictions about the behavior of the of a given society. We know - within broad limits - that a proportion of the population will vote in a given election, specific products, show up for work, attend religious services, p at night and wake up in the morning, attend class, and obey vs. It is possible to refer to this type of behavior as "conven"everyday" behavior. On the other hand, certain behavior is le from day to day, week to week, or year to year. The stock a great deal more volatile - the price of a given stock, the industrial average, the total number of stocks traded - than are, .-market purchases; this is especially the case during feverish and "bust" trading periods (Kindleberger, 1987; Galbraith, the purchase of certain novelty products or fad items is conmore unstable, and fluctuates far more from year to year, Le purchase of refrigerators, washing-machines, or vacuum The movement of a story through the rumor mill is far more able than the description of a historical event in scholarly 1 articles. Although social movements tend to be far more n collective behavior. still, support for most social movements what chancy affair, and rises and falls more quickly, than it does for mainstream political parties. The unpredictability and disorderliness of charismatic authority in contrast to bureaucratic authority has been a staple of sociological analysis since the pioneering work of Max Weber early in the twentieth century (Goode, 1992).
The forms of collective behavior Cohen mentioned as having direct relevance to moral panics were mass hysteria (p. 11), mass delusion (pp. 11, 148), disasters (pp. 11, 144ff), including the convergence process during disasters (p. 159), riots (p. 11), including race riots (p. 155), crowds (p. 11), especially the milling process that takes place during crowd assemblies (p. 154), mass vilification (pp. 11-12), rumors (pp. 155-6), and legends (p. 156). Let's look at the most basic collective behavior processes and their relation to the moral panic.
Rumor is both a process and a product, an accelerator of collective behavior and a form of collective behavior itself, both a mechanism that pervades collective behavior and an example of collective behavior. Rumor is popularly taken to be stories that are by definition false; actually, experts define rumor not by its falsity - nor its content at all - but by its lack of substantiation. By definition, rumors are told without reliable factual documentation; at some later point in time, they could turn out to be verified, or be shown to be false - what counts is that they are unverified. Rumors are hearsay; they are told, believed, and passed on not because of the weight of the evidence presented, but because of the expectations by tellers that they are true in the first place (Rosnow and Fine, 1976).
Four factors facilitate the rumormongering process: topical importance or "outcome-relevant involvement"; uncertainty or ambiguity; personal anxiety; and credulity. When these four factors are high, many rumors are likely to fly about; when they are low, rumors are unlikely to be circulated (Rosnow, 1988, 1991).
As a general rule, a story about a situation that is felt to be inconsequential in its implications is not a source of speculation (Rosnow, 1988, p. 23). Rumors about events that are felt by listeners to be unimportant, to have little or no relevance for their lives, are far less likely to be passed on and are more likely to be dead-ended if told than rumors about events that are felt to have important consequences, both good and bad. People in the United States simply do not spread rumors about the price of camels in Afghanistan because the subject does not have any importance for them (Allport and Postman, 1946-7, p. 502). Other things being equal, the more subjective importance a given topic has for an audience, the greater the likelihood that rumors will be told evil things a representative of that other racial category did to one of their own members. During periods when conflict flares up and the press is seen as an unreliable source of information - by many whites and conservatives as being too sympathetic to rebellious AfricanAmericans, and by many Blacks and liberals as too sympathetic to the government, the police, and established interests - rumors are likely to fly thick and fast (Rosenthal, 1971; Knopf, 1975).
Stories about what drug dealers are doing are more likely to be countenanced on the basis of less evidence in neighborhoods whose residents feel threatened by drug abuse than in those in which drug abuse is felt to be a more distant or less common phenomenon. The fact that the press, the government and, again, big business are often seen by some members of such communities as deeply implicated in contributing to the problem makes statements which issue from their representatives suspect, and rumormongering more likely.
Rumor is one of the basic processes that both fuels and is fueled by the moral panic. A moral panic sets the stage and provides a context for rumormongering; when rumors take place, they provide the justification for fears, exaggeration, and a sense of threat. Rumor is a vital element in the moral panic. It is one of the reasons why the moral panic must be regarded as a form of collective behavior.
Contemporary or Urban Legends
There is a particular type of rumor that is so important it deserves special mention: the "urban" or contemporary legend. Like rumor, contemporary legends have an unauthorized, unofficial, subterranean quality. They arise more or less spontaneously, they are told with great frequency and intensity for a time, after which they subside; some are reborn in a somewhat different guise at another time in another place. Like rumor, urban legends are dynamic, evanescent phenomena. Contemporary legends are stories that are told as true, and are widely believed, but lack factual verification - which means that they qualify as rumors. On the surface, they seem to be about specific people and events; in reality, they have an abstract, general, or cartoonlike quality. In the run-of-the-mill rumor, what counts is the details of the subject of the story - the fact that the story is about specific events or a particular person. In contrast. the tales told in contemporary legends are stereotypical; they have a standard, dramatic form, they adhere to a fairly fixed formula; they contain a fairly simple plot and readily recognizable characters. They represents a "folk soap opera" in miniature and thus have a widespread and almost timeless appeal. Unlike classic fairy tales or ancient myths, which are fantasic tales about magical events or superhuman characters in a far-off, nonexistent land, modern legends are mundane, seemingly plausible events which took place in the recent past, usually in the local area, to perfectly ordinary people (Brunvand, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1989).
Urban legends circulate for much the same reasons that rumors are told, believed, and passed on; the factors that encourage them include topical interest, ambiguity, anxiety, and credulity. However, since the urban legend (unlike gossip) tends not to be about concrete people whom the listener is likely to know or know about or events with which he or she is personally familar, there have to be some additional factors which propel it into circulation. A few include: they tell a strong. interesting., dramatic story; they tell a story with a meaningful moral or message; they reflect contemporary fears; they contain a grain of truth with respect to what is currently believed; they supply supportive detail or local color; they supply or point to a credible source (Brunvand, 19813 pp. 10-12; Dickson and Goulden, 1983, pp. 128-35; Mullen, 1972).
Many urban legends contain an element of threat; they tend to be about events that were, or nearly were, harmful to the subject of the story. They often infuse the everyday, mundane world with shock. apprehension., wonderment, and fear; they exploit the fear that many people have that danger is lurking around every corner. These stories make that fear a seeming reality. As we saw, anxiety or fear is a major component of rumors; it is one of the forces that propels them. As a general rule, the more frightened listeners are when they hear a rumor (and, it can be assumed, the same applies to legends, a form of rumor), the greater the likelihood they will repeat it. One of the motives for repeating a scary story you've heard is to discover facts from the listener than contradict it. Very often. however. the story is believed and one's fears escalate (Kimmel and Keefer, 1991; Goleman. 1991; Rosnow, 1991).
Moral panics are the perfect breeding ground for urban or contemporary legends. They arise in spheres of life about which threat is perceived and insecurity is rife. As we saw, urban legends are rumors, but they are more than rumors, in that they pretend to be about actual, real-life individuals while, in reality, they have an abstract, cartoonlike, substitutable quality. A given contemporary legend could be about anyone - or anything - with the appropriate characteristics. For instance. in the early 1980s. a legend circulated that Proctor & Gamble. a large, international household products corporation, contributed 10 percent of its profits to the Church of Satan. Something quite specific made P&G the target of the urban legend - its logo. the face of the man in the moon on a field of 13 stars, was capable of being interpreted by means of what was thought to be satanic imagery - but , in principle, the rumor could have been told about any large corporation. To many small-town fundamentalist Christians, such corporations were both a symbol and a cause of bewildering social change and the decline of a traditional way of life.
One special type of urban legend that most successfully propels and expresses the moral panic is the "atrocity tale" (Bromley, Shupe, and Ventimiglia, 1979) or "horror story." In a moral panic, horror or atrocity stories "help identify the threat" (Thompson, King, and Annetts, 1990, p. 3). The ideology of specific social categories, subgroups, or social movements provides a framework that makes certain horrifying (but empirically unlikely) events seem possible, plausible, or even likely; tales about such events are believable because, in certain circles, they give life to fears and threats that have been articulated on a more abstract or general level. Legends narrating atrocity tales express and validate what tellers and listeners believe and want to hear in the first place. A good example of an atrocity tale in the form of a contemporary legend is the story that was circulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s among certain feminist circles of the existence of "snuff" films, movies in which women or girls were actually raped, mutilated, and killed on camera for the entertainment of male viewers. Although no solid documentation exists that any such films are authentic, the fact is, their existence and circulation was believable among feminist separatists who were willing to believe that man's deepest desire is to brutalize and kill women - or, failing that, to watch other men brutalize and kill women (Dworkin, 1981, 1982). Stories of "snuff" films provided the documentation for that belief (Thompson, King, and Annetts, 1990).
Best (1990, pp. 131-50) takes the existence of urban legends as one indication of fear and concern about a given perceived threat. Certain conditions generate social movements; the response to others is less organized, less institutionally based, more "subterranean." Certain themes can be regarded as "unconstructed social problems" when they become the subject of legends and folklore (pp. 144-8). The fact that legends are told, believed, and widely disseminated measures or indicates the degree or extent of the seriousness with which the problem is taken. As we saw, the number of actual incidents involving serious harm to children as a result of "Halloween sadism" was quite small, indeed, practically nonexistent. This means that there was a diminished likelihood that a social movement would have emerged to deal with it in a concrete, practical way. At the same time, the fear that such a claim tapped was sufficiently strong and widespread to launch a score or more legends conveying the message that children were acutely vulnerable to such a threat. This argument applies even more strongly to moral panics, which generate intense fear for a period of time, but do not necessarily grow into fully-fleged social movements. Indeed, the fact that a number of contemporary legends are circulated about a given perceived threat provides an important clue that we may have a moral panic on our hands.
Mass Hysteria and Collective Delusion
A great deal has been written about hysterical contagion, epidemic hysteria, mass panic, or mass hysteria. (Sirois, 1974, summarizes the literature as of two decades ago.) Note that at least one observer (Bartholomew, 1990) has objected to the term, "mass hysteria," holding it to be pejorative and inappropriately pathology-oriented. He prefers the term "collective exaggerated emotions." According to Miller (1985, pp. 98ff), there are three qualities necessary to define mass hysteria: a mistaken belief concerning the threat from a certain agent, heightened emotion, particularly fear, and mobilization, especially flight, on the part of a substantial proportion of the population supposedly threatened by the agent.
If we are quite strict and literal about applying these three criteria, mass hysteria is so rare as to be virtually nonexistent. The classic cases of the mass hysteria literature - including reactions to the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938 - virtually never entailed mass mobilization. While a substantial proportion of the population has sometimes felt threatened by a nonexistent agent and, upon occasion, even felt fearful as a consequence, it is practically never the case that such a belief or emotion has triggered irrational, mass, headlong flight. If the mobilization that mass hysteria triggers is restricted to flight, then the phenomenon is extremely rare, practically nonexistent.
On the other hand, mass mistaken beliefs or collective delusion, the belief component of mass hysteria, are quite common. As we saw, the moral panic is predicated on an exaggerated fear, "taking alarm without due cause" (Rose, 1982, p. 29), or, at least, taking more alarm at a supposed threat than is warranted by a sober assessment of the evidence. Panic arises both from "a nervousness about catastrophic possibilities" and "an inability or reluctance to check" the facts (p. 29). Taking only the belief component of the mass hysteria, then, by definition, all cases of moral panics are based on an aspect of mass hysteria. One of the essential defining aspects of the moral panic is an exaggerated fear; in this sense, the moral panic is a kind of mass hysteria. In the early 1980s, certain segments of the American public feared that tens of thousands of children were being kidnapped by strangers, when the real number was no more than a few hundred. Beginning in the early 1980s, many fundamentalist Christians came to believe that satanists were torturing and killing children in the tens of thousands each year, when very little, if any, evidence had been unearthed to support the contention that any such practices ever occur. Americans fear a greater threat from illegal drug use than from the use of legal drugs, when the latter kills more than 20 times the number of the former. If we understand mass hysteria to be based on a grossly exaggerated sense of threat, then the frequent outbreak of moral panics disproves the contention that at least one element of mass hysteria is practically nonexistent.
But moral panics are made up of far more than a mass collective delusion. Note that the criterion of irrational mass, headlong flight is sometimes used to define mass hysteria (Miller, 1985, 98ff). While, it is true that such irrational or self-destructive headlong flight in the face of a nonexistent threat is practically unknown in human history - or, at least, in the sociological literature - there are other forms of mobilization which are extremely common: rallies, protests, marches, speeches, petitions to politicians, organizing a social movement, giving and attending talks, speeches, seminars, and publishing articles and books about the putative threat. If the mobilization in response to an exaggerated sense of threat can include a wide range of activities to avoid or deal with the supposed threat, then the phenomenon of mass hysteria is quite common indeed. Some components of mass hysteria, then, form building-blocks of the moral panic.
Persecutions and Renewals
Many moral panics qualify as persecutions or renewals (Rose, 1982, pp. 13782, 183-242). Persecutions have been defined as "severe repressive actions" taken against "some category of persons" as a result of "an almost obsessive public fear of the dangers emanating from" representatives of that category (p. 137). The members of the targeted category are not in fact engaged in the evil deeds, or do not represent the threat ascribed to them. A feeling of insecurity on the part of much of, or segments of, the public leads to "some degree of fantasy or exaggeration of danger" (p. 146); "a category of people become defined as a likely causal agent in producing current social misfortunes" (p. 148). As a consequence, the representatives of these agents are targeted as the enemy, scapegoated, and dehumanized. Examples of persecutions include anti-Semitic pogroms, the Stalinist purges that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the witch-hunts of Renaissance Europe, and the anti-communist campaigns initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In persecutions, evildoers are seen as taking part in a conspiracy; relatively "simple conspiatorial explanations" leave "no doubt about good and evil" (Levin, 197 1, pp. 94, 95).
As a result of these beliefs and ascriptions, mobilization - collective action is taken against those "defined as enemies of the people" (Rose, 1982, p. 151). For sustained, widespread persecutions, some government approval or sponsorship is likely to be present. At the same time, such episodes also require "the support of a substantial part of the general public" (154). "The degree of popular support for a given persecution is an important background factor" in the success of a given episode of persecution, as is the "dispositions of the popular press" (p. 154). In addition, it must be recognized that persecutions are generally not "simply a reflection of sudden outbursts of general public rage. To succeed, therefore, they often require access to support from various organized groups" (p. 155). Consequently, persecutions are as much a product of social movements as collective behavior.
Renewals are defined as episodes of awakened enthusiasm "for commitments that had lapsed into relative indifference" (Rose, 1982, p. 185). Millenarian movements represent one of the most "enthusiastic" of religious renewals; they are episodes in which participants "anticipate a sudden radical transformation of the world" (pp. 186-7). The most often studied of millenarian movements are "nativistic" or "revitalization" movements among colonial peoples. Millenarian movements necessitate not only a disaster that destroys or threatens the viability of a traditional culture, but also a charismatic leader to prophesy the coming utopia (p. 195). A less extreme version of renewals than millenarian movements is represented by the revival, in which a coming utopia-like condition of the society is anticipated through the widespread awakening of a dorminant spiritual state. Such revivals are said to have gripped much of the American public through much of the nation's history. Some historians believe that four such revivals (or "Awakenings") took place between the 1740s and the 1960s (Rose, 1982, pp. 185-6).
There are some strong parallels between disasters and moral panics, as Stanley Cohen (1972, pp. 22-9, 144-8) pointed out. In many natural disasters, there is a period of advance warning during which the threat of imminent danger is perceived and communicated within the community. Tornados can usually be predicted with some degree of precision, although no one knows for sure just how damaging one will be. Volcanos often give off signs of future eruptions; such advance warning may have saved hundreds of lives in 1980, when geologists predicted that Mount St Helens, located in Washington State, was about to erupt. There is, then, in some natural disasters, a "warning phase" and a "threat," a period when the community fears that it will be hit, although, again, it does not necessarily know the precise nature or scope of the oncoming events. In the warning phase (Cohen, 1972, pp. 22, 144-8), the community is sensitized to cues of trouble. In the moral panic, sensitization sometimes exacerbates the seriousness of the problem. For instance in the Mods and Rockers disturbances in England in the 1960s, increased police presence and readiness ("we will crack down on them immediately") often brought on an escalation in violence; a slight scuffle easily turned into a full-scale mêlée (pp. 146-7).
In both the disaster and the moral panic, there is the "impact" phase, during which the threatening agent strikes the community, and its residents must take an "immediate and unorganized" response to the damage that follows (p. 23). And in both, there is an inventory of the damage, a "rescue" of the survivors, a "remedy" proposed, and a period of "recovery." In the disaster literature, during the past generation or so, there has been a stress on the formal organizations that have been set up to cope with future disasters, which maximizes preparedness and minimizes surprises; in this way, the original reaction to a novel disaster, one for which a community is not prepared, will be organized, effective, and community-wide rather than "immediate and unorganized." Likewise, in a moral panic, authorities in a community organize against the threat so that not only do the threatening agents know the community is ready for their onslaught, but the members of the community know that steps are being taken against the threat as well. In time, relations between the threatening agent and the community become institutionalized and routinized.
Another parallel between natural disasters and the moral panic is that there is something of a community overreaction to the threat. Researchers have identified the phenomenon of convergence in many, possibly most, disasters. In a widely publicized disaster, people and supplies typically converge on the stricken area, often to the point where coordination and distribution becomes itself another disaster; in addition, all too often, curious onlookers also converge on the scene, impeding rescue operations (Goode, 1992, pp. 210-11). In a moral panic, likewise, as we have already seen, the community - or a segment of it - overreacts to a given condition, issue, phenomenon. And in both, public attention on the event or issue is usually fueled by media focus; often, when that media focus fades, public attention fades as well.
Disasters and moral panics even share a number of dilemmas and conflicts in common. How to counter the claims of individuals and agencies who argue that the threat is not as substantial as most believe, That the solution to the threat or problem proposed by some is at odds with the one proposed by others? How to make use of the services of organizations that traditionally do not deal with this particular threat? The schools, the churches, businesses? How should the media be regarded - as allies in the struggle, a resource for communicating the correct position, as impartial observers, or as an enemy? How to enlist the government's help and avoid its interference? What is the proper role of the police? In a given crisis, who sould be designated as an expert, a spokesperson for a given position, be given the authority to make crucial decisions? Which agencies or organizations should be funded and given the authority to coordinate the operation of dealing with the crisis? Should organizations that are already in place deal with the problem, or should new ones be created? When the crisis has passed, which organizations should stay in place and continue to be funded? Which ones should be dismantled? These are precisely the sorts of questions that have to be addressed in a disaster, and ones that individuals involved in the moral panic also have to resolve. And in both situations, the ways that they are answered are to some degree unknowable in advance, which is one of the reasons why the field of collective behavior is so fascinating.
Of course, moral panics are not exactly like disasters. In some ways. the differences are stronger than the similarities. With disasters, the agent is generally far more clearcut and identifiable - a hurricane. a volcano, a tidal wave, an earthquake - and universally agreed to be damaging and undesirable; just how the agent damaged the society is fairly unambiguous - it generates a substantial level of consensus. With moral panics., by contrast, there is usually less agreement as to just who the agent is and what damage, of any, it inflicts. In the natural disaster. there is are fairly clearcut phases the threat, the impact, the postdisaster or recovery phases. With moral panics, these phases are not so clearcut. And with disasters, there may be disagreement as to whether the society responded in a fashion commensurate with the threat, but that is not a necessary component of the disaster; with the moral panic, by definition, the response is out of proportion to the threat of the issue, behavior, or condition being responded to. And in natural (as opposed to technological) disasters, there is no "folk devil." no deviant, no human agent responsible for the suffering they inflicted. (At least not until the post-disaster, recovery. or clean-up phase; for accusations of inappropriate behavior in the recovery phase, see Goode, 1992, pp. 227-33.) Actually, the parallels between moral panics and technological disasters - especially those involving contamination by toxic substances - are much stronger than those with natural disasters, as we explain in chapter 9. In technological disasters. there is often no period when the threat has subsided, and there may be a "folk devil" or human agent responsible for the suffering the disaster inflicted; there is, in short, a moral dimension to the technological disaster not found in most natural disasters.
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