Amoral Panics: Part 3

While the two previous posts looked at moral panics from two different perspectives (“from below” in the case of interpretivist approaches and “from above” in the case of hegemonic neo-Marxist positions) a different way of looking at the concept, developed by Waiton (2008), is to consider contemporary forms of panic in the context of a changing moral order; one where the “moral certainties” of modern society is replaced by the “moral uncertainties” of late/postmodern society.

Amoral Panics

Waiton argues, in this respect, that late/postmodern societies are characterised by amoral panics. Moral panics are increasingly rare because there is no-longer a clear and coherent sense of moral order to protect – something he attributes to “a collapse in the ‘faiths’ of the right and left, that cohered society in the past”. If there is no clear sense of a moral order, just a number of competing moral interpretations, there can be no sense of moral panics being engineered.

This doesn’t mean panics no-longer occur, merely that their quality is amoral “a form of moralising without any wider system of meaning”. In other words, while panics have a moral dimension – they involve ideas about what is good or bad for society – they are not specifically related to any sense of an overriding moral order.

Late/Postmodernity

To develop these ideas a little more clearly we can note that, in general terms, moral panics are a feature of modernity – a situation where some sort of clearly-defined, elite-imposed, moral order is referenced by the majority of a population. While this doesn’t mean certain moral values and normative standards were necessarily shared by a population, it does mean people’s perceptions and behaviours were broadly conditioned by a recognition of particular moral standards. In other words, rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, particular and quite specific moral standards, such as heterosexuality and sex within marriage, were considered the general norm.

In late/postmodernity, however, this sense of moral order either no-longer exists or is in the process of being systematically challenged and dismantled; and where there is no clear and distinctive sense of morality – a strong sense of what is right and wrong behaviour – there can be no moral panics.

We need to note two things here.

Firstly, this characterisation makes no judgement about whether this observed state of affairs is itself morally good or bad.

Secondly, just because there are no-longer moral panics doesn’t mean to say there are no-longer panics; on the contrary, panics devoid of a moral basis or content (amoral panics) actually become increasingly common.

This follows precisely because of a lack of moral authority; whereas in the past clear moral authority created clear behavioural boundaries for what was and was not socially acceptable – with moral panics developing to shore-up these boundaries – in late/postmodernity this lack of moral authority creates its own problems. Where people can no-longer reference societal or community wide moral authority this vacuum is filled by various forms of individual and individualised morality. In other words, where there was, broadly, once one over-riding sense of moral order there now exists a diversity of competing moral interpretations in which different interest groups push their own particular moral values – and in such a volatile social situation competing moralities give rise to an increased risk of panic.

Summary: Moral and Amoral Panics

To complete this set of posts, the following video – taken from our Crime and Deviance Channel – outlines Stan Cohen’s notion of moral panic and develops the idea of amoral panics through an interview with Stuart Waiton.

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