.Moral Panics, Then and Now

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. 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.

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.

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.

That the Satanic panic was squarely aimed at women simply repeats a pattern that existed with witch trials. 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.


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