Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
– Steven Patrick Morrisey, 1985
You will have undoubtedly seen something in your recent newsfeed along the lines of teenagers identifying as cats in the classroom, egged on by woke teachers who silence any dissent. Some (most?) of you will have simply rolled your eyes at the preposterousness of it all. But some of you may have felt sick with fear at the deviance of young people today and fled to your WhatsApp groups, to warn all your contacts that the world as we know it is about to end.
The cat story – which has been roundly busted – bears all the hallmarks of a classic moral panic: a widespread, generally irrational feeling of fear that something evil is threatening the very fabric of our society.
Moral panics crop up on a regular basis and have done for hundreds of years – from anti-Pagan propaganda in the late Roman Empire through the witchcraft trials of the 17th Century to the ‘canoedaling’ panic of 1912 in Minnesota.
This fact alone nicely illustrates their irrational nature. Threat after apparently civilisation-ending threat rises up, to which civilisation merely shrugs and carries on largely as before.
Folk devils and moral entrepreneurs
The essence of the idea is a scapegoated group of ‘folk devils’ being labelled as deviant and dangerous by ‘moral entrepreneurs’. This is picked up and amplified by the media of the time, and leads to widespread public anxiety. The ‘gatekeepers’ of morality respond, sometimes with strong words, sometimes with new laws. The panic often subsides as quickly as it has arisen – but the new laws remain. The point, as can be clearly seen, is social control exerted through fear.
It is worth noting that moral panics often arise at times of great societal change – the Reformation in the Middle Ages, the development of the counterculture in the 1960s, the swirling maelstrom that has been British society for the last decade, with the rise and fall-out of Brexit and the ongoing, possibly terminal decline of the UK’s dominant political group of the last two hundred years.
When they are in the eye of the storm, the panic feels very real to those who believe it. With the passage of time (and the use of a working retrospectoscope), it can be hard for us to take seriously things that people were certain would herald the end of civilisation as they knew it.
Comic book capers
In the United States during the 1950s, the growth in popularity of comic books gave rise to concern about the exposure of young people to what many regarded as deviant subject matter, such as horror or crime.
The smouldering issue caught alight in 1954 when a psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, published a book that allegedly proved a link between teenagers reading comic books and anti-social behaviour. At the time, between 80 and 100 million comic books were sold every week. Public book burnings were held and William Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, was grilled in Congress like a gangster.
The hugely-successful comic book industry went into a severe decline. To save itself, it formed the Comic Codes Authority which regulated the millions of comics produced every month. The first administrator of the code, Charles Murphy, even tried to introduce a new word to the industry.
dior: ‘to de-emphasise or reduce the dimensions of the female bust in comic books.’
70 years after the publication of Wertham’s book, sales of graphic novels have reached an all-time high and we are starting to understand that young people are much more likely to be victims of anti-social behaviour than perpetrators.
Backmasking is a recording technique in which words are recorded backwards onto a track that is meant to be played forward. It is a legitimate process used by many artists, from The Beatles in the 1960s to Britney Spears in 2011. Somewhat ironically, it is often used to disguise swear words or other phrases that might prevent music being played or promoted in the mainstream.
In the 1980s, moral panic spread from Christian groups in the US who claimed that backmasking was used by prominent rock musicians for satanic purposes. It was no doubt fuelled by the fact that rock groups did use backmasking as a technique and often referenced satanic themes and imagery in their work.
The climax of the panic came with the trial of British heavy metal band, Judas Priest, in Reno. In 1985, a young man called James Vance shot himself after a day spent drinking, smoking marijuana and listening to a Judas Priest album with his friend, Raymond Belknap. Vance claimed that the band had hidden subliminal messages like ‘try suicide’, ‘do it’ and ‘let’s be dead’ on the record which influenced the two of them to form a suicide pact. Belknap died instantly. Vance survived but died three years later. His parents continued with the action against the band and their record company.
The case came to trial in 1990. The prosecution played the record forward and backward at different speeds to try and prove that the young men had been brainwashed. In return, Rob Halford, the band’s lead singer, played Frank Sinatra albums backwards, revealing some unusual sounds such as, “I gave her a peppermint”.
The judge ruled that the band was not liable for the young men’s deaths. From that point, the backmasking moral panic started to subside. While the technique is still used by musicians, the perceived threat of subliminal messaging has largely evaporated. In 1992, psychology professor at Brigham Young University, Mark D Allen, stated that “delivering subliminal messages via backward masking is totally and ridiculously impossible.”
Moral panics are nothing new and will continue to arise – either spontaneously or under the direction of those who feel their comfortable grip on power slipping away.
As Morrisey might say, there will no doubt be other occasions for panic on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee and Humberside. When that happens, have a look around and see if you can work out who is leading the charge and why they might be doing that.