A sociologist explains how moral panics serve the right-wing agenda
ProPublica detailed a pattern of suppressing cases of sexual assault at Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia. After female students reported being assaulted, campus officials submitted them to victim-blaming, suggesting they violated campus policy against drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex. Students told ProPublica that staff did not even report their cases to the Title IX office, a legal requirement. This has been going on for years. How?
How can an institution of this size and visibility carve out this immoral space and thrive in it for so long? What allows staff to feel justified in minimizing complaints of sexual assault? There are many explanations, including the obvious one that Liberty University was concerned about its image of producing good Christian women and men. But I want to offer an explanation that may not be obvious.
Moral panics are the taking of anecdotal instances and making them seem more prevalent than they actually are (the panic), then demonizing groups associated with these instances (the morality).
The moral panics engineered by a philosophically bereft and culturally out-of-step Republican Party allow pockets of America to continue patterns of behavior that most of society would deem problematic.
Let me explain.
Moral panics and immoral action
Social scientists and faculty administrators have been aware for some time that women endure all forms of sexual aggression on college campuses, from unwanted sexual advances to inappropriate touching to rape. It is a long-standing problem. It is well understood in progressive and academic spaces. A common statistic shared in these spaces is one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus.
The Harvey Weinstein case of 2017 and the subsequent #MeToo Movement was a watershed moment, inaugurating a wave of women coming forward about their experiences with sexual aggression. For many, it was simply making public what was already known.
But conservatives turned the #MeToo Movement into a moral panic, suggesting that hapless innocent men were in danger of being persecuted by liberal feminists. News organizations frequently ran stories saying the movement had "morphed into a career-destroying mob," "gone ridiculously too far" and that it was a "scary time for men."
Liberty University could then position itself as being against these feminists and what they support, and double down on practices we know are harmful. Administrators at Liberty University can operate under the assumption that they are a place free of progressive, pink-haired "feminazis." At the same time, they routinely dismiss legitimate claims of sexual assault from their students.
This is how moral panics sustain immoral practices.
The panics keep coming
I chose the Liberty example, because it is the most recent and one of the more disturbing. But also because the links between Liberty's practices and the moral panic that helped sustain it are not readily apparent. Other instances are much clearer.
Consider "cancel culture." The idea is that a hypersensitive irrational "woke mob" will call for the firing or the deplatforming of someone based solely on their ideas. A few cases where people have lost economic opportunities (rarely is someone actually canceled) are used to suggest a pervasive phenomenon. We now live in an oppressive society, they say, where people cannot speak their minds.
This narrative allows people to continue to disseminate damaging ideas without considering their impacts on vulnerable populations. They can say they are against "the wokies" and will not be silenced. So instead of operating in a moral space where people are mindful that speech is an action with consequences, people propagating racist, sexist and transphobic ideas can do so with no qualification or filter.
The panic around critical race theory (CRT) is even clearer, with candidates making the banning of it a significant part of their platform. Liberal, unionized public school teachers are the demonized group in this panic. Because scholars and K-12 teachers themselves have pointed out the ridiculousness of K-12 teachers discussing an esoteric set of ideas oriented towards law school students, anti-CRT advocates have stretched the idea of what CRT is. It now includes anything deviating from Martin Luther King Jr.'s phrase of judging one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.
In response, citizens uncomfortable with talking about racial inequality can hide behind the anti-CRT banner, and legislators are now emboldened to narrow what children learn. In effect, they are upholding a white supremacist version of our history and reducing the ability of our young people to think with any depth about racism.
Let's do one more example, shall we?
Society continues to move forward on recognizing trans rights. It is inevitable that conservatives will generate moral panics giving people the cover needed to continue practicing their transphobia.
But this particular moral panic comes from an unusual space. Within the conservative media sphere, stories about trans women prisoners raping female inmates are becoming more numerous. While this does happen, and we need to find ways of preventing this, these instances are exaggerated (the panic) and they demonize trans persons (the morality). In an odd twist, conservatives have finally developed some sympathy for our incarcerated population only because it allows them to push back against what they see as "trans ideology."
The politics of panics
Moral panics have utility for people who want to resist change and continue operating in ways becoming increasingly inappropriate. People attracted to Liberty University do not want to accept a world in which women are not at the sexual disposal of men. Many white Americans are uncomfortable with a school system that critiques their ancestors and our nation's history. People are uncomfortable with the visibility of trans people and chafe at requests to treat them as equals.
Panics are tools for these people.
But they also serve a broader purpose.
The Republican Party of the 21st century is struggling with rapid change. It has always been the smaller party in terms of registered voters. Recent polling suggests it is getting smaller. Few policies Republicans can offer appeal to voters who are young, educated, less economically secure or of color. One of the ways they can maintain competitiveness is to make sure their voters are energized and vote.
My concern is that progressives legitimate these moral panics by participating in the discourse. By generating an argument against them, we operate on the battlefield conservatives chose. If these panics are at best distortions, at worst lies, maybe the most effective strategy is to double down on our own, more truthful narratives.
I have invested too much time discussing why CRT is not in our schools. Why did I do that? The anti-CRT folks and the political party supporting them were not invested in the truth. My engagement as a progressive academic only helped validate an anti-CRT opposition.
I will be doing that much less now.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.