imomus (imomus) wrote,

A brief history of moral panics

Thesis: That moral panics occur around a medium or a format mostly when it's on the up-and-up, in the ascendent, or -- in McLuhanite terms -- claiming with some success to be a realistic window on the world. That only a medium which is seen as "realistic" can inspire moral panics -- in other words, that moral panics correlate to the perceived power of a medium to represent. And, finally, that if your chosen medium is not currently seeing the skirmish of moral panics, it's probably headed for the media museum. Hence, you should be more alarmed when the authorities are not trying to regulate your medium than when they are.

To test this thesis, I want to look at a few moral panics in different media during my lifetime, and judge when they peaked, and then see if the medium itself also peaked at around the same time. This is not science, it's a fairly impressionistic account, and I'd be happy to discuss it with you afterwards.


Let's start with cinema. Our test case will be this BFI account of the censorship and certification row around Salò, Pasolini's film of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. It's worth reading in full, but in summary Salò was originally submitted to the British Board of Film Censors in January 1976 "when it was refused a certificate on the legal grounds of gross indecency. Gross indecency was defined in British law as 'anything which an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting and revolting', or, which 'offended against recognised standards of propriety'."

When the film was resubmitted to the BBFC (which by now stood for British Board of Film Classification, not Censors, which is in itself telling) in the year 2000, it passed and was classified 18 uncut for cinema showings, video and DVD release. I'm interested in this paragraph about the Board's thinking:

"The Board also considered that, ultimately, Salò, is a film of limited appeal and is unlikely to ever receive widespread distribution. Those people who chose to view the film would, because of its notoriety, be aware of its contents."

Now, the obvious conclusion would be that moral standards changed between 1976 and 2000, and to some extent that's true. But I think something more McLuhanite is going on here: this change in attitude represents film losing its grip on the imagination of the general public, and becoming a niche artform of interest to buffs. Moral panics, by 2000, hadn't gone away, they'd simply switched to another medium (video games, the internet). Film, in other words, had lost its power to represent reality. People no longer expected The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be the impetus behind "copycat" events like the Hungerford massacre. Film had been delinked from reality. It was now computer games which were "dangerously real", and whose graphics were "graphic".


I remember the political news cycle in the UK in the early 1980s being dominated by reports of "video nasties". The popularisation of the VCR was, supposedly, dredging the very depths of the human id as people slotted "snuff tapes" showing actual executions into their machines. The moral panic this time came from the way the VCR freed film and television from government regulation. The Tories who came up with the term "video nasty" were torn between two contradictory strands of their politics -- the desire to deregulate the market, and the desire to regulate social standards. Arguably, the market won, to the dismay of many "old Tories".

The emphasis on "snuff" is interesting (later, of course, snuff videos -- in the form of hostages being executed by terrorists, or military facilities being destroyed from the air, or Saddam Hussein being hanged -- would become more or less compulsory viewing for the virtuous citizen), because it's an emphasis, again, on the power of a particular medium to represent reality at a particular time.

To represent reality, and to kill, are the prerogatives of the state, but video technology threatened -- briefly -- to usurp that power and distribute it to individuals. But this power to represent could only exist while the medium was strong and central and paradigmatic. The moment video was seen as something tricksy and marginal, this power -- this link between the collective unconscious and a particular medium -- was lost.

I think we're now ready to say that the power of film-in-cinemas may have peaked in the late 70s, and the power of film-on-video may have peaked by the mid-80s. The moral panics, so far, are correlating with the prime of the medium, and particularly its hold on people in the prime of life, and the young. For instance, where the demographics of the record industry favour 40something "fifty quid man", the moral panic around explicit lyrics obviously wanes. Nobody particularly worries about middle-aged people becoming "corrupted". (If they aren't corrupted by 50, they probably never will be!)

Which brings us to...


Remember Tipper Gore? Remember "parental advisory: explicit lyrics"? According to the Wikipedia page on Parental Advisory stickering, "albums began to be labeled for "explicit lyrics" in 1985, after pressure from the Parents Music Resource Center. In 1990, the PMRC worked with the RIAA to standardize the label, creating the now-familiar black and white design. The first albums to receive the label in its new form included Danzig's self-titled album (ironically, no profanity is present except for a use of "whore" in Possession)..."

Note the date: 1985. The moral panic around "video nasties" had subsided. Now, sure, we're talking about different countries here (the US and the UK) with different standards, but the political class in both seem united by a sense of powerlessness to control new technologies, or -- more cynically -- a desire to hitch their wagon to the star of an ascendent, vaguely-threatening new technology.

By 1985, films on video were fairly old hat. The new gadget was the CD player, and there was a new artform too, rap music, which seemed to threaten moral standards with explicitly sexual and violent and political imagery.

Now, sure, stickering continues even in the digital age -- the iTunes store "stickers" explicit tracks with red labels, and YouTube imposes a "confirm date of birth" screen on people trying to access tracks with particularly strong lyrical content. But these days some of the Salem-like fervency seems to have flagged.

The most explicit artist I could find, on a cursory search, was a white rapper called Necro. While all Necro's material, today, is marked on the iTunes store as "explicit", the only Necro video to warrant a "confirm date of birth" screen on YouTube was We Fuck Virgins ("this video may not be suitable for minors"). The sexualised violence of Who's Your Daddy or Beautiful Music for you to Die To apparently didn't warrant this screen (pretty easy to click through whatever your age).

Considering what a hard time poor old Danzig had with the word "whore" back in 1990, I think we can safely say that the moral panic around CDs, or, more widely, around song lyrics, has subsided quite considerably. And I'd argue that this is because the medium of pop music is no longer as strong and central as it was in 1985. We are the world... no longer.

Video Games

Do you see where I'm going with this? It's not enough to say that social standards change over time, and are different in different places. You have to correlate moral panics to the hotness (or notness) of a given medium at a given time.

Censorship, in our time, hasn't disappeared just because it's slacker around CDs or DVDs than it once used to be. It's simply moved on to currently-hot media. Google Search. Blogs that might lose you your job because they're "Not Safe For Work". Computer games.

I was interested to watch Crosshairs, a critical review show (and that in itself is interesting -- where can I see videos of people reviewing new record releases as if they really mattered?) which develops into a conversation about censorship.

Gamers in Australia say to each other things like "our government is harsh but we at least got Manhunt 2 (nerfed but still). I wouldn’t say either of our governments are particularly loose and friendly". There's a sense -- redolent, for me, of the kind of conversation the literary world hasn't really had since the days of The Lady Chatterly case in 1959 -- of a national government standing between the individual id and its personal pleasure. Issues that haven't loomed large in other media in decades loom large in the computer games world right now.

The Australian conversation begins with a jokey reference to the John Lennon moral panic around "We're bigger than Jesus" -- an interesting allusion, because it maps the computer games of 2008 to the pop music of 1966. What pop music represented to the world in the mid-sixties, computer games represent in the late noughties. A moral panic only happens when a medium is saying "Here Comes Everybody!" and "I represent everything!"

"A game has been banned, yet another one," says the presenter, in an unintentional echo of Ken Tynan circa 1965 (the year the flamboyant British theatre critic outraged a nation by saying fuck on TV).

"Unfortunately it doesn't get any better for Australians." The game in question is FEAR 2, and Laura Parker takes over the story: "According to the Classification Board the game didn't get classified because of its high-impact violence." She reads from the Board's report: "All violence results in large blood-sprays, there are bloodstained interiors and blood sprayed onto objects including the camera lens. WIth weapons such as sniper rifles, bodies can be torn apart at close range, limbs are seen flying off, and the wounded flesh is reduced to a bloody pulp."

It's the kind of language the film world hasn't seen since the furore surrounding Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies in the 70s. And I wonder if that shouldn't be a cause of concern for people who love movies, pop, rap and other once-heavily-policed media forms. No "graphic content" considered "liable to deprave and corrupt" (in other words to get deep inside you and to represent the world), no power.

To recap, our brief history of moral panics sees a pattern emerging which is not to do with general social standards changing, but to do with the same panic happening at different dates around different media. If we use moral panics as a way to measure how hot a medium is, we get something like this: Books: hot in 1959ish. Pop Music: "bigger than Jesus" in 1965 (vinyl, pop) and 1985ish (CD, rap). Film-in-cinema: peak in power 1976ish. Film-on-VHS: peaks 1984ish. Internet: considered at its most dangerous circa 1996. Computer games: hot and dangerous now, baby!

Ambitious young media turks take note -- don't waste your time dabbling with Daddy's toxins. No moral panic, no credibility. Not inappropriate? Not appropriate.

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