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A brief history of moral panics - click opera
February 2010
 
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Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:00 am
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.

Cinema



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".

Video



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...

CD



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.

44CommentReply

electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Dec. 23rd, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC)

I thought the moral panic of the day was Asian fetishisation.

That or furries, I can't remember which.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 23rd, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC)

Those hardly count as media forms, though, do they?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 23rd, 2008 11:53 pm (UTC)

Well, I wouldn't describe this stuff as "going backwards" or "going forwards". These are problematical terms because they imply a model of history in which you can define what progress actually is (and "progress" all too often turns out to be "proximity to my own attitudes").

Rather, I think we have to look at this as a game of musical chairs in which certain things are designated, at any given time, sexily dangerous. And this actually eroticizes them (eg children, who are actively eroticized by moral panics around child nudity).


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:06 am (UTC)
Australia and censorship

Australia, having inherited the administrative institutions and traditions of a penal colony/military outpost of the British Empire (as opposed to the Mother Country herself), is a lot more censorious than Europe or the US (at least in terms of government censorship). There, any video games not suitable for children are illegal, and games aren't banned merely for sex or violence (they recently banned a war game because of "drug references", i.e., because wounded soldiers could use morphine as a painkiller, and banned Marc Ecko's Getting Up, a graffiti-oriented game, because it represented illegal activity; Grand Theft Auto is available but has been cut somewhat). A lot of films are banned, though these are mostly arthouse/foreign films (as that helps the government get right-wing populist culture-war points by beating up on the weirdos who want to watch films full of sex and subtitles). And now the government (who are, ostensibly, centrists, or at least to the left of the right-wingers who got kicked out last year) is trying to push through an internet firewall which will block all illegal content for everyone (which, in Australia, includes material on euthanasia or drugs, and can be extended to include whatever else the pressure groups the government of the day is courting want banned), and all material unsuitable for children for anyone who doesn't opt out. Some say that the government are deliberately pushing the firewall so hard that it falls apart along the way, winning them points with minority religious parties in the Senate for trying without actually bending to their will, though with the Australian public's level of apathy, all sorts of bad laws tend to get passed over there, so I'm still concerned.

I heard a while ago that the novel Fanny Hill is still banned in Australia, because no-one ever got around to unbanning it. Though I've heard of people who saw it in bookshops, so I'm not sure whether the ban is fictitious or just widely ignored.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:13 am (UTC)
Re: Australia and censorship

I heard a while ago that the novel Fanny Hill is still banned in Australia

The reductio ad absurdum of my argument here would say that this meant that Fanny Hill -- or the 18th century epistolatory novel -- was still hot and sexy in Australia, even if it was quaint and neglected elsewhere. But this

because no-one ever got around to unbanning it

suggests it's more of a silly anomaly than a "hot political potato" or football or... fanny.


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robinsonner
robinsonner
the maven
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:20 am (UTC)

"moral panic"
It's another phrase the more I look at it the more meaningless it becomes.
It just fills a hole in my head.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC)

Doesn't the moral panic around Second Life hinge on it being very like first life? ie the fact that people buy things there with real money, form real relationships there, run businesses there, have sex there?


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aeazel
aeazel
denii or deniss
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:35 am (UTC)

The buzz word at the moment is 'emergent gameplay' and 'interactivity.' Each of the moral outrages seems to be not just a game of musical chairs, but tied in with a certain fear of the unknown in new technologies. When the studies do not yet exist to debunk the actual effects of a certain medium, suddenly it becomes an easy target or scapegoat.

Videogames are already working on debunking this through 'science' and 'studies,' but this provides an interesting question as to how long it will be before the next technological threat enters our lives and distracts from this particular medium.


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_grimtales_
_grimtales_
_grimtales_
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:38 am (UTC)

You forgot Horror Comics in the 1950s, Rock and Roll, Dungeons and Dragons and other Role Playing Games in the 1980s (rolled up with the Satanic cult scare) and a few others.


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bongo_kong
bongo_kong
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)

I wonder if the moral panic generated by a medium is somehow related to the average age of those producing the content. In the mid-90s when I started working as a game developer everyone making games was in their mid-20s. Now I'd say that the demographic of developers is skewed much more towards the late 30's and, shock, even early 40's. It's quickly become almost a proper career, just like music and films, with big money behind it and shareholders and boards of directors. I suppose all creative industries follow a similar trajectory.

The people making games in 10 years time won't have the same motivations they had 5 years ago, even though it might be the same group of people making them. What sort of games will a bunch of 50 year-old game developers make? Well, we'll find out in about 10 years time*. I'm hoping it will be more Momus than Sting.

*Assuming it doesn't all get outsourced to China.



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shadowshark
shadowshark
ShadowShark
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 12:56 am (UTC)

I agree, but it's interesting that you don't give a shout out to the Grand Theft Auto series, which really opened the doors for video games to become the 'moral panic medium' of the 2000s with everything surrounding GTAIII around 2001.

You could really add to your argument with the dominance mount that happened this summer: "A few Hollywood producers have set precedent by beginning to browse video-game release dates to check for conflicts due to Grand Theft Auto IV's potential harm to the May 2, 2008 release of Iron Man." (from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_video_game_consoles_(seventh_generation) )


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polocrunch
polocrunch
Polocrunch
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 01:07 am (UTC)

What do you mean by 'moral panic', precisely? If your definitions aren't tight, nor is your argument.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)

I'd define it in terms of the relationship between the particular and the universal. There are a great many anxieties running around any given society at any given time. A moral panic is when one of these anxieties gets to become metonymic -- to stand for all of them. And I'm saying, in this essay, that there's a particular relationship between new media technologies and the selection of the metonym -- the fear which is going to stand for all other fears, the particular which is going to become, momentarily, universal.

There's a close relationship between metonymy and representation. I talk more about this in my lecture The IT Culture.

Edited at 2008-12-24 01:19 am (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 03:57 am (UTC)

The simplistic argument is to say, I've played GTA, and I've never car-jacked anyone, so the game must be safe. And that's true. However, it's also true that whatever a nation consumes has an effect (however subtle) on who they are. If you're always consuming violence then I can't see how a nation could avoid a certain level of cynicism.

This is a freedom vs. order issue.

In an abstract sense, 100% freedom seems ideal. But if I lived in a country that had a certain amount of harmony, and that placed a real emphasis on virtuous living, I might be inclined to support some censorship in order to sustain this kind of environment. There's no doubt that the civility of Japan is partly tied up in the way things are presented to them. Marxy would have this changed, and, I think change Japan for the worse (that is, more toward what the US/UK are).


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 05:06 am (UTC)

Has anonymous played GTA?

I submit that JFK: Reloaded is the best educational game ever made, and playing it should be compulsory in all elementary schools.

I also submit that having the ability to act out the world's greatest atrocities in consequence-free virtual miniature is actually supportive of moral development.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 04:02 am (UTC)
Film peaked eariler, no?

By this measure, film was never more powerful (in the US) than the 30s to the 50s, the prime years of the Hayes Production Code. That censorship regime didn't start crumbling until the late 50s--when television was on the rise.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 07:54 am (UTC)
Re: Film peaked eariler, no?

Yes, good point, and all I can say is that I fairly arbitrarily chose the frame of "moral panics that happened during my own lifetime". But I think you're right.


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hamadelica
hamadelica
$$$
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 07:59 am (UTC)

you should maybe give this a look over...
http://www.earmap.com/tinynote/tinynote.html
and if it's a little too abstract, check out video...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCZBu_tFtUg


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 08:44 am (UTC)
Other possible factors that I would love to hear discussed

While the premise of your argument is interesting and sound (why pitch a battle against something that no one cares about) I think that bringing it down to simply a state of the medium being at its peak is not 100% correct. Certain other factors are also key. I also want to hear just how universal these topics need to become for the medium to be the cause. While I've heard the statement that movies have not reached the quality that they had in the 1970's, I don't know if I would call film to be the most powerful medium at the time. Reading Harlan Ellison's "The Glass Teat," for instance, would give a strong suspicion that hidden hands were controlling televisions around that time.

In regards to other factors, we should look at two cases; the first one you mentioned earlier and the second case is another example that I would like to hear opinions on.

Case 1: Parental Advisory. From a few VH1 documentaries about the case of rock and roll and censorship (one, in particular, tried to list the top 10 most attacked songs or something similar) the Advisory sticker was a two part attack in the mid 80's. At best, this would be the start of the compact disc (neither I nor my family would own a CD player until the late 1980's/early 1990's when it had taken control), so I don't think that compact discs were what were being attacked. The songs that seemed to unite the parents (and Tipper Gore and others) were Prince's "Darling Nikki" and the 2 Live Crew album "As Nasty As We Wanna Be" (featuring the song "Me So Horny). The latter would create the clean version of albums, the former helped create the advisory stickers. BOTH, though, were songs performed by minority artists. In the case of the advisory stickers (and the disco revolt and even, to a degree, the punk revolt during its creation), the "censorship"* could be attributed to race as well as to the medium, and there would probably be more to support that theory. The attack here is, as you hinted, against the new music form and the popularity of that form ... which is also an attack on where the music is from. Black culture was becoming mainstream and white America got scared. See also Eminem (especially) in the 90's.

Case 2: The Matrix. I will say that most of the above paragraph is based on documentaries as opposed to any firm memory of living through it. However, I was media conscious by the time of The Matrix's release and the hullabaloo that followed. While stylized violence had been done before (and to a more graphic degree also), it was this movie and the school shootings that happened afterwards that created a movement to create stronger bans on movies and music (my mind also wants to group in video games here ... but I'm probably mistaken). With this particular instance, though, the triggering event - the shooting at Columbine High School - had objective impact on people (as opposed to the subjective arguments used against Prince's "Darling Nikki", for example). The trick was, how to correlate the movie and the music - this was the first many Americans heard of Rammstein, after all - withe the event. All of a sudden, we had an attack on two forms of media: film and music. This wasn't the first time, when The Crow brought "goth" into the mainstream there were upset parents and similar. In both cases, though, the target teen that everyone wanted to protect was the disenfranchised. Questions they asked were essential to their bias: "What would make normal children feel so disconnected that they feel the need to delve into something dark?" "What would make them retaliate in such a way? Aren't they well taken care of?"


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 08:46 am (UTC)
Re: Other possible factors that I would love to hear discussed

(continuation)
Again, there is an attack of identity hidden in the second case. The Crow allowed a new form of self-expression that did not need to be hidden behind closed doors. The Matrix had a costume design that was easily emulated (by the Columbine shooters, for instance). But I bring up The Matrix and its fallout because, by this time, a music medium is not secure, yet the music was attacked. Here Napster was just beginning to take a hold of the peer2peer world and CD's had probably just passed their peak. The pop fad of the mid 90's was ending and who have we had since? Cinema as a medium was just coming out of the indie movement, which means a relative peak had just ended. DVD's were the big medium at the time, but The Matrix did not have that release yet.

Then again, is it because there was no specific medium that was strong that the search for a motive include all forms of media?
-Edge

*"censored" in quotes since the case for Parental Advisory stickers was that it would not censor, but rather just inform. The censorship which others claimed would happen (and has happened) might be fallout akin to the showing of NC-17 films.


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 11:19 am (UTC)

Good post, Momus.
There is some degree of slippage, but your idea holds up well to scrutiny.


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womanonfire
Auriea.
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 01:44 pm (UTC)
you could be right.

haha! this post makes me laugh (because i'm currently making a computer game.)
i am reminded of the meeting we had at sony, trying to get our game released on playstation network. they were _deeply_ concerned that in our demo a grown man offered a teenage girl a cigarette, and she took it, and smoked it on the bench sitting beside him.
:p moral panics indeed. more like moral paranoia.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 24th, 2008 02:31 pm (UTC)
Re: you could be right.

That looks like an interesting game!

I just bought a Wii console, but there are too few games I really want to investigate. Zero and Sadness were the only ones that looked intriguing. So for now I'm just using it to play tennis, which at least gets me out of my chair.


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