Are conspiracy theories just moral panics?

exu156

Member
Political theorist Michael Barkun believes that the allure of conspiracy theory can be summed up in three main points:

"The appeal of conspiracism is threefold. First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what others can't. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Finally, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters' deceptions." [Source: Interview with Michael Barkun http://www.publiceye.org/antisemitism/nw_barkun.html ]

What is common with all conspiracy theories is that they tend to strengthen among fundamentalists (regardless of creed). This well illustrates the point that conspiracy theorists operate very much like a cult. Alarmist cults generate and feed off moral panics which give 'credibility' to their theories. Conspiracy theory is a modern day moral panic the likes of which we have seen numerous times in history. There are many examples of such moral panics, here are examples from just the 20th century:

Communism
Stalin's purges
Jewish conspiracy
Jazz music
Waltz dance
Comic books
Rock and Roll
Satanic Ritual Abuse
Dungeons and Dragons
Backward Masking
Heavy Metal music

A moral panic may be defined as "a state of panic induced in a large group of people, who feel that a societal norm or an aspect governing the safety of people is being seriously threatened by a mysterious or hidden outside force."

Moral panics, when sufficiently large to be able to organize into groups, take on cult-like characteristics which are fairly easy to identify.

If the panic takes on a truly large form then a very great danger emerges. History provides us with many examples but perhaps the clearest was the witch hunts which plagued Europe during the Renaissance.

Imagine a society whose landscape is aflame with bonfires that consume screaming, writhing human beings. Imagine a quarter of a million people being drowned, hanged, or chained in dungeons, tortured, stabbed, dismembered – literally hacked to death – in short, subjected to indescribable horrors, for crimes they did not commit.

Imagine the populace of an entire continent seized by the terror of diabolical deeds that we, in our more enlightened times, know could not have happened, accusing friends, neighbors, fellow community residents, of unspeakable crimes, subjecting their hapless victims to hideous pain to extract bogus confessions, and executing them in the most agonizing fashion possible. That time and place was Renaissance Europe, and the name we give to this madness is the witch craze.

The Renaissance witch craze is the classic and most dramatic instance of a moral panic. In its most pestilent form, the craze stretched from the early decades of the fifteenth century until about 1650, an unusually long time for a moral panic. During this period, a novel crime came into being: conspiring with Satan in a fiendish plot against God to engage in evil, demonological deeds. In continental Europe during this period, hundreds of thousands of accused witches, roughly 85 percent of them women, were executed.

The European witch craze raises some intriguing sociological questions, three of which stand out most prominently. The first is timing: Why did the witch craze begin in the fifteenth century? Why did it become widespread and especially poisonous between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries? And why did it end in the seventeenth century? Second, we have the issue of content: Why the sudden, increased attention to sorcery, witchcraft, black magic – in fact, all manner of consorting with the devil? How to explain the emergence of a religious ideology that implicates witches in wicked acts and the promulgation of world-view antithetical to true Christianity? Why did this ideology give rise to the widespread and murderous persecution of witches? And third is the target of the witch-hunts: Why were women singled out as its main victims?

I think that the vested interests of the Church at the time and the collapse of the authoritative framework of religion and the feudal social and political order address the issue of timing. The dissolution of the medieval cognitive map of reality, which brought about utopian expectations, skepticism, and the rise of scientific rationality, experimentation, and exploration, address the content issue. Changes in the economy, demography,and the family, especially with respect to changes in the role of women, explain the nature of the target of the craze. The answer to the target question is given in the spatial distribution of the witch-hunt in continental Europe during this era.

Changes in social boundaries offer an answer to our riddles. Medieval society crumbled during the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and historically novel social, political, economic, scientific, and religious institutions came into being. New and innovative arrangements in the economy, family, science, polity, and religion emerged.

These changes transformed the social order; with the shattering of tradition, custom, and limitations, new patterns of behavior – for instance, in art and science – appeared. As a result of these changes, religious and political authorities mounted a ferocious backlash that attempted to redraw societal boundaries and restore the status quo.

To understand the cultural foundation of this backlash, it is worth mentioning that most Europeans strongly believed in the reality of witchcraft, Satan, and demonology. Some of the greatest minds of the seventeenth century – including Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes – firmly believed in the reality of witchcraft. As Jeffrey Burton Russell put it, "Tens of thousands of [witchcraft] trials continued throughout Europe, generation after generation, while Leonardo painted, Palestrina composed, and Shakespeare wrote."

Are things any different now? Your thoughts?
 

Lost World

New Member
An excellent question.

In my opinion, the way individuals attempt to explain the world around them depends on a number of factors, many around how they were brought up and how their parents rationalised the world around them. Some conspiracy theories are possibly born out of some degree of moral panic, but the motivations for how others pick up on these theories, depend largely on how important it is for the individual to try and explain what are often probably random events in a complex world.

I think it is disengenuous to dismiss all 'conspiracy theory' as nonsense, but perspective is always essential. Einstein said "Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance" To sweep aside all claims without scrutiny leaves us open to the potential abuse of our elites. An unguarded sleeping population is fresh meat for evil men, and evil can triumph when good men sit back and smugly deny the possibility that their leaders could do wrong on such a grand scale.

Anyway, back to the issue of 'moral panic' It doesn't take much to spook the right wing, especially those whose actions may be be guided or haunted by religious pyschosis. In the UK right now the concept of gay marriage is creeping out the grassroots conservatives and is making them choke on their truffles and swan. It's actually quite funny to watch! Their own party front line is calling them 'swivel eyed loons'
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
I think there is clearly an element of moral panic in many conspiracy theories. But I think that your list of moral panics from the 20th Centuary is very different from most conspiracy theories. Ideas like "Rock and Roll is a bad influence" are very different from "The government blew up the World Trade Center".

The primary driving force in conspiracy theories is an inversion of the official story, the automatic assumption that the official story is a lie, and the acceptance of anything that is not the official story.
 

exu156

Member
Very interesting points guys but I am curious. Of course its true that a fear of rock n roll is different from a belief that the government brought down the towers but I am wondering if all of these belief systems (and they are belief systems), do not all come from a fear. A fear of an unseen, dark and ultimately evil or sinister outside force. Rock and roll was going to be the ruin of all young men (and women), so we were told in the 50's and 60's. This fear changed focus in the 80's and intensified with heavy metal and its association with the well-debunked Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) panic which saw utterly bizarre cases come to the public mind such as the McMartin preschool fiasco. So was the 80's fear different from the 50's fear? I don't think so. I feel both were still a symptom of the same moral panic.

Is today's conspiracy focus any different to (for example) the communist panic in the US in the 50's? I wonder if we can not find the same fears, the same paranoia, the same sense of 'they are out there trying to take over the world' in today's 'Truth' movement for example. The focus may be difference, the enemy may be different but I wonder if the fantasies are not the same.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
Very interesting points guys but I am curious. Of course its true that a fear of rock n roll is different from a belief that the government brought down the towers but I am wondering if all of these belief systems (and they are belief systems), do not all come from a fear. A fear of an unseen, dark and ultimately evil or sinister outside force. Rock and roll was going to be the ruin of all young men (and women), so we were told in the 50's and 60's. This fear changed focus in the 80's and intensified with heavy metal and its association with the well-debunked Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) panic which saw utterly bizarre cases come to the public mind such as the McMartin preschool fiasco. So was the 80's fear different from the 50's fear? I don't think so. I feel both were still a symptom of the same moral panic.

Is today's conspiracy focus any different to (for example) the communist panic in the US in the 50's? I wonder if we can not find the same fears, the same paranoia, the same sense of 'they are out there trying to take over the world' in today's 'Truth' movement for example. The focus may be difference, the enemy may be different but I wonder if the fantasies are not the same.

There's a vast spectrum of conspiracy theories. I don't think there's really a single core behind all of them. There are certainly core elements though. I think it's a mistake to try to seek a single underlying cause. I feel moral panics are more a symptom of the general condition of the paranoid style, rather than a cause. They are similar to some conspiracy theories, but they are also different. So to answer "are conspiracy theories just moral panics?", I would answer no.
 
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