Moral Panic! Moral Panic!

This morning I was prompted by one of Neil Gaiman’s tweets to go and read this blog post by Amanda Palmer (whom I had the honor of speaking to yesterday in her temporary role as telephone answering service at Maison Clute). The essence of the post is that Amanda is having trouble getting her songs aired in the UK because various media producers are afraid that the public might be offended by them. Amanda, being American and used to having to deal with lunatic fundies, finds this all very perplexing.

One thing it is important to know about Amanda is that she is a satirist. Her lyrics make considerably use of irony, a form of humor which, if common wisdom is to be believed, the British excel at and Americans don’t get at all. I say again, Amanda is American; and her songs are not getting played here because…?

Moral Panic!!!

But it isn’t quite that simple. The sort of moral panic that we have in the UK these days is, I think, nothing like the sort of moral panics we used to have back in the 1970s (though I stand to be corrected by John Coulthart who has more direct experience of such things than I do). The likes of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford were fired by a deeply screwed up but largely consistent horror of sex. They had an actual moral agenda, and they pursued it. The rest of the country happened to disagree with them, so they lost.

Nor do I think this is a issue of “political correctness”. I have a great deal of admiration for the work that people like Christine Burns do in promoting awareness of diversity issues. The media in the UK are not particularly concerned about offending feminists or people of color or Muslims or transgender people or whatever. They might be a little more circumspect these days in what they actually publish, but at the same time what they publish is deliberately designed to incite bigoted reactions from the general public so that comment threads on articles will be full of exactly the sort of offensive crap that the journalists want aired but are smart enough not to actually say themselves. And in some cases they are not even that careful. It is still open season on transgender people in the UK, because the media folks know that if anyone complains the only result will be further torrents of abuse.

So what exactly is the problem with Ms. Palmer’s music? As far as I can make out, what is happening here is that various media producers are desperately trying to avoid being the target of a rather more public version of an internet witch hunt. What has been proven conclusively with the Jonathan Ross & Russell Brand case is that if you say the wrong thing on air then a massive flame war can erupt, leading to questions being asked in Parliament and people in the media losing their jobs. There’s no great rhyme or reason to this. Some radio stations can get away with broadcasting Russ Limbaugh-like ranting under the guise of “sports commentary” while someone else who makes an off-color joke gets metaphorically strung from a lamp post by a howling mob.

(Note here that I’m not making any judgment on the Ross/Brand case itself. I was in California when it happened, and from what I saw they do seem to have been particularly tasteless, but at the same time the reaction appears to have been out of all proportion. It really doesn’t matter now whether they were right to play the prank they did – what matters is the fallout, and the fear amongst media producers that the same might happen to them.)

Quite why we are in this mess is difficult to say. Amanda is quite right to be confused as to why she is having all this trouble in the UK, when the fundies back home leave her in peace. But my mind keeps coming back to something I read on Simon Bisson’s LiveJournal last night. Simon was annoyed with people who say that Gordon Brown has no right to govern because he hasn’t won an election, which of course betrays a basic lack of understanding as to how the British political system works. Somebody in the comments responded that what people appeared to be saying was that Brown might have a legal right to govern, but he has no moral right to do so.

That strikes me as very dangerous reasoning. The whole point of having a legal system is that the country, as a whole, has reached a compromise agreement as to how it shall be governed. That’s what democracy is all about. In anything approaching a multicultural society different segments of the population will have wildly differing ideas as to what is “morally right”. Where there is disagreement, either you reach a compromise through the political process, or you take the Libertarian view that people have the right to get on with their own lives without interference. The idea that everyone should have the right to impose their morality on others seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.

Now of course the issue is much more complicated than that, because the whole idea that people can have different and equally valid sets of morals is in itself arguably a moral judgment. That one you can debate forever. But it seems to me that in the UK we are currently going through a phase where everyone is looking for an excuse to accuse someone else of immoral behavior, and to demand that “something be done”. And it worries me, because it has the potential to degenerate into mob rule and the sort of aura of fear that drove the McCarthy era in the USA.

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5 Responses to Moral Panic! Moral Panic!

  1. Adele says:

    It’s not just morals either, the general response to anything in the
    Uk at the moment seems to be hysteria. It just makes me want to smack people in the mouth and tell them to get a grip.

  2. Savoy’s troubles in the 80s and 90s were a local thing, really, and a hangover of the period when James Anderton was chief of the Manchester police.

    This doesn’t seem like anything very new to me, the NME were always big moralizers from the early 80s onwards and the music press in general has often suffered from the same groupthink which afflicts (say) US journalism. You’re only allowed to be contentious in the approved manner. Savoy’s music releases were completely blanked by independent music distributors despite receiving good reviews in the style mags. All that stuff is now on iTunes, so some things do improve.

  3. Cheryl says:


    That’s scary. If things are not any different now that suggests that susceptibility to moral panic might be a national character trait.

  4. It does seem to be a character trait if you read histories of these things. Martin Barker examines some of this in A Haunt of Fears (about horror comics in Britain) and Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media. He shows, for example, how there were worries in the late 19th C about the effect of Penny Dreadfuls on impressionable youth.

    I actually suspect there is a bit of unthinking PC reaction happening with Amanda Palmer’s record since rape has often been on the list of those subjects that some people regard as a thing you never make light of. There was a storm in the NME in the late 80s when Steve Albini (now a notable producer) formed a band called Rapeman which he named after a manga character. I had a friend at the time who wouldn’t say the name of the band despite liking the music, he referred to them as R-man. If Albini had called the band Murderman I doubt few people would have cared.

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