Moral panics

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There's recently been a big fuss in over current government moves (in the UK) towards censorship of usenet and web content.

The justification most commonly cited in the UK (specifically the one focussed on by the Observer newspaper in their campaign to bring in censorship of a competing medium) is the supression of child pornography.

Here's my personal take on the whole issue. Shameless editorial follows ...

From: (Charlie Stross)
Newsgroups: uk.misc,,uk.politics.misc,alt.censorship,,news.admin.censorship
Subject: Moral panics in cyberspace
Organization: fma
X-Newsreader: slrn ( UNIX)
Date: 3 Sep 96 15:08:36 GMT
Lines: 134
Xref: uk.misc:72991 uk.politics.misc:23947 alt.censorship:62888 news.admin.censorship:8537

J Fisher<> wrote
(in article <>):

>I think it's clear from this case that there's something
>else going on.  It isn't *only* the harm done to the children
>that outrages people about molestation cases, no matter what
>they say.  It's something else.  I don't know exactly what
>it is, but it's atavistic and I distrust it profoundly.
It's that charming little phenomenon known as a 'moral panic'.

My girlfriend, being a neo-pagan, has made something of a study of the phenomenon. It happens in all times and cultures, and usually occurs at times when (a) there is generalized fear and insecurity, and (b) there's a convenient out-group whose behaviour sets them apart from the body of society. You can also add (c) a source of information that spreads rumours, gossip, and disinformation about (b) to their detriment, but that's optional.

In this day and age, you'd have to have a pretty thick skin to assert that nobody feels insecure or afraid. And it must be said that paedophiles are close to being the ultimate out-group. Add a media campaign against this inchoate group that, for the most part, doesn't have a shared sense of cultural identity, and you have the ideal enemy for a moral panic to feed off: they're invisible, they're everywhere, they're insidious, and they're a threat to some deeply-held ideas about the family, personal development, and teen sexuality.

I think that anyone who forces or coerces someone else into taking part in an intimate sexual act against their will (or in the absence of their ability to give informed consent) is despicable. I don't see why those who coerce small children are qualitatively worse than, say, violent rapists of adult men and women (except insofar as the victim in a specific case may suffer to a different extent afterwards).

However, I do see a strong social dynamic for persecuting paedophiles (as opposed to rapists and serial killers). By existing they subvert the sentimental ideal of childhood innocence. They also act as a scapegoat for our inability to do better for our children in general; it's much easier to feel good about burning some paedophiles than to do something about the 30% of children in the UK who live in poverty. Thus, we get a moral panic; the ultimate mass social form of evasion behaviour.

The issue of pornography is a loaded one. By existing, paedophile porn forces us to confront the existence of the out-group, confirming our worst fears about human nature and fanning the flames of the witch-burning. But by the same token, it's very hard to prove that it directly causes harm. And there's a real problem in detatching the nature of the material from its implications. Is a photograph of a man buggering and strangling a young child obscene? (I think most people would say "yes".) But what if the photograph is a photomontage, and no actual physical contact took place, and nobody was harmed? Take it further: what if the photograph is entirely synthetic, a fiction generated in a computer, and no such man and no such child exist?

Let's take it further. Sexually abusing people is bad. But what do you say about a man who fantasizes about, say, abusing young girls, but who sublimates their desires by sexual role-play with a consenting (adult) woman?

(They thought impure thoughts, even though they found an acceptable outlet for them. Throw them on the fire too, lest we risk contamination ourselves!)

Moral panics feed off guilt that is spread by contagion.

Usenet adds a new twist to the whole issue. It's a very lawless, somewhat crazy environment. Anyone can say anything, anywhere. And this adds to the illusion that speech is equivalent to action. If someone posts to usenet saying that they fuck ducks, it is a fair bet that someone else reading usenet is going to believe them. Thus, even sarcastic or ironic comments are misunderstood and we run the risk of losing our grip on reality -- of drifting with the rhetoric and mistaking sound and thunder for substance. This is the usual disease that afflicts the press -- paper, after all, is just a slowed-down, inconvenient analogue for the net -- but to make matters worse, when journalists discover usenet the first thing they tend to do is to catch all the pathologies that are going round. Usenet is full of lurid corners that can't help but fascinate someone whose vocation is to go digging for information. You don't need to go looking for porn; alt.conspiracy will do for starters. Usenet is bound, almost by design, to confirm an ignorant journalist's worst prejudices while fanning their fears (including the subconscious one of being rendered obsolete by a new medium).

The web acts as the final trigger that makes the whole damned mess go critical. The web is the ultimate paper publishing medium (if you discount it's poor speed, worse resolution, high cost of access, and the difficulty of curling up on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a good website to read). It cuts the cost of publishing until the production costs diminish towards zero; editorial and content reign supreme. Thus, people who would hitherto have been marginalized to the point of communicating in mimeographed fanzines can suddenly turn out professional-looking sites as eyeball-friendly as those of a national newspaper. And thus, many minority group interests are dragged kicking and screaming into the public eye.

Take me as an example. I'm an SF fan. SF fandom has existed as a distinct subculture (not the same as the set of people who like reading SF or watching SF movies) for some years. It's practiced furtively, in dark bars and conventions at obscure hotels, predominantly by shady people with beards, beer-guts, glasses, and jackets with too many pockets. It doesn't obviously harm anyone, but who's to say that next year corrupting innocent children by feeding them works of speculative fiction might not rank in our social scale of demonization just short of rape, murder, and giving succour to the Tory party? If that ever happens, I'm in for the high-jump. There's (gasp) evil hideous abusive science fiction content all over my web site! I'm publishing this awful filth! I'm a purveyor of the hard stuff! I've got to be locked up and my website erased before it corrupts any more innocent young minds! So it goes.

My conclusion: take a social out-group who do something that many people disapprove of. Add misinformative media. Add media access. Add widespread social insecurity and you've got a full-scale witch-hunt on your hands.

My second conclusion: child abuse is indefensible, but witch hunts are also indefensible. In fact, I think they're worse. They eat innocents along with the guilty, and they take a terrible toll of the mutual trust that holds a society together.

I also have an opinion: witch hunts and censorship are frequently encouraged by those in a position of power because ...

I don't believe there is an orchestrated conspiracy to censor usenet. But there does seem to be a confluence of interests working to limit our freedom of expression, the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, and our ability to discuss real issues in a clear-headed and unemotional manner. And this coalition of interests is emerging world-wide. I'll be writing at length about it in issue 105 of Computer Shopper ...

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