Moral panic

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We ought to learn by our mistakes…We’ve repeated this sort of hysteria over and over in our history ~ Harry S. Truman, citing Salem witch trials as an example

A moral panic is a widespread feeling of fear, often an irrational one, that some person or thing threatens the values, interests, or well-being of a community or society.


  • Moral panic is both a public and political response to an exaggeration or distortion of the threat posed to society by some allegedly harmful individual or group. More specifically, moral panic includes an exaggeration of certain events by enhancing the empirical criteria such as the number of individuals involved, the level and extent of violence, and the amount of damage caused.
  • You don't want to live in a country in which moral panics breakout regularly. By the way, moral panics diminish the people who engage in them and hurt the people who don’t.
    • Tucker Carlson, Tucker Carlson explains how moral panics are destroying America, The Post Millennial, Mar 8, 2022
  • Moral panics rely on an inherent paradox: that the rights of a small minority of the population wielding little institutional power are in fact a risk to the majority. This is achieved by inciting in the population a mixture of moral disgust and anxiety about contagion. The problem group may be small now, but they will grow. They will grow by encouraging confused young people to join.
  • Moral panics about minority religions are created by generalizing a single incident. The incident is real. It is not invented. What is invented is the claim that the incident is typical of a whole category of events or organizations.
    …Two concluding observations. Let me repeat once again that the incidents and crimes leading to the generalizations creating the moral panic are real. Their perpetrators should be punished and cannot invoke freedom of religion as an excuse. But they should be punished individually on a case by case basis without cracking down on entire categories and lumping together both the guilty and the innocent.
    Second, coming back to the example of the snake, not all the snakes of moral panics are wild. Some come from snake farms, where they are carefully nurtured and unleashed against religious minorities when needed. The scholars of moral panics emphasize the figure of the “moral entrepreneurs” who organize them. In our field, they include groups such as FECRIS, the European umbrella organization of anti-cult movements, which was already mentioned in this conference [the founding meeting of the African Forum for Religious and Spirituality Liberty (AFRSL)].
    When they exploit an incident to target a variety of groups and limit religious liberty, it may be too late to oppose them. We should create structures preventing the moral entrepreneurs from creating moral panics now.
  • Moral panics are nothing new in America. "We ought to learn by our mistakes,” President Harry Truman bitterly complained in 1950 as Senator Joseph McCarthy accused him and his administration of knowingly harboring communist subversives. “We’ve repeated this sort of hysteria over and over in our history,” Truman continued, reeling off a series of dates referring to the Salem witch trials, the Alien and Sedition Acts, an Anti-Masonic Party presidential campaign, the cresting of the anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement, the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, and the first Red Scare.

See also